Blake Gopnik got a little worked up about the intersection of Modernism and African art earlier this month in the Washington Post:
One reading of the Western taste for African art is that it’s another way for the West to assert its power — that African sculptures serve, at least unconsciously, as trophies of war. Many of the photos in this show were commissioned by collectors eager to document the foreign objects they’d amassed. Boldly lit and isolated against plain backgrounds — which means they’re also isolated from the cultures they came out of — the African artifacts are easily seen as colonial booty.
Other photos document commercial dealers’ shows, with the African art taking on the role of yet another “natural” resource drained from the colonies and injected into the Western economy. One early photo at the Phillips was taken by Stieglitz himself, to document his 1914 exhibition of African works borrowed from a French dealer hunting for new markets in the United States.
That’s one reading, as I said, and it has its strengths, in social and political terms. But it goes against a lot of what the art world seemed to feel at the time. One reason African art seemed so appealing to the avant-garde was that the glories of Western “advancement” had, after all, led to the useless slaughter of World War I. If the “advanced” was a dead end, maybe the “primitive” could offer a new model.
Viewed as a cultural blank slate, uprooted African art could be used to mean almost anything the West wanted it to.
At the Phillips, Black and White but Never Plain (Washington Post)