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Early civilizations
Greece and Rome
Asia and Africa
Renaissance in Europe
18th century
Africa and Oceania
     African wood carving
     The art of Oceania
     Tribal art and cubism

To be completed

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African wood carving: 19th - 20th century

In Africa, south of the Sahara, wood is the natural material for carving. In the 20th century sculpture in wood is still very much a living tradition. Examples from the 19th century have been preserved in reasonable number, largely by the efforts of collectors. But earlier work has crumbled irretrievably, eaten by ants or rotted by damp.

Even so, the body of art surviving to us in this tradition is immensely rich. It powerfully suggests how much has been lost.


It is difficult to imagine how African tribal sculptors have viewed their own work, but they have certainly not seen it as art in the self-conscious western manner of recent centuries.

Tribal carving is done for a clear and practical purpose. A figure may represent an ancestor, destined to stand in a shrine. A mask may be intended for use by a shaman just once a year in a special dance. A post may be designed to prop up a chief's verandah or to form part of a palisade round his house. An elaborate chair is likely to be for the chief himself to sit on. All of them will be better if carved in a dramatic or propitious way.


The art of Oceania: 19th - 20th century

The vitality and variety of African sculpture is rivalled only by the art of the region known as Oceania - the islands of the south Pacific. Particularly vigorous, in artistic terms, are the products of New Guinea and of the groups of islands lying to the southeast of it, including New Ireland, the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and New Caledonia.

As in Africa, the human face and form is used in a myriad different ways to provide masks, free-standing wooden figures, or decoration for gable ends, door posts and ceremonial seats.


The oldest art form of these islands is colourful basketry, often in elaborate sculptural forms, rather than the woodcarving which has predominated in recent centuries.

The reason is that the islanders had no metal tools until the first regular contact with Europeans in the 18th century. A new ease in the carving of wood made possible the lively and fantastic figures now associated with the region. The arrival of Christian missionaries brought a subsequent attempt to discourage such sculpture, linked as it usually is with a pagan world of spirits.


Tribal art and cubism: 20th century

Whatever the reason for the range of tribal art, the result is an unrivalled display of the power of the imagination. The basic subject, as in western sculpture, is the human body. But the tribal sculptor is liberated from the straitjacket of realism.

His ingredients may be limited to the parts of the body, but he constantly reassembles them in new dimensions and relationships. From a central axis of eyes, nose, mouth, navel and genital organs, to the peripheral cast list of hair, ears, arms, breasts, legs and buttocks, there is no predicting which of these elements will take the starring roles in any one production. Startling imbalance is restored to balance by the force of strong design.


It is hard to know whether a particular image may be intended to seem sad or terrifying (or neither, or even nothing), for this is a subjective matter on which an outsider may often be mistaken. But in these carvings there is no mistaking the energy and playfulness with which the human body is turned, by confident distortion, into such a gallery of wonderful creatures.

It is not surprising that Picasso, the most playful genius of the 20th century, is inspired by these fragmentations of dull reality to find a new direction of his own in cubism.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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