About the Collaborative
About the Collaborators
Article Full text
SCE Homepage
Contact Us!


Search our Site!




Modernism and Appropriation of Indigenous Culture

Modern western painting and sculpture has been influenced by the art of indigenous peoples since its beginnings in 19th century France. However, this influence goes beyond the simple and well established ideas of Orientalism or Africanism. These "exotic" styles had been around for centuries, and were little more than poor parodies resulting from misunderstanding and prejudice. However, in the 19th century, and into the 20th, western artists were using the art of specific indigenous artists, and groups, as reference and source for material for their own art.
As Impressionism emerged, artists began to look outside of traditional sources for inspiration. The art of Antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Baroque periods, lacked novelty . Artists of the Impressionist group wanted something fresh; they were looking for an art with an entirely different perspective. Artists began to look toward Asia and the art produced there as an influence on their new Impressionist style.
In 1890 an extensive exhibition of Japanese masters appeared at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. At the same time, Vincent Van Gogh frequented a shop owned by Samuel Bing. Van Gogh was able to procure cheap Japanese prints. Certainly, Orientalism was fashionable in Paris, and Van Gogh was influenced and attempted to capitalize on this fad. He studied prints, and appropriated elements of Japanese style that went against the rules of perspective used to depict three dimensional space which had been in use since the Renaissance. He copied the subject matter, and composition, of some Japanese prints explicitly .
Van Gogh essentially produced painted versions of Japanese prints with, at least, the idea of selling them. One such image is Bridge in the Rain, originally by Japanese print maker, Utagawa Hiroshige, from his 1857 series One Hundred Views of Edo.

Van Gogh's copy adds a decorative border but changes little else. Under the guise of primitivism, this kind of I.P. theft would prove indispensable to the evolution of modern painting.
As the revolutionary waves of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism subsided artists looked for art styles as foreign to western eyes as Japanese art had been. Artists like Picasso used African masks in a similar fashion to the way that impressionists used Japanese prints before him .

One can see by simple analysis of artifacts and Picassso's work itself that he was influenced by specific masks. Artist Franz Marc wrote, "I was finally caught up, astonished, and shocked, by the carvings of the Cameroon people." Matisse, Nolde, Kirchner, and even Picasso himself have commented on the influence African art had on them.
Clearly cultural appropriation this far in the past can not be remedied, and one would not have the work of artists like Van Gogh, and Picasso compromised. However, if viewers can recognize the influences of these artists one can at least attempt to understand the theory behind these varied and interesting sources for western art.

Good link to site on American orientalism.

[Return to Top]





. .  
Case Western Reserve University | Contact the Department
This page last updated on: Friday, 20-Oct-2006 13:15:19 EDT