Alternative roots: How tribal art influenced Modernism

Published 7 September 2016

Modern artists rejected the Western canon in favour of tribal art, writes Simon Wilson, as he takes in shows in Vienna and Berlin.

  • From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Ex Africa semper aliquid novi” is a famous remark of the great Roman writer and philosopher Pliny (23–79CE). It translates as “Out of Africa always something new” and is a comment that certainly has resonance for historians of modern art. The extraordinary role played by art from other cultures, notably Africa’s, in the creation of Western Modernism is vividly illuminated by two major exhibitions in Europe this autumn.

    In Vienna is ‘Foreign Gods: Fascination for Africa and Oceania’, based on the tribal art holdings of the Viennese collector Rudolf Leopold. The quality of his collection was such that it was bought by the city in 1994 and housed in a museum bearing his name, which is the venue of ‘Foreign Gods’. The exhibition includes art from Oceania (a term that refers broadly to the islands of the tropical Pacific Ocean) as well as Africa, and brings it together with the Western art it influenced.

    In Berlin is ‘Dada Africa: Dialogue with the Other’, a very focused look at the fascination with African tribal art of the Dada group in Zürich during the First World War. It travels from Zürich’s Rietberg Museum and marks the centenary of Dada’s launch in the Swiss city in 1916, although its specific point of reference is the first Dada exhibition, held in 1917. This was titled ‘Dada. Cubistes. Art Nègre’ and astonishingly brought together for the first time in a public exhibition works from the two radical Western movements of Cubism and Dada with the tribal art that had inspired them.

  • But why did these artists suddenly turn, with such explosive results, to these objects that had hitherto not been considered art at all in Western terms and were to be found only in museums of ethnography? In part it was the outcome of a long-simmering revolt against the dominance of the Renaissance style. In part it was the result of artists’ response to the insanity of the First World War.

    Renaissance art was a fantastically sophisticated, fantastically elite, fantastically artificial product that always carried within it the seeds of decadence. In seeking to break away from it artists sought the opposite qualities – honesty, simplicity, innocence, nature. They sought too, pure and simple faiths, in contrast to the complexities of the Roman Church. In their search for these truths, painters moved out of the city and into the fields, to increasingly remote rural fastnesses untainted by urban life. Then, in a crucial leap, one of them, Paul Gauguin, left Europe altogether.

    The stage was thus set for Western culture to be challenged in its most treasured belief – its innate superiority to the rest of the world. In statues of tribal gods, and in ritual masks whose non-naturalistic, highly stylised forms also embodied powerful, highly expressive imagery, artists found a model for an alternative to Western art. The most dramatic early result was Cubism which, from about 1909, following mainly the formal implications of tribal art, rapidly undermined the Western model by fragmenting the image and abandoning perspective. A major outcome of this was abstract art.

    Around the same time the artists of the German group Die Brücke focused more on the primal, instinctual and ritual aspects of non-Western art, founding the major stream of modern art broadly known as Expressionism. Then came the war, which for the artists completed the case for the failures of Western society and its art. In Zürich and in New York, and then Paris, the Dadaists took their cue from tribal art, Cubism and Expressionism and pushed further the deconstruction of the Western model.

    Much Dada activity was ephemeral. At Dada’s original home, the famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, anarchic performances of nonsense poetry and plays, and of bizarre music of random sounds, laid the foundations of what was later to be known as performance art. But the main medium of Dada’s pictorial or sculptural art was collage, and its three-dimensional equivalent, assemblage.

    This work, made from found materials, established one of the fundamentals of art as we know it – that it does not have to be painted or carved or modelled, and that it can be made of anything. Often including elements from tribal art in its imagery, it was politically or socially or aesthetically aggressive, as in Hannah Höch’s Monument I (above), from her series of collages ‘From an Ethnographic Museum’ (1924–28), which features in the Berlin show. In it, using images clipped from magazines, she combines startlingly different sources: an African mask; the torso of an ancient Egyptian goddess; and the leg and arm of a film actress. This strange composite figure is placed on a pedestal, thus proposing a subversive new ideal of the female figure in art.

    Dada introduced the ideas that eventually gave us conceptual art, whose influence in turn has combined with the other streams of modern art to give us the great, broad, extraordinarily rich, varied, diverse and international river of contemporary art that the world now has. So go to Berlin and Vienna – both cities one anyway needs no excuse to visit – and then come back and go to the new Tate Modern to see what I mean.

    Dada Africa: Dialogue with the Other is at Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, until 7 Nov
    Foreign Gods: Fascination for Africa and Oceania is at Leopold Museum, Vienna, 23 Sep - 9 Jan 2017

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