Anecdotes relating Pablo Picasso’s interest in sculpture from Africa and the Pacific Islands beginning in the first decade of the 20th century are well known, recounted by his lover and model Fernande Olivier, his friend Gertrude Stein, and others.
Picasso and his contemporaries—including Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, André Derain, Henri Matisse, and Maurice de Vlaminck—were fascinated by masks and figures displayed at the Trocadéro Museum, which opened in 1878 to house works acquired from colonial representatives, explorers, merchants, and missionaries. The creation of a new market for African and other so-called “primitive art” in the West was among the repercussions of colonialism, and while many objects never intended for sale were swept into this market, African artists also responded directly to their new clientele. Shipped to the capitals of Europe, objects from the colonies could be found in Parisian cafés, flea markets, galleries, and shops frequented by the avant-garde.
Picasso’s engagement with African art continued throughout his lifetime, resulting in a collection that included some 100 objects at the time of his death in 1973. Not surprisingly, most of these works came from French colonies including Gabon, Guinea, and Mali. His collection included singular pieces, as well as groups demonstrating a variety of approaches to an iconic form. They frequently appear in photographs of the artist in his studio.
On special display in Gallery 137 are seven African artworks from the Art Institute of Chicago's permanent collection that were selected for their similarities to works once owned by Picasso. These objects also came through the Paris African art market and invite us to consider Picasso's collecting within this context.