Thursday, 12 June 2014

Black History and Modernism in Twentieth Century Art

Written by Danny Keen

Creole Dancer, Henri Matisse

I studied fine art in 1960s “Swinging London”. In that era Black Culture rushed through the establishment like a refreshing breeze. Once again the Zeitgeist dipped into Black History to find the name that defined the times. The term “Swinging” was itself a word that was borrowed from Jazz, similarly the 1920s and 30s were called the “Jazz Age”.  A black person studying fine art at that time was in a lonely position. As far as I knew I was the only one. What I had in common with my white fellow students was that we were all reaching for something new. We were trying to break free of the straight jacket of the establishment.
The first time I walked into an art school I was impressed by “Beatnicks”. These were people who had long hair, dark clothing and carried bongo drums and guitars around with them as they walked about in sandals reciting “Beat” poetry. These people were “hip”, but they were soon overtaken by “Hippies” as the coolest “cats and chicks” around. It seemed to me that generations of young people were liberally dipping into Black Culture to define themselves. The “Beat”, the “Hip”, the “Cool”, the “Swing”, the “Hip Hop”, the “Groove” are elements of youth style that have derived from Black culture.
And so it was in the visual arts. Starting with Paul Gauguin in the nineteenth century modern painting was developed by artists dipping into the great well of Black Culture for their inspiration.  When I was a student “New York Abstract Expressionism” was considered to be the cutting edge of the visual arts. The leading light of the movement was Jackson Pollock who had died in a car crash some years earlier. Pollock, in common with his contemporaries, immersed himself in Jazz music.  In the 1940s Pollock produced “action” paintings using the improvisational approach of jazz musicians. This put him at the forefront of a new generation of abstract painters. At exactly the same time Henri Matisse in post war France created his “Jazz” series using his cut out technique. These late works were done in his old age, and placed Matisse at the forefront of twentieth century modern art. In the opinion of many experts these late works allowed him to overtake Picasso to become the master of 20th century painting.  Picasso spent his late years retreating into sexual fantasies blended with Greek mythology, but Matisse reached out into the dynamic world of jazz to produce abstract pictures that were right on the cutting edge.
Both great masters dipped into Black Culture for inspiration. Picasso collected African art all his life. Matisse made several visits to North Africa and collected carpets. They both experienced a great event that sent shockwaves throughout the Parisian art world. Josephine Baker’s arrival in 1927 made an instantaneous impact that was culture changing. The “Jazz Age” had arrived. Pandora had opened her box and Paris was never the same again! The proof of the great black entertainer’s influence on the French art world is in the Matisse exhibition at the Tate Modern. I recently paid homage before it. Matisse’s major late work “Creole Dancer” is a testament to Josephine Baker’s charisma. 25 years after she first arrived from America she was still casting her spell over the great master.
What is it about Black History that allows art experts to overlook its influence? The pundits who write about art are the victims of a prejudice that puts Black History in the box marked “Primitive”. Yet every where you look Black History is the prime force for change throughout modern art, literature, music, dance, politics, sport and culture! It is the task of those us who know better to take Black History from the box marked “Primitivism” and put it in the one marked “Modernism”.

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