At the beginning of the twentieth century France, like most European countries, was a colonial power. Attitudes towards non-western countries, particularly African and Oceanic, were a mixture of fascination and disdain. The people of these countries and their cultures were labelled as ‘primitive’ and associated with often conflicting stereotypes such as savagery, nobility, simplicity, exoticism, mystery and paganism. Avant garde writers, philosophers and artists were inspired by ‘primitive’ art. They were disillusioned by the culture and values of their own society which they saw as corrupt and exhausted of ideas. In contrast, ‘primitive’ art seemed physically direct and emotionally charged. It was at once ancient and completely new and it pointed the way to systems of representation other than the naturalism that dominated academic art. The phenomenon of Primitivism also saw a reassessment of some of the first principles of art. What is it for? How does it affect us? How do we communicate through art? However the interest of artists in non-Western cultures was primarily formal and superficial rather than anthropological. Few had a sophisticated grasp of the civilizations from which they were borrowing.
Matisse and Picasso were both interested in 'primitive art' but they were attracted to different cultures for different reasons. Picasso’s Spanish heritage meant he was familiar with the simplified, stylised and monumental figures of Iberian sculpture. He was also interested in African art. Although he never visited the continent, he studied objects in the Paris ethnographic museum and made his own versions of totemic African carvings. Picasso was fascinated by their highly stylised representations of the body and also their function as ritual objects. Picasso was very superstitious and he believed in the magical and talisman properties of objects. For this reason he felt a personal affiliation with this aspect of African art.
Matisse collected African art and is thought to be responsible for introducing it to Picasso. He visited North Africa on several occasions, however it was Persian art that that had a more lasting influence on his work. Matisse was particularly interested in their use of pattern to create a sense of depth. Usually pattern has a flattening effect because it emphasises the surface of objects. In Persian miniatures different patterns are used to delineate different spatial areas. So for instance in an interior scene where we can see through an open door, down a corridor to a room beyond, the walls in the furthest room would have a different pattern from the walls of the corridor and of the main interior and this pattern would be used to describe the receding view.