Primitivism in Art
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Parisian avant-garde adopted archaic forms of expression partly dating back as far as the Bronze Age and deriving from non-European cultures, breaking with the academic pictorial tradition of natural illusionism. They had been brought to Paris through colonialism.
It was the age of the Belle Époque, the fin de siècle. France as the world’s second largest colonial power primarily concentrated its colonial policy on West Africa, the Maghreb, and Indochina. Once the country had recovered from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, numerous expeditions shipped artifacts back to Paris from the colonies on a large scale, while the indigenous population was systematically robbed of its art.
On the showgrounds of the Universal Exhibitions of 1867 and 1889 in Paris, the life of foreign civilizations was reenacted with original African villages, Bedouin tents, and Arabian coffeehouses.
Female island idol of the Louros type, early Cycladic, 2800–2700 BCE© Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Hans-Peter Klut / Elke Estel
Female island idol of the Louros type, early Cycladic, 2800–2700 BCE
In line with the state of knowledge at the time, the understanding of the “primitive” was based on the assumption that the artists, similar to Byzantine icon painters or practitioners of European folk art, followed century-old archaic traditions. The temples of the Angkor area, covered by tropical forests, were thought to date back to ancient times and compared to the Temple of Solomon, while African sculpture was compared to the aestheticism of ancient Egypt. The “primitive” referred to the very roots of art. The debate about primordial man was informed by colonial propaganda, the moral concepts of the church, and a narrative of the evolution: from alleged libertine sexuality to the family; from alleged savagery to civilization; from the so-called primitive matriarchate and fertility cult to the Occident’s patriarchal society.
A disturbing chaos was perceived in the forms of African and Polynesian art. Unlike academic painting’s concept of art for art’s sake, however, these were ceremonial objects endowed with functions: masks of wild animals were believed to lend one the vital force of animals; supposedly “ugly” and occasionally fragmented portrait masks were meant to be terrifying.
In French art, the climate of a lengthy revolution against academic conventions and illusionistic Salon painting developed, springing from a critique of civilization—also referred to as the period of “Décadence.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1905, shortly after the French Republic had passed the law on the separation of the state and the church, the Parisian avant-garde discovered archaic non-European art. André Derain later referred to their enthusiasm as “archaiomania,” an obsession with all things archaic. Based on the means of expression of archaic and non-European cultures, they revolutionized painting and sculpture. André Derain, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Modigliani established a plain and powerful aestheticism that was independent of history and the canon of Occidental art.
Paul Gauguin mourned the loss of paradise with his pictures painted on site, in Tahiti; the Fauvists, Picasso, Derain, Brancusi, and Modigliani drew their inspirations from the masks and sculptures they studied as autodidacts at the Trocadéro Museum of Ethnography, at the Louvre, and in galleries. Picasso put in a nutshell what artists had in mind when creating “primitive” art: “Painting is not an aesthetic undertaking, it is a form of magic.”
André Derain | The Couple (The Twins; Man and Woman), 1907© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021/Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, Photo: Bernd Kirtz
Constantin Brancusi | The First Step, ca. 1914© David Grob Collection
Anthropomorphic mask, 19th century© Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrick Gries / Bruno Descoings (previously in the collection of Paul Guillaume)
Constantin Brancusi | Mademoiselle Pogany I, 1913© Collection of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Caryatid stool, Luba, Katanga, Shaba, Congo, before 1919© Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Photo: J.-M. Vandyck, RMCA Tervuren
Pablo Picasso | Caryatid, 1908© Succession Picasso / RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau / Bildrecht, Vienna 2021
Reliquary head, Fang, 19th century© Sainsbury Center, University of East Anglia, Norwich (previously in the collection of Paul Guillaume)
Female Head, Angkor, Bayon style, end of the 12th – beginning of the 13th century© Musée Guimet – Musée national des arts asiatiques, Paris. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (MNAAG, Paris) / Michel Urtado
Amedeo Modigliani | Head, 1913© bpk / Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe
What in the first pertinent art theoretical writings after World War I was still referred to as art nègre, was paraphrased using the term “primitive” from the late 1920s on. It was this free art inspired by non-European objects that was condemned by the Nazis and derided as “degenerate.” For the exhibition taking place in Munich during the 1972 Olympic Games, the organizers tried to find a non-discriminatory title: “World Cultures and Modern Art: The Encounter of 19th- and 20th-Century European Art and Music with Asia, Africa, Oceania, Afro- and Indo-America.” What is generally meant is an authentic and original aestheticism that puts into question the values of a “civilized” art. Alternative neologisms such as tribal art, non-European art, and outsider art or arts lointains (Felix Féneon) and arts premiers, which came up in the discourse accompanying the search for an adequate expression, describe the phenomenon only insufficiently, for it is neither an epoch, nor a style, nor a technique.
“Painting is not an aesthetic undertaking, it is a form of magic.”