Primitivism and the Avant-Garde


In philosophical terms, Primitivism refers to the concept of restoring modern Western culture to its pristine and most natural state.  In art, the term ‘Primitivism’ is used as a label to classify the use of elements or forms that are considered primal, natural, tribal, exotic, spiritual and instinctive in the visual arts, primarily painting and sculpture.  That being said, an important distinction to understand is the difference between Primitivism and primitive art.  Generally, primitive art refers to the art of cultures ‘closer to nature’, such as ancient Egyptian, Persian, Indian, Javanese, Peruvian and Japanese cultures, and perhaps most notably, the tribal art of Africa and Oceania.  Primitivism, then, is the application of Western interpretations of the art of the primitive societies in art.

Primitivism emerged in art just after the turn of the twentieth century.  The earliest artist said to have ‘discovered’ primitive art was Maurice Vlaminck in 1906. Other artists such as Derain, Matisse, and Picasso began incorporating expressions of foreign cultures into their work around the same time.  In an attempt to define the concept of Primitivism, Robert Goldwater examined the history of the relations between Europe and distant nations, and determined that Primitivism was hardly discovered, rather than noticed.  He claimed that foreign cultural objects had been accessible through ethnographic museums since the end of the nineteenth century.  However, it was not until ethnologists revised their low opinion of primitive art that these objects became admired, transforming the European mentality.  It was at this time that artists began to formally study primitive objects and use aspects from it in their art.

Not only did the popularity of ethnographic museums, such as the Trocadéro in Paris, provide a large body of material for study, it allowed cultural exhibitions to travel, exposing artists to new material and providing communication within the art world.  However, it is important to note the bias within these exhibitions. In order to promote cultural products as art, the museums presented their collections by displaying those which they considered ‘fine’. These objects were judged as superior to the more ‘everyday’ ones of the exhibit based on their mysterious and unusual qualities.  As a result, this romanticized stereotype of primitive art added to the already-romantic colonial idea of the ‘other’ as exotic.  This misconception of primitive characteristics had a significant influence on the development of modern art.

Some stereotypical features of primitive art include grotesque, contorted, flat figures and compositions, exuberant colour, sexual or religious subject matter and fertile landscapes.  Although, the most significant traits for the avant-garde artists were its simplicity, expressiveness and a more instinctive nature in comparison with western art.  These values created alternative ways of making art in contrast to what they believed to be a stifled, dull tradition. By drawing upon primitive art, avant-garde artists could express their discontent with the convention of western art and promote new and exciting styles in art.  They could also communicate the idea of regenerating modern European civilisation with a simple, direct and innate way of living and making art free from history.

This primitive impulse can be classified into four aspects that developed in the twentieth century. Goldwater terms them “romantic”, “emotional”, “intellectual”, and “subconscious” Primitivism.

Romantic Primitivism is a category of Primitivism that Paul Gauguin is identified with.  His identification of the “barbarian” or “brave savage” in art and human nature is what defines this development.  The idea of the barbarian renders his passionate opposition to modern civilization and praise of the exotic.  The influence of primitive art on Gauguin’s work is most obvious in his sculpture and woodcut in which he incorporates the decorative motifs of the Marquesas.  Additionally, Gauguin’s technique of simplified and distorted figures combined with pagan and Christian imagery are so familiar that they became a symbol for primitivist art.

Next is the classification of emotional Primitivism that also celebrates the romantic attitude toward the primitive and exoticism but adds an aspect that is directly emotional.  The styles of emotional primitivism vary quite a bit, but it can be summarized as works which attempt to bring out the emotion behind the physical setting.  The Brücke are a German group of artists are an example of this type of Primitivism.  Blue Nudes by Otto Mueller, a member of The Brücke, is a painting that depicts primitive subject matter with emotional brushstrokes in the execution of the setting.

Intellectual Primitivism differs from romantic and emotional primitivism by how its relationship with primitive art is only through the borrowing of the object itself.  It is ignorant of emotions and iconography, as well as form and expression.  Picasso’s paintings are considered to be examples of intellectual Primitivism because they show signs of influence from African sculpture.  Specifically, the representation of the figures in Demoiselles D’Avignon attests to his knowledge of Ivory Coast masks and copper-covered guardian figures of the Bakota tribe.  One of the most recognized paintings that are associated with Primitivism, Demoiselles D’Avignon signifies the primitive impulse through angular and linear modeling that is reduced to flat planes.

The Primitivism of the subconscious is a category of art whose relation to the primitive is not obvious.  The works of surrealist painters, like Rousseau, resemble primitive art through their style and treatment of ornamental surface.  Looking at his painting, The Dream, for example, it is evident that the subject matter is not in itself aesthetic, it is the decorative aspect.  The flat, all-over motif or pattern that is present in this painting can also be found in primitive works.  Often his paintings, such as this one, feature a tropical, jungle atmosphere with overgrown foliage which conveys primitive influence, as well.

Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984) is an example of the use of primitivism in an art exhibition put on by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).  It brought out the ambiguity surrounding the term.  This show caused a storm of controversy. The purpose of the show was to highlight the influences of African and Oceanic tribal art on Western modernism by juxtaposing 150 tribal works with 200 modern pieces. However, tribal objects were selected by contemporary art standards in order to more visibly suggest the formal links between modern and tribal art.  In the catalogue of the exhibit, curators William S. Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe expressed that the usefulness of primitive art is as a form of self-criticism for modern artists. Art critic Thomas McEvilley criticized the show stating that its curators gave it and the catalogue an “ideological, value-saturated, and interpretive aspect” (McEvilley 1984, 337). For some critics, the works of the Western modern artists that were shown in the MOMA’s exhibition embodied the idea of what “primitive” defined for modernist and colonialist European artists. Interestingly, these modernist paintings subsequently influenced the art of the very cultures that were considered “primitive”.  For example, modern Latin American artists studying art in Europe were exposed to Primitivism and the art of the avant-garde.  This allowed Latin American artists to appropriate and employ a western construct of themselves in their own art, allowing them to “return the gaze”.

This influence on Latin American modern art is a testimony to the profound influence that Primitivism has had on the development of modern art in the twentieth century.  The European misconception of the art of so-called primitive cultures has lead to the creation of a Latin American identity that has in turn impacted modern art in various aspects and styles around the world.

Alexandra Jokinen

Image Source: © Jose Gomez-Sicre Photographic Archives
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This entry was posted in African art, appropriation, colonialism, Gauguin, modern art, Museum of Modern Art, Noble savage, Paris, Picasso, Primitivism, Surrealism, Trocadero, Wifredo Lam. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Primitivism and the Avant-Garde

  1. freudsbride says:

    Hi Susan, This is a great post! May I use it as a reading for my second year “Contemporary Issues” class at OCADU? Best, Catherine Heard


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