Portrait Face Mask (Mblo) with Bird

unknown Baule

Ivory Coast, Africa

Portrait Face Mask (Mblo) with Bird

19th century

Wood and pigment
12 x 7 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. (30.5 x 19.1 x 9.5 cm)

The stylized forms and clean shapes of Baule masks appealed to many artists and collectors in the West during the early twentieth century, and the influence of African artworks such as these was an important factor in the development of European Modernism. In 1909, artist Max Weber took notice of these influences among the works of Paris Modernists such as Picasso and wrote to Stieglitz about what he had seen. Weber featured masklike forms in some of his own paintings, as well.

This mask is featured in Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Mask with Golden Apple, 1923 (on view in Crystal Bridges’ Early Twentieth-Century Art Gallery). The juxtaposition of the African mask with the apple very likely serves as a comment on Stieglitz’s quest for a uniquely American art. One of Stieglitz’s favorite statements was “that the root of European modern art lies in the ‘statuary in wood by African savages’ and that the apple is an appropriate metaphor for the native American artist’s spirit.” The apple’s dominant placement, in front of the mask, emphasizes what Stieglitz and O’Keeffe saw as America’s need to stand alone, independent of European influences.