/ 31 December 2022

Between lunacy and scholarship: being Leo Frobenius

A River Crossing With Their Vehicle Being Pulled By Oxen,

If one person could be singled out for doing more than most in bringing the art of Africa to the Global North, where it was enthusiastically embraced by leading avante-garde artists, shaping what became known as modernism, it would be German ethnologist Leo Frobenius. 

Between 1904 and 1935 he led 12 tours on the African continent, making copies of rock art, recording stories and collecting artefacts. Prolific, he published 60 books on his adventures and collections.

It is now well-recognised that the art of Africa was appropriated during colonial times, becoming a key input for highly influential artists such as Pablo Picasso, as they sought to find new direction in the photographic age and to what they saw as the bourgeois art displayed in museums and galleries.

Forbenius, who out-collected everybody else, was a primary conduit for this great appropriation.

The New York Times in 2016 recalled the impact the Frobenius copies of ancient rock art had in major metropolitan areas: “We know of many protagonists of modernism who visited the rock art exhibitions and who owned illustrated books of the Frobenius expeditions.

“To them, the handling of perspective and dynamics, space and surface was just as fascinating as the unusual presentation: frameless and in wall-filling formats.

“Prehistoric rock art came into the spotlight at the very moment when the international avant-garde was searching for a new formal language. Artists strove for reduction and abstraction, searched for the primordial, the pristine, and began to create collages and large wall paintings,” it reported.

“Thus Joan Miró could say in 1928 that ‘painting has been in decline since the cave age’; Alberto Giacometti in 1946 that ‘there and only there was movement ever achieved’. And Paul Klee, too, in his search for a new art, adapted motifs from prehistoric rock art.”

Born in Berlin, Germany in June, 1873, Leo Frobenius began collecting African art while still a teenager. He had little formal schooling but aged 25 he submitted a thesis on the origins of African culture which was rejected by the philosophical faculty at Basel, he as a result spent most of his career outside of formal academia, putting together collections some of which he’d sold to fund further expeditions and collections.


Harvard art historian Suzanne Blier makes the case in a 2019 book, Picasso’s Demoiselles: the untold origins of a modern masterpiece, that Picasso drew on Frobenius’s African masks and secret societies, published in 1898, for his famed Demoiselles d’Avignon artwork, seen by many to represent the beginnings of cubism and modernism.

Painted by Picasso in 1907, the painting shows five women in a brothel, three of whom wear masks. Blier shows there is close likeness of the masked women with illustrations by E Hugelshofer in Frobenius’s book. This is both the case with full-frontal and side views.

Picasso, says Blier, even used the same colours as Hugelshofer. The Frobenius masks clearly had an impact on the artist, says Blier, offering a striking sense of just how creative Picasso was in reenaging and reinventing African forms.

For Blier Picasso did not plagiarise as he developed what he saw in the masks. She quotes art historian William Rubin: “There is no drawing or painting by Picasso that is directly copied from any tribal object.”

This may be so, but without the African influence, modern (western) art would undoubtedly look very different to what we know today.

“Picasso internalised African art’s aesthetic complexity and carried it forward into a range of compositions in which colour took on new attributes,” says Blier. “The Frobenius volume served as a resource and spring for visual imagery through which Picasso could re-envisage nearly every aspect of human form, from physiognomic features and contrasting planes to the very nature of form and the key role of colour.”

Blier, in a web posting, tells the story of trying to publish Picasso’s images in her book, without getting into a dispute with the Picasso Foundation, which controls the copyright of the artist who died 49 years ago and is known to be litigious.

She was able to find a publisher who would agree to publish on a creative commons basis where the original content creator is acknowledged, but only after being told by Foundation that permission to reproduce Picasso works would cost $80 000.

The art of the continent, we see here, is a gift which truly keeps on giving.

Art historian Suzanne Blier shows the influence African art appropriated by Leo Frobenius had on Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Lunacy and scholarship

But if the art which Frobenius sought had a timelessness about it, the same cannot be said for him. He is of his colonial time; he does not transcend it. Controversial in his own time, his worldview, thankfully, has not aged well.

This is not to say that he did not have supporters. One was African-American civil rights activist W E B du Bois, who in 1948 described Frobenius as “a great man and an eminent thinker” who “regarded Africa with unbiased eyes and was more useful for the understanding of black culture than any other man I have met”, as reported by arts magazine Apollo in 2016.

American historian Suzanne Marchand, writing in 1997, said Frobenius “spent his whole life in motion, between Germany and Africa, between the natural and cultural sciences, between lunacy and scholarship”.

He saw great antiquity and beauty – even magnificence – in the art of the continent and saw that racist attitudes of Europeans towards Africans resulted from the attempted justification for the evils of slavery.

But equally, in notable cases such as the rock art of Zimbabwe and bronze heads of Ife, Nigeria, Frobenius took the view that the art was too advanced to be the work of locals. It had to have been done, he reasoned, by foreigners who had previously lived on the continent.

In the rock art of Southern Rhodesia, which he saw to be a cut above that further south, Frobenius reckoned that the distinctively angular human forms were influenced by cuneiform, the wedged-shaped writing on clay tablets used in the ancient Near East. Postulating that the art was that of Phonecians or other earlier visitors, he called the style Erythraea after the Erythraean Sea as the Indian Ocean was known in ancient times.

Frobenius likewise thought that the same foreigners had constructed the extraordinary stone palaces, the ruins of which are found in much of present-day Zimbabwe.

In Yoruba, Nigeria, which Frobenius visited in 1910, he wrote: “Before us stood a head of marvellous beauty, wonderfully cast in antique bronze, true to the life, encrusted with a patina of glorious dark green.

Headlines in the New York Times of January 30, 1911 screamed GERMAN DISCOVERS ATLANTIS IN AFRICA; Leo Frobenius Says Find of Bronze Poseidon Fixes Lost Continent’s Place.

The bronze heads, he explained in his book Voice of Africa, 1913, were too advanced to have been made by locals; he thought rather that he had discovered the remains of Plato’s mythical lost city of Atlantis. 

Nigerian artist Kip Omolade, who today makes sculptures inspired by the bronze heads, told the OkayAfrica website that the artefacts Frobenius ‘discovered’ were “actually created by African artisans between the 12th and 15th centuries, but the craftsmanship and use of realism by so-called primitive Africans was beyond the scope of Europeans at the time”.

The Financial Times in a 2016 report on the bronze heads, then being exhibited in London on loan from Nigeria’s Commission for Museums and Monuments, described Frobenius as a “freebooting Indiana Jones figure, part visionary and part charlatan”.

It reported that Frobenius boasted he unearthed the most famous of the heads, the Ori Olokun, in 1910, taking possession for “six pounds and a bottle of Scotch”.

“After complaints from the Oni, Frobenius was apprehended trying to leave Nigeria and forced to return the bronze head. Had he legitimately excavated the object in one of the city’s sacred groves, as he vividly described in his book The Voice of Africa? Or had he simply stolen it, as the people of Ife claimed?

“It is likely that the head had been unearthed by local people decades before Frobenius arrived. Probably representing an ancient ruler, it was absorbed into the worship of the sea deity Olokun (actually a goddess) in whose sacred grove it had been found, and each year it was put back into the earth after annual rites for fear of offending the god.”

Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, in his 1986 acceptance speech, described Frobenius as “a notorious plunderer, one of a long line of European archaeological raiders.

“Yet,” said Soyinka, “is it not amazing that Frobenius is today still honoured by black institutions, black leaders, and scholars? That his anniversaries provide ready excuse for intellectual gatherings and symposia on the black continent, that his racist condescensions, assaults have not been permitted to obscure his contribution to their knowledge of Africa, or the role which he has played in the understanding of the phenomenon of human culture and society, even in spite of the frequent patchiness of his scholarship?”

In Southern Rhodesia Frobenius was accused by the colonial authorities of illegally exporting an archaeological treasure, a gold leaf (a two-gram sheet of beaten gold). The story is told by Richard Kuba, head of rock art at the Frobenius Institute in Frankfurt am Main, in a 2020 publication, Leo Frobenius and colonial policy.

Kuba says the decision by the South African government to buy copies of the Frobenius facsimiles for the considerable sum of 5,000 pounds paid in advance, provoked furious attacks by the English press and sparked virulent debates in the South African parliament.

The opposition accused the government of waste and showing preference towards foreign scientists.

Kuba says Frobenius was accused of smuggling a small gold object unearthed at the ruin of Tere [also known as Mutoko] in Southern Rhodesia. The secretary of the Colony of Southern Rhodesia wrote on November 28, 1928 that unearthed objects were to be shared equally [between the expedition and the government] and that an arbitration was required for objects unique and valuable.

But Frobenius decided to send all the archaeological finds to Germany and to return the half due to Rhodesia only after metallic analysis. Numerous delays followed. Some of the excavated material was returned, but not the gold object.

Kuba told me by email that the Makate family, the traditional owners of the Tere ruins, have recently put in an official request claiming some objects back that were excavated there in 1929 by Frobenius’ collaborator Wieschhof.

“Unfortunately, we have no idea where these objects have ended up.”

It is well known that there has been growing demands that artefacts appropriated during the colonial era be returned and that some of the former colonisers have agreed to this.


But if lunacy was part of Frobenius’s make-up, there is also acknowledgement for some of his scholarship. 

“I love Frobenius’s work and I believe that he was ahead of his time in his approach to rock art, for example, the manner in which he amassed his data and interpreted it,” archaeologist Siyakha Mguni told me by email. 

Mguni is the author of the influential Termites of the gods, 2015, which addressed the strange elliptical shapes present in many of the Zimbabwean paintings, especially in the Motopos region, and relatively rare south of the Limpopo.

Frobenius termed the shapes formlings. He had no explanation for what they might represent. Scholars have come up with numerous suggestions, including that they resemble the rocky sandstone outcrops which feature in the Zimbabwean landscape; or, oversized bee hives, honey being an important source of protein and carbohydrate for the hunter-gatherer artists who made the paintings.

Mguni made a detailed, multi-year study of the formlings, arguing the shapes are termite mounds, part of the sophisticated religious symbolism which underpinned San Bushman life for millennia.

Archaeologist Peter Garlake, who quit Rhodesia in 1970 when Ian Smith’s government instructed that no official publication may unequivocally state that Great Zimbabwe was an African creation, also praises aspects of Frobenius’s work.

He writes in The Hunter’s Vision, 1993, that Frobenius “had a wider and more prolonged, first-hand field experience of the paintings of Zimbabwe and South Africa than anyone else before nor since”.

Frobenius made real contributions towards defining and understanding the basis of the art, says Garlake. “In this sphere he showed extraordinary insight. He understood the ways visual art expresses ideas. He respected the artists and their beliefs, even if he did not know who and what they were.

“He was a sensitive observer and a rigorous and methodical analyst who had an almost unerring eye for the significant in the art of Zimbabwe. The features he isolated and defined are indeed the most significant in the art – the oval designs, the fields of flecks, the association with trees, the distended and recumbent figures, the floating figures and those with pointed muzzles and large ears.

“His insights into the essential nature of the art, its basis in the expression of concepts derived from belief and from the mind, and in a precise vocabulary of visual forms, remain valid and must form the basis for understanding.”

Petro Keene notes in her dissertation, that as wrong as Frobenius was on aspects of the art, such as its supposed foreign authorship, he was correct on others, being one of the first to draw on ethnological studies such as that of linguists Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, who spent more than a decade in the late 1800’s recording /Xam mythology, to help understand the art.

“It was only decades later that these important areas of research led to a breakthrough [by David Lewis-Williams] in an understanding of southern African rock art.”

Notable too, is that Frobenius was one of the first to warn that this priceless rock art legacy was under threat.

“The South African rock paintings are the richest in the world, both as regards style and individual or groups of paintings,” he wrote. “Unfortunately one must add that this may soon be a thing of the past; most of the paintings are in great danger,” Frobenius wrote in Erythraa, 1931.

“Where they are on the sharply overhanging walls of ‘caves’ or in cave-like niches, these are frequently used today to shelter cattle from the rain, for hours or days at a time. In several places, the animals’ backs and horns have rubbed the paintings away or completely destroyed them. Elsewhere the damage has been done by smoke from fires, which has corroded the paintings even more seriously . . .”

*This article was amended on 10 January 2023 to remove an incorrect quote