Summary of Primitivism
A complex and, at times, contradictory tendency, "Primitivism" ushered in a new way of looking at and appropriating the forms of so-called "primitive" art and played a large role in radically changing the direction of European and American painting at the turn of the 20th century. Primitivism was not so much an artistic movement but a trend among diverse modern artists in many countries who were looking to the past and to distant cultures for new artistic sources in the face of increasing industrialization and urbanization. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, the influx of tribal arts of Africa, Oceania, and Native Americans into Europe offered artists a new visual vocabulary to explore. In many ways, Primitivism provided artists a way to critique the stagnant traditions of European painting. Primitive art's use of simpler shapes and more abstract figures differed significantly from traditional European styles of representation, and modern artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse used these forms to revolutionize painting and sculpture.
While on its face, Primitivism was an attempt to embrace and raise the status of tribal arts, it was itself an inherently Eurocentric enterprise and, in many cases, was biased against the very arts it appropriated. Throughout the later 20th century and into the 21st, artists and scholars have attempted to historically contextualize Primitivism and expose its shortcomings as a framework for understanding art from non-European cultures.
- As understood by the modern artists, primitive art not only provided new aesthetic forms, it also offered a deeper and more complex emotional and spiritual model that the artists employed to critique the modernization of Western society. Tinged with nostalgia, Primitivism sought connections to a pre-industrialized past in which people were more connected with nature and each other.
- The lasting legacy of Primitivism and the long-enduring assumptions about the inferior quality of art from colonized areas has made it difficult to incorporate African, Aboriginal, and Native American artists into art historical narratives, but attempts at creating a global art history are underway.
- Contemporary responses to Primitivism, often by African American artists and others with a connection to various countries in Africa, are an attempt not to simply appropriate the forms of tribal arts but to explore, recuperate, and reimagine the fullness of African heritage in contemporary society.
Overview of Primitivism
The term "primitive" derives from the Latin, meaning "the first or earliest of its kind." Travelers to the South Seas and Africa brought back tales of new cultures that little resembled what Europeans knew or valued. Europeans admired these new cultures for their exoticism but also looked down upon them, understanding them to be essentially "uncivilized" in their manners and customs. As art historians Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten point out, the label "primitive" does not exist without the idea of the "civilized." The two terms are necessarily relational and create an ideological construct that renders what is primitive lacking in sophistication, but the interest in the primitive also pointed to a nostalgic tendency to prioritize a pre-industrial past in which one's relation to nature was primary.
Important Art and Artists of Primitivism
Gauguin presents the viewer with a visionary scene: women in white bonnets and dark dresses, some of whom have their eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer, stand with their backs to the viewer witnessing a scene from the Old Testament, Jacob wrestling with an angel. Gauguin sets the spiritual vision on a field of red to imply it is not happening in the physical world. The flattened space and simplified forms speak to the new visual language that Gauguin and other Symbolists were developing at the time.
Before Gauguin's infamous South Pacific travels and relocation to Tahiti to escape the suffocating norms of civilized, modern Paris, he and others found relief in Brittany, a rural area of Northwest France famed among artists for the local customs and rituals associated with peasant life. As art historian Gill Perry points out, Gauguin's primitivizing tendencies were well developed in the pictures he painted in Pont-Aven in the late 1880s. Gauguin wrote to a fellow artist about his stay in Brittany, "I love Brittany. I find something savage, primitive here. When my clogs echo on this granite earth, I hear the dull, muffled powerful note that I am seeking in my painting." While overlooking the technological developments and the prevalence of tourists in the area, Gauguin found a supposedly untouched civilization where the peasants, in Perry's words, were "uncorrupted by the sophistication and materialism of the modern world."
Gauguin associated the simplified and flattened forms of his composition with what he thought was the primitiveness of the Breton people. Such abstractions corresponded not to observable reality but an inner meaning that had parallels with the Bretons' religious practices as well as Symbolist aesthetics. Gauguin would use these newly found forms and abstractions to represent similar aspects of the Tahitian culture that he later encountered, famously depicting Polynesian girls and women in eroticized poses in abstracted landscapes and interiors.
One of the most recognizable paintings of the 20th century, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon depicts five nude females in various poses. Four of the five women look out toward the viewer. Their bodies are angular and rather abstract, and three of them possess mask-like faces. While the setting is stylized, with hints of a curtain and a still life on a low table in the foreground, Picasso's numerous studies make it apparent that the women are in a brothel. In this groundbreaking pre-Cubist work, Picasso combines his studies of Primitive art, namely Iberian and African sculpture, with references to El Greco and Michelangelo to create a new synthesis that would have reverberations throughout the 20th century.
Much has been made of Picasso's appropriation of Primitive art. He already had an interest in the early art from the Iberian peninsula as well as Romanesque art, and around 1906, after a conversation with Henri Matisse and visits to the Trocadéro Museum, he began collecting African sculpture himself. In 1937, Picasso recalled an epiphany he had while visiting the Trocadéro in 1907. While he was put off by the smells and arrangement of the museum, Picasso remembered that when he saw the African sculptures and masks he realized, "The masks weren't like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things.. The Negroes' sculptures were intercessors.. Against everything; against unknown, threatening spirits.." Picasso borrowed the formal qualities of the African masks, such as ovoid shaped faces and angular and geometric facial features, but he also, according to art historian Jack Flam, took in the idea "that the process of making a work of art could be conceived as an integral part of its function." While Picasso was not well aware of the contexts and uses of these masks, he linked the ritualistic and magical properties he assumed they had to his own artistic process when he described Les Demoiselles as his "first canvas of exorcism." The exploration of Primitive art and the rethinking of the creative process set Picasso on the path to develop his analytic Cubist style in which form and space were integrated and Renaissance spatial illusionism was completely abandoned.
In this large-scale painting, Kirchner transposes the usual idyllic, outdoor site of traditional bathers into his studio, brightly colored and decorated with pseudo-Primitive artifacts and textiles. Tall, dark statues decorate the door jamb in the middle ground, and a boldly colored curtain separates two rooms on the left. In the roundels on the curtain, one can make out a seated king as well as an amorous couple. Kirchner was familiar with African and Oceanic sculptures he saw in the Dresden Anthropological-Ethnographical Museum. While the sculptures and curtain are vague and not specific, as art historian Gill Parry points out, the Primitive objects along with the garish colors, the distortions and angularity of the figures would have signaled a "direct" or "authentic" expression then associated with Primitive, or uncivilized, cultures.
In the 1906 Die Brücke manifesto, one reads, "With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all youth. As youth, we carry the future in us and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and of movement against the long-established older forces. We claim as our own everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity." Die Brücke's embrace of the Primitive declared their opposition to bourgeois values and the rapidly industrializing landscape and indicated their mediation between so-called Primitive thought and modern thought and dreams.