A small seated figurine from the Vili people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo was instrumental in the lives of two of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. The carved figure in wood, with its large upturned face, long torso, disproportionately short legs and tiny feet and hands, was purchased in a curio shop in Paris by Henri Matisse in 1906. The French artist, who liked to fill his studio with exotic trinkets and objets d’art, objects that would then appear in his paintings, paid a pittance for it.
Yet when he showed it to Pablo Picasso at the home of the art patron and avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, its impact on the young Spaniard was profound, just as it was, though to an arguably lesser extent, on Matisse when the compact but powerful figure had fortuitously caught his eye.
For Picasso, his appetite whetted, visits to the African section of the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro inevitably followed. And so precocious was the 24-year-old artist that it seemed that he had already absorbed all that European art had to offer. Hungry for something radically different, something almost entirely new to the Western gaze that might provide fresh and dynamic impetus to his feverish creative energies, Picasso became captivated by the dramatic masks, totems, fetishes and carved figures on display, just as he had with the Iberian stone sculptures of ancient Spain which he also sourced as material. Here, however, was something altogether different, altogether more dynamic and visceral. read more