The sudden appearance of African art, primarily of African sculpture, on the horizon of the European art world and of aesthetic thought at the beginning of the twentieth century is probably the most famous single event in the history of modern primitivism, at least as far as the visual arts are concerned. For the modern mind it came to epitomize that large and complex process, the search for and discovery of the primitive and the aboriginal, and the almost messianic hopes that it would have a miraculous impact on the European mind. In the present chapter I shall briefly relate the story of the discovery of African sculpture, and then ask how the figures, masks, and other objects that came from black Africa were understood by those artists and critics who first saw them.
The discovery of African sculpture is well known; it is a story that has become something of a modern secular myth, even assuming some of the features commonly found in mythical narratives, such as sudden appearances and the “illumination” of those converted. Though the historian is aware that some questions still remain open, the general lines of the story are common knowledge. In recording the discovery of African art I may therefore be permitted to disregard most of the details, and to concentrate on trying to understand the motives for the search for the primitive, and the meanings attributed to it.
The story of how African art was discovered in Europe, no matter how briefly told, should begin by emphasizing two distinct features of particular significance in our context. First, this discovery was primarily the achievement of artists, particularly of artists belonging to the avant-garde. We shall soon return to this important fact. Second, African art was discovered at the very same time in two different places, quite independently of one another.
The term “discovery,” commonly employed in telling our story, also requires some qualification. It does not mean that the objects themselves were made available for the first time, that they were unearthed, as it were,