While the colonial conquest was being celebrated with universal Exhibitions and reconstructions of “native” villages, relationships with “black models” were undergoing a significant shift at the turn of the century. An alternative imaginary world began to take shape, notably in response to Gauguin’s first trip to Martinique (1887) and Le Douanier Rousseau’s tropical dream forests.
These idyllic visions of a lost paradise, together with the discovery of African statuary by Derain, Picasso and Matisse in 1906 and 1907, stimulated a new form of stylisation which challenged the purely mimetic relationship with a model.
Picasso replaced the face of one of the five figures in his Demoiselles d'Avignon with a Baoulé mask, and Matisse painted a radical Blue Nude. With the next generation, this aesthetic otherness acquired a political dimension. The Dada and Surrealist movements constructed a fantasy of Africa as an anti-Western, anti-bourgeois model, expressed in Raymond Roussel’s offbeat, poetic work Impressions of Africa or played out in performances such as the fight between Arthur Cravan and African-American boxing champion Jack Johnson.
Paris in the 1920s succumbed to a craze for jazz and the eroticised bodies of black performers were depicted in many Art deco works. Ephemeral black muses on the bohemian scene, such as Aïcha Goblet and Adrienne Fidelin, were also featured in portraits.
In 1919, the first Pan-African Congress was held in Paris by one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Du Bois, who took the first steps towards demanding Black self-determination.
In the 1930s, amid a climate of colonial hegemony and the growing menace of fascism, Négritude in Paris was being championed by the creation of La Revue du Monde noir in 1931 and by the poets Léon Gontran Damas, Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who founded the journal L'Etudiant noir in 1935.
Michel Leiris, and George Bataille’s journal Document promoted an ethnographic and sociological approach to African objects, and the Surrealists joined forces with the French Communist Party to organise a rival exhibition to the huge Colonial Exhibition of 1931.
En route to New York in 1941 to escape the Vichy régime, André Breton, accompanied by the painters Wifredo Lam and André Masson, was captivated to discover Césaire’s poem Journal of a Homecoming in Fort-de-France. Together with Masson, he wrote a combined tribute to Martinique and Le Douanier Rousseau entitled Martinique: Snake Charmer (1948).