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The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) by Henri Rousseau
The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) by Henri Rousseau

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Primitivism is a Western art movement that borrows visual forms from non-Western or prehistoric peoples, such as Paul Gauguin's inclusion of Tahitian motifs in paintings and ceramics. Borrowings from primitive art has been important to the development of modern art.

The term "primitivism" is often applied to other professional painters working in the style of naïve or folk art like Henri Rousseau, Paul Klee and others.



back to nature

Whether and to what extent we should simplify our lives and get "back to basics" is a debate that has been going on since the invention of writing. In antiquity the superiority of the simple life was expressed in the Myth of the Golden Age, depicted in the genre of European poetry and visual art known as the Pastoral. The debate about the merits and demerits of a simple, versus a complex life, gained new urgency with the European encounter with hitherto unknown peoples after the exploration of the Americas and Pacific Islands by Columbus and others.

During the Enlightenment, arguments about the supposed superiority of indigenous peoples were chiefly used as a rhetorical device to criticize aspects of European society. In the realm of aesthetics, however, the eccentric Italian philosopher, historian and jurist Giambattista Vico (1688–1744) was the first to argue that primitive man was closer to the sources of poetry and artistic inspiration than "civilized" or modern man. Vico was writing in the context of the celebrated contemporary debate, known as the great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, over which was better, the classic poetry of Homer and the Bible or modern vernacular literature.

In the 18th century, the German scholar Friedrich August Wolf identified the distinctive character of oral literature and located Homer and the Bible as examples of folk or oral tradition (Prolegomena to Homer, 1795). Vico and Wolf's ideas were developed further in the beginning of the 19th century by Herder. Nevertheless, although influential in literature, such arguments were known to a relatively small number of educated people and their impact was limited or non-existent in the sphere of visual arts.

The 19th century saw for the first time the emergence of historicism, or the ability to judge different eras by their own context and criteria. A result of this new historicism, new schools of visual art arose that aspired to hitherto unprecedented levels of historical fidelity in setting and costumes. Neoclassicism in visual art and architecture was one result. Another such "historicist" movement in art was the Nazarene movement in Germany, which took inspiration from the so-called Italian "primitive" school of devotional paintings (i.e., before the age of Raphael and the discovery of oil painting).

Where conventional academic painting (after Raphael) used dark glazes, highly selective, idealized forms, and rigorous suppression of details, the Nazarenes used clear outlines, bright colors, and paid meticulous attention to detail. This German school had its English counterpart in the Pre-Raphaelites, who were primarily inspired by the critical writings of John Ruskin, who admired the painters before Raphael (such as Botticelli) and who also recommended painting outdoors, hitherto unheard of.

Two phenomena shook the world of visual art in the mid-19th century. The first was the invention of the photographic camera, which arguably spurred the development of Realism in art. The second was a discovery in the world of mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry, which overthrew the 2000 year-old seeming absolutes of Euclidean geometry and threw into question conventional Renaissance perspective by suggesting the possible existence of multiple dimensional worlds and perspectives in which things might look very different.

The discovery of possible new dimensions had the opposite effect of photography and worked to counteract realism. Artists, mathematicians, and intellectuals now realized that there were other ways of seeing things beyond what they had been taught in Beaux Arts Schools of Academic painting, which prescribed a rigid curriculum based on the copying of idealized classical forms and held up Renaissance perspective painting as the culmination of civilization and knowledge. Beaux Arts academies held than non-Western and tribal peoples had had no art or only inferior art.

In rebellion against this dogmatic approach, artists began to try to depict realities that might exist in a world beyond the limitations of the three dimensional world of conventional representation mediated by classical sculpture. They looked to Japanese and Chinese art, which was learned and sophisticated and did not employ Renaissance one-point perspective. Non-euclidean perspective (Cubism) and tribal art fascinated Western European artists who saw them as portraying the reality of the spirit world. They also looked to the art of untrained painters and to children's art, which they believed depicted interior emotional realities that had been ignored in conventional, cook-book-style academic painting.

Tribal and other non-European art also appealed to those who were unhappy with the repressive aspects of European culture, as pastoral art had done for millennia. Imitations of tribal or archaic art also fall into the category of nineteenth-century "historicism", as these imitations strive to reproduce this art in an authentic manner. Actual examples of tribal, archaic, and folk art were prized by both creative artists and collectors.

Paul Gauguin's paintings, Pablo Picasso's paintings and Igor Stravinsky's music are sometimes cited as examples of primitivism in art. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, is "primitivist" in that its programmatic subject is a pagan rite: a human sacrifice in pre-Christian Russia. It uses dissonance and loud, repetitive rhythms to depict "Dionysian" modernism, i.e., abandonment of inhibition (restraint standing for civilization). Nevertheless, Stravinsky was a master of learned classical tradition and worked within its bounds. In his later work he adopted a more "Apollonian" neoclassicism, to use Nietzsche's terminology, although in his use of serialism he still rejects 19th-century convention. In modern visual art, Picasso's work is also understood as rejecting Beaux Arts artistic expectations and expressing primal impulses, whether he worked in a cubist, neo-classical, or tribal-art-influenced vein.

The Origins of Primitivism in Western Art of the Modern Age

Primitivism gained a new impetus from anxieties about technological innovation but above all from the “Age of Discovery”, which introduced the West to previously unknown peoples and simultaneously opened doors for colonialism and the direct scrutiny of radically different peoples. As the European Enlightenment and the collapse of feudalism ensued, philosophers started questioning many fixed medieval assumptions about the nature of man, the position of man in society, and the dogmatic Catholic cosmology. They began questioning the nature of humanity and its origins through a discussion of the natural man, which had intrigued theologians since the European encounter with the New World.

From the 18th century onwards, Western thinkers and artists continued to engage in the retrospective tradition, that is "the conscious search in history for a more deeply expressive, permanent human nature and cultural structure in contrast to the nascent modern realities". Their search led them to parts of the world that they constituted as representing alternatives to modern civilization.

Up until the 19th century only very few explorers were able to travel and bring back objects. But the 19th-century invention of the steamboat made indigenous cultures of European colonies and their artifacts more accessible to the direct observation and analysis of art lovers. European-trained artists and connoisseurs prized in these objects the stylistic traits they defined as attributes of primitive expression: absence of linear perspective, simple outlines, presence of symbolic signs such as the hieroglyph, emotive distortions of the figure, and the energetic rhythms resulting from the use of repetitive ornamental pattern. These energizing stylistic attributes, present in the visual arts of Africa, Oceana, and the Indians of the Americas, could also be found in the archaic and peasant art of Europe and Asia, as well.

Paul Gauguin

Painter Paul Gauguin sought to escape European civilization and technology when he took up residence in the French colony of Tahiti and adopted a simple lifestyle which he felt to be more natural than the one he had left behind.

Gauguin’s search for the primitive was manifestly a desire for more sexual freedom than was available in 19th-century Europe, and this is reflected in such paintings asThe Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch (1892), Parau na te Varua ino (1892), Anna the Javanerin (1893), Te Tamari No Atua (1896), and Cruel Tales (1902), among others. Gauguin's view of Tahiti as an earthly Arcadia of free love, gentle climate, and naked nymphs is quite similar, if not identical, to that of the classical pastoral of academic art, which has shaped Western perceptions of rural life for millennia. One of his Tahitian paintings is even called "Tahitian Pastoral" and another "Where Do We Come From".

In this way Gauguin extended the academic pastoral tradition of Beaux Arts schools which had hitherto been based solely on idealized European figures copied from Ancient Greek sculpture to include non-European models.

Gauguin also believed he was celebrating Tahitian society and defending the Tahitians against European colonialism. Feminist postcolonial critics, however, decry the fact that Gauguin took adolescent mistresses, one of them as young as thirteen. They remind us that like many men of his time and later, Gauguin saw freedom, especially sexual freedom, strictly from the male point of view. Using Gauguin as an example of what is "wrong" with primitivism, these critics conclude that, in their view, elements of primitivism include the “dense interweave of racial and sexual fantasies and power both colonial and patriarchal”. To these critics, primitivism such as Gauguin's demonstrates fantasies about racial and sexual difference in "an effort to essentialize notions of primitiveness” with “Otherness”. Thus, they contend, primitivism becomes a process analogous to Exoticism and Orientalism, as conceived by Edward Said, in which European imperialism and monolithic and degrading views of the "East" by the "West" defined colonized peoples and their cultures. In other words, although Gauguin believed he was celebrating and defending the Tahitians, to the extent that he allegedly saw them as "other", he participated in the outlook of his time and nationality to a greater extent than he realized and in the guise of celebrating them victimized the Tahitians all over again.

Pablo Picasso

During the early 20th century, the European cultural elite were discovering African, Micronesian and Native American art. Artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were intrigued and inspired by the stark power and simplicity of styles of those cultures. Around 1906, Picasso, Matisse, André Derain and other artists in Paris had acquired an interest in primitivism, Iberian sculpture, African art and tribal masks, in part because of the compelling works of Paul Gauguin that had suddenly achieved center stage in the avant-garde circles of Paris. Gauguin's powerful posthumous retrospective exhibitions at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1903 and an even larger one in 1906 had a stunning and powerful influence on Picasso's paintings.

From 1906 to 1909 Pablo Picasso's paintings explored the impact of Primitivism through Iberian sculpture, African sculpture, African traditional masks, and other historical works including the Mannerist paintings of El Greco, resulting in his masterpiece Les Demoiselles D'Avignon and the invention of Cubism.

See also

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