Primitivism Collage
Started: 1890
Ended: c.1945
Primitive sculpture has never been surpassed.
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Pablo Picasso Signature
Its absolute primitiveness, its intense, often grotesque expressions of strength and life in the very simplest form.
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Emil Nolde Signature
We must be brave and turn our backs upon almost everything that until now good Europeans like ourselves thought precious and indispensable. Our ideas and our ideals must be clad in hair shirts, they must be fed on locusts and a wild honey, not on history, it we are ever to escape from the exhaustion of our European bad taste.
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Franz Marc Signature
One does not seem to suspect in Europe that there exists, among the Maoris of New Zealand, as with the Marquesans, a very advanced decorative art.
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Paul Gauguin Signature
I am striving for, strength and inwardness.
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Emil Nolde Signature
When I am in these hothouses and see the strange plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am entering a dream
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Henri Rousseau Signature
An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc.
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Henry Matisse
To value as art what is now a ruin; to locate what one lacks in what one has destroyed: more is at work here than compensation. Like fetishism, primitivism is a system of multiple beliefs, an imaginary resolution of a real contradiction: repression of the fact that a breakthrough in our art, indeed a regeneration of our culture, is based in part on the breakup and decay of other societies, that the modernist discovery of the primitive is not only in part its oblivion but its death. And the final contradiction or aporia is this: no anthropological remorse, aesthetic elevation or redemptive exhibition can correct or compensate this loss because they are all implicated in it.
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Hal Foster - The Primitive Unconscious of Modern Art

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.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Key Artists

Overview of Primitivism

Primitivism Image

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

Paul Gauguin: Vision After the Sermon (1888)

Vision After the Sermon (1888)

Artist: Paul Gauguin

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.

Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

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.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Bathers in a Room (1909, repainted 1920)

Bathers in a Room (1909, repainted 1920)

Artist: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

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.

Useful Resources on Primitivism

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Primitivism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments Ideas added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 28 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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