One of the mysteries of the kind of art we have in a new show called "A Human Ideal in African Art/Bamana Figurative Sculpture" is that even after 80-some-odd years we don't know entirely what to make of African art and its impact upon our own culture -- on Picasso and Braque. It remains, in many ways, a new language.
This is starkly demonstrated in a new exhibition of 45 elegant sculptures -- mostly wood, some clay or forged iron -- at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. These are objects that are considered crafts, mostly of ritual meaning to the inhabitants of the fairly compact area of western Africa from which they derive; but they are seen only as art to most of us westerners.
There are two major collateral reasons this show is of particular meaning. The first and most obvious one is that it is the last show before the museum, long established up there on Capitol Hill, moves in July to the about-to-be-finished Quadrangle on the grounds of the Smithsonian.
The other is that this particular school of art, with its hooded eyes and its curvilinear and twisted everything else, is what struck Paris in the first decade of the century, giving us the mannerisms, the distortions, with which Picasso and Braque changed the face of art -- literally. In paintings like Picasso's giant "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" the eyes of the five near-life-size nude models are radically askew, in a way never before seen in western art, the noses painted as if sideways ski slopes, the bodies utterly out of joint by normal standards. And all of it was utterly new in the West, and as important as any art of this century.
It is fascinating -- as one learns from the African Museum's show -- that from the beginning, the Picasso elongations went so much further than the Africans go. The Africans keep the eyes and both sides of the nose parallel; there is much lateral exaggeration, but less horizontal. Picasso puts the eyes and the nose at outrageous angles. There is a fierceness in "Les Demoiselles" that one does not encounter in the serene Bamana sculptures, with their allusions to eternity.
However, one of the show's indications of freedom with realism is the extent to which these artists -- who had been reproducing these works as they decayed -- repeated their patterns over the centuries, and that was the most important stylistic message to Picasso and Braque.
"Like most Bamana art, figurative sculpture is made to be used by institutions known as initiation associations," writes Kate Ezra, the show's curator, who comes from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. "These associations remain central to the lives of the members long after the initial entrance rites have been completed. They help villagers to solve problems related to their health, families, marriages, farming and many other endeavors.
"The initiation associations are based on a belief in spiritual forces that can be manipulated by knowledgeable people to create an atmosphere of harmony, prosperity, and well-being in the village," she explains. "The periodic meetings, annual celebrations, and entrance ceremonies of Bamana initiation associations call for dazzling displays of sculpture and exciting performances of masked and costume dancers."
It is obviously difficult for a westerner to really understand it all. But the beauty of the sculptures is unmistakable. And it is obvious from the artists' mastery what excited Picasso and Braque.
The show continues through June 15.