Creating Ancestors and Affinities

A Rhetorical Analysis of African Art in the Story of Modern Art

by Nana Leigh

In the twentieth century, the history of modern art was dominated by the story of modernism. Many actors in the field of art determined this course, but museums of international influence arguably had the largest say in creating this dominant narrative. Museums constructed their narratives of modern art by what they collected—and, of course, also by what they did not include in their collections—and by their presentations, both in exhibitions and in publications. This article aims to show that these constructions can be exposed through a rhetorical analysis of museum presentations, thus gaining insight as well into the question why certain narratives became dominant.[1]

In the Western story of modern art, ‘non-Western’ art played a subservient role. This so-called primitive art was used to help define and defend modern Western art: for most of the twentieth century in the museums of modern art, contemporary ‘non-Western’ art was practically absent. This approach started to be criticized in the 1980s, triggered by the controversial exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th century Art (1984–85) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (1989) in Paris is often viewed as a first attempt to change this status quo by focusing on contemporary indigenous art. The influence of the latter exhibition is still being scrutinized in the discourse on the representation of indigenous art in Western museums, which remains a crucial issue in current debates of the world of global contemporary art.[2] Today, museums of modern and contemporary art throughout the world are still struggling to change the dominant narrative by presenting alternative stories of the modern era and incorporating art from countries outside of Europe and North America.

In order to contribute to a better understanding of how the dominant narrative of the twentieth century concerning ‘non-Western’ art was actually created, rhetorical analysis will be used to deconstruct the stories on African art in two internationally renowned museums: the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the middle of the twentieth century, both museums were valued as authorities in modern art but differed in their authoritative role and in their approach. By juxtaposing their approaches to African art, I shall expose why certain stories dominated and others never fully developed.

In this article, I argue that both museums persuasively used older, ‘non-Western’ art—in this case, African art—to help define and defend modern art. Often employing ingenious exhibition display methods and convincing argumentation in wall labels, catalogues and other publications, ‘primitive’ art was blended into the modernist narrative. Furthermore, I shall show that mid-twentieth century contemporary concerns with what was then called ‘Negro art’ disappeared. By analyzing the verbal and visual rhetoric of their exhibitions, I shall deconstruct a few of the museums’ constructions. For this comparison, I focus on so-called African Negro art as an example of the approach to the ‘primitive’ (using the vocabulary of the period: ‘Negro art’ and negerkunst in Dutch, which is of course highly controversial today), and will trace its incorporation in a number of presentations in both museums. Although there are differences between their approaches, both museums were successful in integrating this ‘primitive’ art in the story of modern art by using concepts of ancestry, analogy, and affinity.

In my analysis of the museums’ presentations, I use the three principal elements of classical rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos. All three are important for a persuasive approach. Ethos is the authority with which the museum reaches the public and wins them over. Pathos is the arousal of the public’s emotions, such as empathy, admiration, wonder, and curiosity. Logos is the means to guide the public’s appreciation, to teach them, and encourage their understanding through convincing argument.

By analyzing MoMA’s and the Stedelijk’s presentations of this so-called primitive art in the history of modern art through these means of persuasion, the museums’ defining and defending strategies are identified and clarified. As we shall see, their styles of educating the public on this matter differed. Both museums were acknowledged authorities, and called on other authorities to underline their message. MoMA’s exhibitions in general seem to rely heavily on argumentation (logos), whereas those of the Stedelijk tended to appeal more to the public’s emotions of wonder and curiosity (pathos). Before establishing the ethos of both museums and analyzing the rhetoric of a few of their exhibitions, I shall provide a short description of the first encounters with African art in both museums.

The Stedelijk Museum

The Stedelijk’s early approach to ‘primitive’ African art

In the Stedelijk Museum, which opened in 1895, there was a remarkable number of different exhibitions on art from various cultures and different times in the first three decennia of the twentieth century. These exhibitions, however, were installed in a Stedelijk Museum that had not yet become a full-grown, international modern art museum. Functioning still as a boarding house for various collections and exhibitions, it provided space for these autonomous exhibitions, without explicitly connecting the ‘primitive’ with the modern art on display. Unfortunately, there are no installation photographs of these exhibitions that could provide us with their visual narrative.

African Negro sculpture was first exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum in the exhibition Oude Negerplastieken (Old Negro Sculpture) in 1927. It was a loan exhibition from art dealer Carel van Lier. In his own gallery, Van Lier exhibited a large collection of this kind of sculpture together with other ethnographic collections, Eastern antiquities and contemporary Dutch expressionist artists. His gallery was internationally renowned for its so-called primitive collections, as well as its contemporary Dutch works of art. While the connection between Negro sculpture and modern art was made in Van Lier’s gallery, the Stedelijk exhibition presented his collection of African art in its own right, leaving out the story of analogies, sources or resemblances. The sculptures were to be enjoyed for their own qualities.

The first time ‘primitive’ African art was exhibited in reference to modern art in the Stedelijk was in a loan exhibition from the French provincial Museum of Grenoble in 1935. In this exhibition of French modern painting, graphic arts, and sculpture, two wooden African masks were included. In the catalogue, the masks were listed as negerkunst (Negro art) in the sculpture section. However, no reference was made to any comparisons: there were only words of praise for the ‘youthful’ and ‘progressive’ collection of this provincial museum and its eminent curator, Andry-Farcy, who had given the museum its leading role in modern art. The authority backing this presentation of African sculpture together with French art appears from the preface of the catalogue, by the director of the Stedelijk, C.W.H. Baard, who states that he hopes that Amsterdam will lose its heart to this dazzling youthfulness.[3] The exhibition thus served the Stedelijk’s aspirations to become a true modern art museum, welcoming new developments with an open artistic approach.

The Stedelijk’s ethos

The ethos of the Stedelijk Museum as modern art museum was closely connected with the authority of its director, Willem Sandberg, who led the Stedelijk from 1945 to 1963 and established it as an internationally renowned museum. Sandberg was himself an artist (typographer and graphic designer), which enhanced his authority on contemporary art. As a nobleman and a member of the Dutch resistance during World War II, he was well respected in all circles of Dutch society. Sandberg’s focus of interest was mainly on the modern artist and the artist’s role as innovator and ‘antenna’ of society. His museum of modern art was to be a living center in which the arts were to be enjoyed, as opposed to an educational institution in which the visitor was taught art history. “A true museum is a work of art,” Sandberg stated.[4] Any convincing presentation of the Stedelijk would have to match the decorum of Sandberg’s museum: artistic, lively, and encouraging the enjoyment of art.

The Stedelijk: ‘Negro Art’ as Modern Art Old

An interesting and prominent example of the display of African ‘Negro’ art in relation to modern Western art is the exhibition Moderne Kunst – Nieuw en Oud (Modern Art – New and Old) in 1955.[5] It was presented in a Stedelijk that had by now achieved international renown as a respected authority on matters of modern art. The theme of timeless modern art was popular during the late 1940s and 1950s, as can be illustrated by a number of museum exhibitions, as well as books with titles like 40,000 Years of Modern Art. The title of the Stedelijk exhibition, Modern Art New and Old, is exemplary of the Stedelijk’s style under Sandberg: it starts with the ‘here and now’ instead of following the chronological order. This exhibition, designed for the new Sandberg wing of the Stedelijk, was installed to present old and new sources that inspired modern artists, as was stated in the aesthetic catalogue. The old sources were ancient and primitive art, the new sources were the machine, science, and modern technology. The timeless aspect of modern art was promoted by stipulating in the catalogue that ‘modern art old’ was considered to be the modern works of art together with the ‘primitive’ old objects being modern in character, whereas ‘modern art new’ should be seen as the modern works of art with their counterparts from contemporary science and technology. The essay in the catalogue provided a solid argumentation for viewing ‘primitive’ art as an important source of inspiration for the modern artist, whereas Sandberg’s poetic preface encouraged feelings of empathy and admiration. Sandberg’s graphic design of the catalogue—including the consistent use of small letters and brown paper—and of the poster for the exhibition, underscored the authority of the exhibition.

Fig. 1. Installation view of exhibition Moderne Kunst Nieuw en Oud, 1955, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photographer unknown.

The installation of the exhibition in the Sandberg wing shows a lively, open presentation. The display mode focused on the formal aspects of the works of art by pointing to the visual similarities between the different objects on display. Through the strategy of comparison the exhibition made a case for the strong affinity between objects from different times and cultures. Comparisons between examples of modern works of art and so-called primitive works of art were juxtaposed in niches created by movable wall stands.

The similarities were stipulated in accompanying wall texts that encouraged the public to look for resemblances. In the catalogue of the exhibition, the analogy of the coupled objects was convincingly presented by the use of parallel photographs of the objects portrayed in the same position and in the same size. Couples and trios were presented, such as a wooden African Negro figure from the Ivory Coast together with a wooden male figure by Kruyder and a painting of a female head by Picasso (1943). Other analogies, for example, were made between an African ancestral figure and a bronze figure by Lipchitz (1926–30), and a wooden mask from West Africa and Brancusi’s bronze Mlle Pogany (1913). The Museum promoted this exhibition as an educational one and, in terms of the Stedelijk, it was indeed unusual. The catalogue, however, was far from scholarly in its approach and remained in line with the Stedelijk’s rhetoric of appealing to the senses in its artistic and evocative presentation, as exemplified by Sandberg’s poetic preface.

Fig. 2. Page of catalogue designed by Sandberg including his preface, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Nana Leigh.

While the installation of the exhibition and the photographs in the catalogue provided for a convincing approach of affinity and analogy, the text in the catalogue centered on defining and defending modern art in more philosophical and social terms, in which vitality as ideology was promoted, and in which the ‘primitive’ artist was hailed for showing the way in creating the elementary power of art. Modern art was not to be identified as only an aesthetic matter, it had a social and humanitarian cause as well. This message must have appealed to the predominantly Dutch and European audience in whose societies the arts were welcomed as counterbalance to the devastation of war. This message, together with the artistic visual material and lively juxtapositions in the installation, fit perfectly in the decorum of Sandberg’s museum and provided for a persuasive presentation of the relationship between the so-called primitive and Western modern art.

The Stedelijk: Contemporary Negro Art

It is noteworthy, although perhaps not surprising, that the Stedelijk presented contemporary African Negro art (in this case, painting and etching) prior to the Museum of Modern Art doing so. In the 1950s, the Stedelijk, in its role as a ‘living center,’ could more easily welcome contemporary art, whereas MoMA was more focused on masters, masterpieces, and master movements at the time. In 1957, the Stedelijk installed the exhibition Hedendaagse negerkunst uit Central-Afrika (Contemporary Negro Art from Central Africa). Once again, as in the previous African Negro art exhibition thirty years earlier, it was a loan exhibition from a private collection. This exhibition presented the collection of ethnographer Rolf Italiaander, who was connected to the Amsterdam Institute for the Tropics. This time, Negro art was shown in a Stedelijk Museum that had become an internationally celebrated museum of modern art, and the ‘Negro’ art was being exhibited because it was, in fact, contemporary art. However, the effect of this exhibition seems to have been small: the rhetorical elements seem to clash, diminishing the persuasive quality of the whole and, as a loan exhibition, it remained an outsider for the museum. Although it was presented with Stedelijk authority by carrying Sandberg’s signature (the graphic design of the catalogue was made by the director himself), all of the catalogue texts were written by ethnographers and not by the Stedelijk Museum. [6]

Fig. 3. Cover of catalogue hedendaagse negerkunst uit Centraal-Afrika, 1957, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Nana Leigh.

Interesting references were made to the role of art and social developments, both in Africa and Europe. For Africa, this new art was said to coincide with the beginning of the free, postcolonial period. For Europe, it was hoped that this new art could contribute to a better understanding and knowledge of the peoples of the two continents.[7] Although this did seem to carry the Stedelijk’s message of the Sandberg era concerning the importance of contemporary art in a changing society, the artists and their art were not celebrated as innovators of modern art. The art itself was not incorporated into the dominant Western narrative of modern art; the artists were not hailed for their vitality and innovation, which were dominant tropes for Sandberg at the time. Finally, due to the fact that there was no direct follow-up in the collecting or presenting of contemporary indigenous African art, this novel inclusion of contemporary ‘Negro’ art in the museum seemed to disappear when the loan exhibition ended.[8]

The Museum of Modern Art

MoMA’s early approach to ‘primitive’ African art

From early on in the history of the Museum of Modern Art, so-called primitive art was exhibited as part of the museum’s program. Already in the very first catalogue of MoMA’s opening exhibition Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh in 1929, the genealogy of modern painting was defined by director Alfred Barr Jr. as extending to “almost every preceding period and almost every exotic culture.”[9] MoMA’s carefully planned exhibition program in the first half of the century included exhibitions of ethnographical art to be installed from both an aesthetic and a scientific point of view. In the first decennia of MoMA’s existence, there was a strong emphasis on educational exhibitions in order to create understanding and acceptance of modern art for a large public. Some exhibitions were installed to disclose actual sources for modern art. Other exhibitions were programmed to illustrate affinities and analogies between the ‘primitive’ and ‘exotic’ objects and the modern works of Western art.

The first actual exhibition of African Negro art in MoMA was held in 1935. It was presented as the largest loan exhibition of African Negro art ever held in the world. No direct comparisons with modern art were made in the installation of the exhibition. In one gallery, however, emphasis was put on the fact that the objects were owned by important modern artists. In this gallery, Congo ‘velvets’ (as they were called) and various masks were hung together in a modernist display mode, and special mention was made of the fact that they were owned by important modern artists, such as Matisse, Lipchitz, and Derain.[10]

Fig. 4. Detail of page 3 of the Bulletin of The Museum of Modern Art, March-April 1935 including the installation view of exhibition African Negro Art, 1935. Photographer unkown.

In keeping with the museum’s desire to deliver scholarly publications, the catalogue provided not only extensive essays, but also a lengthy bibliography and lists of previous exhibitions of African art, as well as of museums containing collections of African art.

Only one year after the African Negro art exhibition of 1935, strong steps towards the modernist approach to African art were taken, by which it was appropriated into Western modernism. In 1936, the museum’s most iconic and influential exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art, included African ‘Negro’ sculpture as source of influence for both Picasso and Lipchitz. This famous exhibition—which achieved longevity due to its scholarly catalogue, still reprinted 50 years later, and the famous flowchart that can still be found in almost every handbook of modern art—paved the way for the development of the strong modernist narrative in which ‘primitive’ art played a supporting role. It provides a persuasive, scholarly narrative of the development of abstract art in which the so-called primitive Negro sculpture featured as formal affinity and direct source. The visual and verbal rhetoric of comparisons, sequences, classifications, and repetition in both the exhibition and the catalogue provided for a convincing narrative. In the installation of the exhibition, the formal affinities between the modern works of art and their African Negro sculpture counterparts were stressed by juxtaposing the objects in a modernist setting. In the catalogue, direct references were made to their affinities and relationships, and these were enhanced by side-by-side photographs of the objects.

MoMA’s ethos

It was MoMA’s goal from the start to become the authority on modern art by building a collection of masterpieces and creating authoritative presentations and scholarly publications. As was the case in the Stedelijk, MoMA’s ethos was built on its director’s authority. Art historian Alfred H. Barr Jr. created a museum that intended to make a defining contribution to the history of modern art. Its authority—reflected in its exemplary collection, its benchmark (traveling) exhibitions, and scholarly publications—would be acknowledged worldwide. Due to its national and international standing and influential trustees, the museum played a major role in cultural politics.

MoMA: Contemporary American Negro Art

It is remarkable that, in the 1930s and 1940s, MoMA did not only see the old African ‘Negro’ art as a source for European modernism, but also as the ancestor of a new ‘American Negro art.’ MoMA as an educational authority seems to have encouraged and shaped this new art. It is noteworthy that MoMA had made a special effort to bring in New York’s ‘Negro’ public during the 1935 exhibition of African Negro art, of which mention is made in MoMA’s bulletin.[11] Furthermore, as stated in the bulletin, the museum commissioned Walker Evans at the time to make a set of photographs of the exhibited objects. Seven of the thirteen sets of this “Photographic Corpus of African Negro Art” were to be distributed to ‘Negro’ colleges.[12] This special attention is also reflected in an interesting exhibition on contemporary American Negro art, which was installed in 1943. The small exhibition Young Negro Art displayed the work of students from the Arts Center of a ‘Negro’ college, Hampton Institute.[13] This modest show was installed in MoMA’s Young People’s Gallery. As explained, the teacher of the students, Dr. Viktor Lowenfeld, saw it as his task to help the development of ‘genuine Negro art,’ which should not be an imitation of art of the white group, for it could ‘bury’ what he saw as the “the inherent creative abilities of the Negro artist.” As he claimed, “This imitation, though psychologically understandable, is one of the inhibitory factors in the development of genuine Negro art.”[14] This remarkable approach to American ‘Negro’ art as a separate art with its own ancestry of older African ‘Negro’ art seems to disappear from MoMA’s agenda after the 1940s, perhaps under the influence of the growing civil rights movement and the establishment of the dominant modernist story of modern art.

MoMA: Affinities in Timeless Modern Art

Already in the early ’40s, a number of educational exhibitions in MoMA presented ‘actual sources’ and built on concepts such as analogy, resemblance, and kinship as argumentation for explaining the heritage of modern art and integrating it into the respectable and universally accepted canon of art. In 1941, a strong case was made for the relationship between modern art and its sources in the circulating educational exhibition Ancestral Sources of Modern Painting.[15] One of the comparative selections was of African ‘Negro’ art and its kinship with modern art. In three mounts of reproductions, African ‘Negro’ figures and masks were presented as sources for the paintings of Schmidt-Rotluff, Modigliani, Klee, and Picasso.[16] By focusing solely on the formal aspects and color in the comparisons, African art was appropriated into the story of Western modernism.

The MoMA’s twentieth anniversary exhibition, Timeless Aspects of Modern Art (1948–49), was an educational exhibition created for a large public. Anniversary exhibitions were ethos-building opportunities, and can be seen as presentations of the museum’s accomplishments and standards. Designed as a walk through a timeless space, the museum wanted to show that “modern art is not an isolated phenomenon in history but is, like art of any period, an integral part of all ages.”[17] It was installed to function as a ‘reminder’ for the public of the strong affinities and analogies in art of all times. In contrast to the aforementioned circulating exhibition, Ancestral Sources of Modern Painting (1941), this exhibition intended to present a story of affinities and analogies without discovering influences or identifying real sources, as was explicitly stated.[18] In the brief pamphlet accompanying the show, the message of the affinities was explained. Under the heading “Affinity and Resemblance,” the pamphlet argued that the exhibition was “not devoted to the tracing of influences, derivations or traditions,” but that it was “concerned here mainly with analogies and affinities.”[19] A distinction was made between “purely accidental resemblances” (my italics), which were irrelevant and misleading, and ‘true’ affinities, which really mattered. By drawing the comparison between affinities in works of art and affinities between people, the central concept of ‘affinity’ was clarified for the public.[20] The organization of the exhibition display was also explained carefully as a walk through different art forms and “many types of relationships from stylistic affinities to affinities of content.” The installation of the show distinguished the various selected affinities, such as “structure and abstraction” or “fantastic and mysterious.” In the structure and abstraction section, Picasso’s The Painter and His Model (1928) was juxtaposed with a wooden Sudanese figure and a funerary figure from Gabon, while in the fantastic and mysterious section, Miro’s Woman in the Night (1945) was placed alongside a wooden mask from the Ivory Coast.

Fig. 5. Detail of the Plan of the Exhibition which accompanied the Timeless Aspects of Modern Art exhibition, 1948. This plan also included a list of all the objects on display. Photographer unkown.

The display sometimes relied on dramatic lighting for a strong emotional impact and a sense of timelessness. While walking through the galleries, the public was reminded that “such modern means of expression as exaggeration, distortion, abstraction” were timeless.[21] The maps included in the exhibition provided for a sense of scholarly analysis and comprehensiveness. A year later, the museum’s message was repeated in an educational portfolio for schools throughout the United States, entitled Modern Art Old and New, in which the same comparison of affinities was relayed. With this persuasive anniversary presentation of the affinities between modern Western art and the ‘primitive,’ the position of the museum on this issue was established.

‘Primitivism’ Established in Modernism

In the second half of the twentieth century, MoMA set a course towards strengthening the history of Western modern art with its formalistic modernist approach, wherein ‘non-Western’ art played a subservient role. The Stedelijk, although it followed the modernist route, instead gained ground in opening up to new directions of contemporary art. It did not, however, continue exhibiting so-called non-Western art at the same rate as it had done in the first half of the twentieth century. After the 1950s, there seems to be a decline in exhibitions that either included non-Western art as sources of modern art or as examples of timeless modern art. This is perhaps due to the fact that the necessity to define and defend Western modern art by both museums had declined now that modernism had established itself. Furthermore, unfortunately due to the modernist Western focus, the interest in modern and contemporary art from different cultures was limited. The first major exhibition to once again deal with the ‘primitive’ in modern Western art was the aforementioned “Primitivism” in 20th century Art in 1984, in which the concept of affinities was once again focus of attention.


In this article, I have argued that, as acknowledged authorities, both the Stedelijk and MoMA provided persuasive verbal and visual narratives for the role of ‘primitive’ art—in this case, African ‘Negro’ art—in the history and development of modern Western art, in which the concepts of analogies and affinities were prominent. Through rhetorical analysis, differences in their positions and strategies have been revealed, which can be explained by goals and approaches specific to each museum. The Stedelijk was the first to house ‘primitive’ art, but it had a slow start in incorporating this art into the story of modern Western art, presumably because it valued allowing the works of art to speak for themselves. Thus, it remained far less explicit in its presentations and explanations—an approach that seemed to be guided by the desire to arouse emotions of wonder and curiosity in the public, and have the works of art speak directly to them. The exhibition Moderne Kunst – Nieuw en Oud (1955), being the most explicit, thereby resembles MoMA’s Timeless Aspects of Modern Art exhibition (1948). From the very beginning, MoMA carefully constructed what was to become the dominant narrative of the ‘primitive’ in relation to modern Western art. Through explicit argumentation and presentation in scholarly catalogues and authoritative (circulating) exhibitions, the story of the affinity of the ‘primitive’ and the modern was established. In both museums, there was little concern for contemporary African art at the time: the Stedelijk’s exhibition in 1957 lacked the persuasive power to shake the dominant narrative, and MoMA’s interest was solely connected to the development of African-American art as a separate narrative—a narrative that was to have no impact on the dominant story of modernism.