Primitivism - History and Concepts
Beginnings 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.
“The Noble Savage” Emerges
The interest in the Primitive was prevalent in modern European culture and defined a new tendency in both philosophical and cultural realms. During the 18th century, philosophers explored the dichotomies between the rational and the irrational, the natural and the artificial, forcing individuals to question their own places in the civilized world. With increasing urbanization and the beginnings of industrialization, Enlightenment authors Johann Gottfried Herder and Jean-Jacques Rousseau promoted the idea of the primitive way of life, detaching from technological and cultural developments that allowed for a more organic rhythm and equilibrium with nature. This desire for a new simplicity of life was further connected with the idea of "arcadia," thus establishing the primitive as a sort of lost paradise.
The idea of the "noble savage" circulated widely during this era, which many saw to be a decline from earlier times; society had become corrupt, led by men defined by greed, egoism, and desire for power. The primitive man, who is supposedly in closer contact with nature, was understood to be superior in conduct and goodness to the modern, corrupt man.
As modernity set in, people, and especially artists, began to react against the urbanization and industrialization they experienced. Artists began exploring other civilizations and cultures to counter the Western traditions they thought constricting and moribund.
Primitivism and Art at the End of the 19th Century
Sculptures and masks from Africa as well as Oceania and objects from Native American tribes made their ways into museums across Paris, London, and Berlin and were exhibited in world fairs for the larger public to see. In 1878, the Trocadéro Museum, Paris' first ethnological museum, opened. The museum housed a collection of artifacts from across the globe that were thought to be vanishing in the wake of colonization. These artifacts, now divorced from their original cultural contexts, were not considered art in the European sense, but for precisely this reason, many artists, who were searching for qualities and attributes that opposed the classical, rigorous Academic traditions, turned to these objects for inspiration and confirmation of their own aesthetic experiments.
Many trace this tendency toward Primitivism to Paul Gauguin, who employed flattened decorative effects and stylized forms that were similar to the objects he encountered in museums and on his travels in Tahiti and Hawaii as well as closer to home in Brittany, the rural area of France that had become popular with artists in the mid-19th century. The local customs and religious rituals recalled an earlier time for which the artists and other urban dwellers were nostalgic. Gauguin's fascination with these other cultures prompted him to further push his aesthetic explorations in even more radical directions. Not happy with the observational approach of the Impressionists, Gauguin and other Symbolists wanted to convey ideas and emotions through line and color, manipulating rural and exotic subject matter.
The Adoption of Primitive Art in the Early 20th Century
Diverse artists, including Henri Matisse and the Fauves, Edvard Munch and James Ensor, along with a range of German Expressionists, discovered in Primitive artifacts a more basic language of form that was more in line with expressing the emerging modern experience than the norms of the national academies.
In 1906, Matisse bought a small African sculpture, now identified as a Vili figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at a small shop on his way to visit Gertrude Stein's home and thus introduced his friend and rival Picasso to African art. After this initial contact, Picasso began visiting the Trocadéro, becoming fascinated with the African Fang masks in particular. His appropriation and exploration of the formal aspects of Primitivism aimed to reshape art altogether. Picasso's early Cubist work Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907) is perhaps one of the most famous examples of modern art's appropriation of primitive art forms, even though Picasso later dismissed the influence.
Amadeo Modigliani was inspired primarily by the masks of the Baule peoples of the Ivory Coast, making sketches of their heart shaped forms and narrowed chins, and his studio neighbor Constantin Brancusi saw affinities between the wooden masks and the sculptures of his native Romania. These simplified forms became the basis for his radically reduced sculptures.
In Germany, Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke groups also embraced Primitive art. Kandinsky and Franz Marc saw African sculpture at the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin as early as 1907. Kandinsky, instead of being inspired by specific forms, embarked on a path to assimilate all artistic expressions. As art historian Donald Gordon explains, "For the Blaue Reiter, 'the primitive' could just as readily signify Archaic court art, folk art, or children's art as it could tribal art." The artists of Die Brücke, on the other hand, embraced Primitivism whole heartedly, not just borrowing artistic forms, but creating a whole lifestyle around ideas they associated with Primitivism. Again, Donald Gordon describes, "In city studios artists re-created the imagined environment of tribal life. And in the countryside the life style of peasants was appreciated for its own sake. Some artists even 'went native' during summer vacations, living in the nude with their models and practicing a sexual camaraderie that paraphrased - so they thought - the supposed instinctual freedom of tribal life."
American artists like Max Weber and Marius de Zayas traveled to Europe and saw first-hand the influence of tribal art on the avant-garde. Weber himself began collecting African sculpture and sometimes included pieces in still life paintings, and de Zayas brought back African sculptures for Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallerist. Stieglitz greatly contributed to the early diffusion of Primitivism in America by showing the works of Matisse, Brancusi, and Picasso side by side with African sculpture and Mexican pottery.
In the 1920s and 1930s, philosopher Alain Locke and others emphasized the importance of African American artists using African art as inspiration. Instead of appropriating the forms without consideration for their original contexts, artists of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Aaron Douglas and Beauford Delaney, drew from African art and history and combined their explorations with modern avant-garde forms to create a new vision of and for modern African Americans
Later, Surrealist artists also grew fascinated with primitive art, although they preferred Oceanic and Native American art over African art. As art historian Jack Flam argues, the Surrealists were "more interested in the invisible forces contained within primitive art than they were in its formal innovations." They thought these primitive peoples were more in touch with the spiritual world and offered an example to escape from Western materialism and tap into a universal language via the subconscious.
Goldwater's Analysis of the Romantic, Emotional, Intellectual, and Subconscious Primitivisms
American art historian Robert Goldwater wrote Primitivism in Modern Art in 1938, the first study of how modern artists borrowed from primitive art. Goldwater explained, "The primitive is conceived and reached by stripping off later layers of unessential accretion in order to reveal a pure homogeneous core." In this sense, the primitive is equal to a "simple uniformity," expressed directly with the material without preparatory drawings or musings. Within this basic definition, Goldwater elaborated various types of primitivism within modern art, depending on how the artists approached primitive art.
He described the works of Paul Gauguin and the Fauves, especially of Henry Matisse, as "romantic primitivism." Goldwater argued that it was the external forms of primitive cultures that influenced the styles of Matisse and others. The artists reduced their subjects to their essential, external forms, and often they portrayed the nude human figure in harmony with the landscape or the environment, suggesting a sense of natural balance that countered industrialized and urban society.
Goldwater identified the German Expressionists, especially the works of Kirchner and Die Brucke group, with "emotional primitivism," "an interiorization of the conception of the primitive." After viewing Gauguin's exhibition in Dresden in 1910 and their own experience of tribal arts, these artists focused on the understanding and revealing of primal and extreme emotions they perceived in primitive art forms.
Goldwater defined an "intellectual primitivism," mostly associated with Picasso, that seemed to sustain a more rational and formal approach. For Picasso, primitive art was about formal dialogues, geometric languages, and the intangible aspects embodied in the objects.
Finally, Goldwater located a "subconscious primitivism" in the art mostly composed from 1920 onwards, specially defined by the Dadaists and by the Surrealists. The primitive seemed to allow subconscious impulses to drive the creative process freely, greatly inspiring the Surrealists who began to explore an "automatic" approach to the creative process.
Primitivism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Primitivism and Orientalism
During the 19th century, with increased travel and Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, European artists became fascinated with the Eastern cultures of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. There was a growing market for objects, including textiles, pottery, and fashion from these countries, and artists such as Delacroix and Ingres depicted exotic, and often eroticized, scenes of harem women and everyday life. Using vibrant colors, the artists rendered naturalistic scenes that were often imaginary or a composite of various elements and that perpetuated Western stereotypes of the East. Orientalism, rooted in imperialist attitudes, often depicts the non-European Other as uncivilized or irrational, thus justifying European involvement in that culture.
These early fascinations with Eastern cultures run parallel with Primitivism. Both are premised on a sense of European superiority, and both are constructed with complex, and often contradictory, techniques of appropriation and representation. While Orientalism's fascination is with developed countries, Primitivism is a fascination with early stages of cultural development. Primitivism, in this sense, involves a return to a, presumably, more perfect state of existence with nature.
Primitivism, Child Art, and Naïve Art
In many ways, the interest in Primitivism dovetailed with the interest in child art. Without any formal training, the art made by children does not conform to pre-established rules and traditional conventions. At the turn of the 20th century, artists and critics likened children's drawings to the art of primitive peoples in their innocence and instinctiveness. Franz Cizek, a Viennese artist, claimed in 1885 that children created art with an intrinsic aesthetic value, and he promoted free expression and the use of imagination in teaching children. For artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, and Klee, who were exploring abstract forms devoid of narrative function, children's drawings were exemplary of a process of creation that was not overly intellectualized and seemingly more direct. A process that they themselves were trying to develop.
In addition to rethinking the creative process, children's drawings also appealed to artists in their way of perceiving the world. Marc Chagall's whimsical forms and compositions were influenced by children's art, and he created a sort of fairytale world using relatable and intuitive symbols.
It was in this context that Naïve art, sometimes called folk or outsider art, also became an important source for artists. For the most part Naïve artists were self-taught and, like primitive and child artists, created images outside of the mainstream European traditions. Often Naïve art possesses a childlike simplicity of perception and technique. Henri Rousseau, a toll collector for much of his adult life, was the most famous Naïve artist of the time, garnering the admiration of Paul Signac, Kandinsky, and Franz Marc among others. His dream-like scenes of jungles and landscapes evoked a sense of wonder and strangeness associated with a childlike perspective. Naïve artists were often referred to as "modern primitives," emphasizing the intellectual underpinning of how people thought of this art.
Primitivism and Art Brut
The theoretical underpinnings of Art Brut, or raw art, owe much to the way artists and critics thought of primitive and naïve art. Coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet in 1948 to refer to his own creations and to a series of other art forms he was collecting, the term aimed to capture the intuitive, rough, expressive, and often grotesque visual language that differed significantly from traditional and academic norms. Art Brut also embraced the art of the mentally ill, art made by prisoners, and graffiti in an effort to subvert high art and to reach the common person. In particular, Art Brut was a response to the brutality and horrors of post-World War II Europe. With cities across Europe bombed to rubble and tens of millions of people dead by wartime atrocities, fighting, and famine, the suffering of those who survived was palpable and raw, and Art Brut sought to find a language to express that pain.
Dubuffet and Picasso collected the work of Scottish painter Scottie Wilson, which Dubuffet saw as exemplary of Art Brut. His work, greatly admired during the 1960s and the 70s, used primitive symbols and naturalistic themes. His work became widely recognized at the forefront of Outsider art. The term 'outsider' was initially used by art critic Roger Cardinal, and eventually became synonymous with Art Brut, linking it with Child art, Naïve art and Primitivism.
Later Developments - After Primitivism
The MoMA Exhibition of 1984
The Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a major exhibition entitled Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. The show featured works from leading European and American artists, stretching back to Gauguin and forward to the Abstract Expressionists and more contemporary artists. The paintings and sculptures were exhibited next to the African, Oceanic, and indigenous pieces that bore similar formal properties.
While the curators intended the exhibition to be a straightforward consideration of which modern artists saw which African and tribal artifacts when, the exhibition instead set off a flurry of serious critiques. Primarily, the critics of the show felt the curators used the unattributed and decontextualized arts of the tribal cultures as simple fodder for modern artists instead of works of art in their own right. Art historian Monica Blackmun Visonà summarized the critiques by explaining that the most egregious implications of the MoMA show as that only the modern European artists were clever or capable enough to borrow ideas and form from other cultures, thus denigrating the artists of Africa, Oceania, and other places.
One of the most outspoken critics of the show, Thomas McEvilley, pointed out that the curators tightly controlled the viewer's experience of the selected works through arrangement and accompanying wall texts so that the modern European artists were seen as creative and original and not mere appropriators of other cultures' art.
Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art
In 1989, the Dallas Museum of Art attempted to rectify some of the controversies of MoMA's Primitivism show with the exhibition "Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art." Focusing on trained and self-taught artists from the United States, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, the show explored the various ways in which these artists embraced and responded to African art in terms of legacy, reclamation, private visions, and festival and ritual, the four broad categories in to which the art was divided. Additionally the exhibition underscored the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as individual trips to Africa in the propagation of African tribal arts among African American artists. With this exhibition the full depth and range of African art was brought into relationship with modern and contemporary artists who were doing more than appropriating formal vocabularies.
Magiciens de la Terre
Also in 1989, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris launched an ambitious exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth), as a postmodern response to MoMA's 1984 exhibition. Attempting to break the cycle of Eurocentric views of non-European art, only half of the artists exhibited were artists from Western countries while the other half were from non-Western countries. The curator Jean-Hubert Martin set out to put artists from the centers and the margins on equal footing, thus confronting previous assumptions of colonial mentality.
This show, too, was met with criticism. Many complained that it was too romantic and that "magician" had implications of irrationality and otherworldliness . Others lamented the lack of acknowledgment of the political institutions and attitudes that perpetuated colonial stereotypes for so long. As Thomas McEvilley wrote, "The Magiciens show hoped to be able to acknowledge that value judgments are not innate or universal but conditioned by social context...," but in the end only relativized the problem.
Primitivism and Contemporary Art
In his essay on contemporary art for the 1984 MoMA exhibition, Kurt Varnedoe suggested that the legacy of early-20th-century Primitivism lived on in works by the Earthworks artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer in addition to Process artists like Eva Hesse. He argued that while they were not interested in borrowing forms from tribal arts, they were interested in probing forms that suggested "both germinal origins and irreducible essences of experience." To counter Varnedoe, art critic Thomas McEvilley thought that if one were to talk of contemporary Primitivism, it would make sense to look to the constructions made by Michael Orr and Michael Tracy that evoked shamanic and fetishistic objects made of human hair, blood, bone, semen and other "taboo materials" as well as performances by Hermann Nitsch, Paul McCarthy, Kim Jones, and Gina Pane that explore the human body, spirituality, and ritual in ways that, in the words of curator Kurt Varnedoe, "bring up 'uncomfortable questions about the ultimate content of all ideals that propose escape from the Western tradition into a Primitive state.'"
The 1980s Neo-Expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat newly mined the forms of Primitivism and Naïve art to explore his connections to African history and to confront issues of race and class in the art world and society at large. Appropriating the appropriators, Basquiat called attention to the ways in which African and African-American history were whitewashed.
Contemporary artists of the African Diaspora have questioned historical and contemporary migrations from the African continent. Artists such as Wangechi Mutu, Chris Ofili, El Anatsui, and Yinka Shonibare explore the impacts of Western art on various African traditions in addition to ideas of hybridity, travel, environmental waste, and appropriation to turn earlier ideas of Primitivism on their head.
With the late 20th century exhibition controversies and attempts to rectify the understanding of Primitive art, late 19th- and early 20th-century concepts of Primitivism were exposed to be problematic, but artists continue to question the results and implications of the rampant industrialization and technologization of Western society that have left people feeling unconnected and isolated. Recuperating the contexts of African and non-European arts and plumbing their histories and connections have created new opportunities to reassess and think through 20th century Primitivism.