The Myth of ‘Primitive’

The Myth of ‘Primitive’ (with essay construction notes)

Analysing the importance of ‘primitive’ and ‘non-western’ sources for the development of Modernist Art and thinking, relating to the work of key artists who address this issue.


1. The Myth of ‘Primitive’

When addressing the role and influence of non-Western or so called ‘primitive’ art on Modernist Art one must wade through a fog of mythology surrounding concepts of genius, colonial appropriation, social Darwinism, stylistic formalism and even myths concerning modernism itself.  In fact it is very difficult to define what is actually ‘primitive’ considering that ‘the primitive’ is a Euro-centric concept that is tied up in colonial and philosophical tendencies embedded in a cultural system that is dependent on a premise of cohesive evolutionary superiority. The act of looking back through the fog of history to the beginnings of modernism to its demise into the post modern gives a false impression of cohesion and continuum and the peculiar idea that there were distinct movements and groups dedicated to a united cause.  However, on closer inspection ,as with all revisionism there is less cohesion than may first appear.  The artists who retreated into Brittany  seeking the local equivalent of Rousseau’s noble savage;  who travelled to the far reaches of the colonial empire looking for a more authentic ‘primitive’ such as Gauguin; the german Blue Reiter group who incorporated folk art into their work or the Brucke artists who looked to psychotic or child art for inspiration toward a greater inward expression,  all of their work is distinctly individual and their levels of appropriation of form and exploration of perceived non western or non academic subjects are all quite unique even within the broad compass of modernist art

This becomes even more evident when one looks at what has, at one time or another, been classified as primitive : Trecento Italian, Polynesian, Archaic Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Gothic, Egyptian, Ancient Roman, Etruscan, Byzantine, West African, Mesopotamian, pre historic….etc. The list goes on, and this is nowhere near a complete representation.  Also included in the cannon of primitive are the outsiders, children’s art and the art of the psychiatric patient, the so called, “primitive within.”  This association is of course dependent on the assumption that qualitatively the work of the outsider, so called ‘primitive’ and the non western artist is of course inferior in evolutionary terms to the so called ‘high art of the European cannon dating from the renaissance and maintained by the academy.  A point of view very much fabricated from the theories of “social Darwinism.”

As Goldwater points out in Primitism and modern art, “Darwinian theories,.., had strongly influenced the study of Primitive ornament; the development of art was treated as a part of natural evolution.”(Goldwater Primitivism in Modern Art pg. 25)  J.S. Newton in his work, The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism, goes as far as to attack the very science that was born from Darwins theories: Anthropology as a product of modernism, searches for earlier cohesion and totality and projects its own mythology of authenticity onto what it has often been inclined to perceive as an earlier and more original stage of human development.” (Pg 45)

All of this characterisation is of course heavily dependant on what is now seen as a completely outmoded point of view.  It is a perspective heavily influenced by the ignorance of 19th century colonial imperialism and the utopian attempts within the modernist movement to reclaim the autonomy of art. There is however another perspective concerning the primitive that attempts to transcend the colonial practice of cultural appropriation.  That is the view that the creative impulse of the ‘primitive’ as a source of origin and beginning is connected to what Kandinsky referred to as the ‘inner necessity’ in On the Spiritual in Art.  Norman Rosenthal  stresses that, “A work of art in the final analysis is made out of a primitive urge.” pg 84Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996). In light of this approach the artist’s journey into the perceived ‘primitive’ is seen as a spiritual retreat into the very core of the creative impulse.  It is seen as a ‘process of ‘working through’ with a ‘therapeutic intention and desire for cohesion.’

When we think of primitivism in art we see the stylistic and formal borrowings of moderns such as Picasso, Emile Nolde and Max Ernst from African, Oceanic and American Indian art. We also see the continuing emergence of what we perceive as ‘primitive’ in the colourful bed sheets of the outsider artist ‘John the painter‘ or in the unsettling landscapes of Anselm Kiefer these are only  two names amongst a lexicon of hundreds.  It is very difficult to understand or place ourselves in the mind set of any one of these 20th century artists, outsider or otherwise, and try to say why they were drawn toward so called ‘primitive’ and non western sources to support their creative process.  We can merely speculate, basing our conclusions on what we can glean from the historic and philosophical writings of their times, personal accounts and reported stories.  But what we can safely surmise is that non-western art or the so-called ‘primitive’ has had an extensive and profound influence on the development of Modernist art.   It is an influence that predates the stylistic borrowing at the beginning of the twentieth century and is imbedded in the revolutionary tendencies of Modernism, the colonial expansion of Europe and the missionary zeal of Euro-centric culture. It is an influence that continues well after the demise of modernism as a classified and cohesively sealed period according to Euro-centric art history.

2. The modernist revolt

Adopting the stylistic outward forms of so-called ‘primitive’ art can be seen as the final act of colonial appropriation of the colonised into the culture of the coloniser, but the artists who allowed their work to be influenced by or who ‘discovered’ the non western objects at the various ethnographic exhibitions that were appearing at the turn of the century and allowed them a certain stylistic infiltration was to further modernist art and drive it even further from perceptions of high art as maintained by the Salon and the Academy.  In Modernist art the Salon of the refuses could be seen as the first step in the revolt against classicism.  Art at the end of the 19th century was becoming a battle ground.  European culture was becoming ever increasingly militarised, cities were being redesigned with broad boulevards to accommodate marching soldiers, so that the armies that maintained and fought to expand the colonial empires could display their might to the adulating cries of a jingoist public. When describing modernism Brian Doherty points out in his work “Inside the white Cube:  “we see more clearly its laws of progress, its armature hammered out of idealist philosophy, its military metaphors of advance and conquest.”

Rising nationalism and the rise of strong left wing politics was dividing the people of Europe.  Modernist Art became politicised attacking the bourgeoisie attitudes of the late and early nineteenth century.  J. S Newton describes the influence of modernism and primitivism combined:

“The modern artist wanted to confront the restrictions of academic, aesthetic and moral convention.  The aim was to shock society and to challenge political and psychological repression.  The modern artist perceived in primitive society a magical, spiritual and all embracing art that had a cohesive and integrative function within the whole of tribal culture. This is why artists wished to deal with primitive themes such as sexuality. Paganism, taboo and so on, to restore the fundamental, original and magical power of art.” (pg33 Newton S.J.The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

Even the greatest mythological hero in modern art, Picasso,  claimed to be a communist.  A communist he may have been, though none of his work is expressly political in appearance. One of the greatest paintings of the modern cannon is his reaction to the bombing of Guernica in northern Spain during the Spanish civil war.  With the painting of ‘Guernica’ (1937) Picasso saw himself firing a warning shot across the bow of the rise of Fascism in Spain.  Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein can be seen as his first step in joining the modernist revolt and his complete rejection of the academic mode comes in 1907 with Les Damoiselles d’Avignon and paintings like nude with raised arms(1907). He says himself: “painting was not invented to decorate houses, It is an instrument of war for attack and defence against an enemy.” (pg 70 Ed. Walther F Ingo Picasso Taschen Germany 2000.)

As J.S. Newton points out “Modernism was very much about the autonomy of art.(Pg 65 S.J. Newton “The Politics and Psychoanalysis of primitivism.)

” An autonomy over the accepted bourgeois natuaralism, and historic critique of the academic.  Picasso’s attitude is summed up when he said:

“People keep speaking of naturalism as the opposite of modern painting.  I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a natural work of art.  Nature and art are totally different and can never be the same thing.  We use art to express our idea of what nature is not.”

By incorporating a stylistic rejection of the academic and idealised naturalism of classical art, there was certainly an indirect, if not direct, influence of non-western sources.  Picasso even claims to have painted Les Damoiselles before he ever saw the African exhibition presented at the Trocadero that he visited in the same year he completed the painting.  Even though he denies it there are definitely some striking comparisons with African masks.  If he did directly borrow or not it is evident that the seeds of the so called ‘primitive’ had been planted long before in the ideals of modernism

The final irony of course is that Modernism implies a break with tradition.  It is anti-cultural, highly critical and anti establishment. This creates an interesting tension when the actual so-called ‘primitive’ works in the ethnographic exhibitions that proved so influential actually conform totally to convention and function within their own traditions.  But this of course was not the concern of modernist artists at the turn of the century.

3. The Primitive Utopia

The primitive as utopia, geographically represented as a garden of Eden where man is elevated by a spiritual and physical symbiosis with nature and the idea that the post industrialised urban culture developed out some historic or evolutionary wrong turn or misdirection sill exists in popular culture, in the lrics of Bob Dylan’s Talking New York blueshe sings:

“Mr Hudson came sailing upstream, you know the Inuit paid for his dream, brought                   this city on a one way track, but if I had my way I’d take it on back.”

This concept of returning or regressing to a former more innocent time before the corruption of humanity by the evolution of western society into an urban industrialised civilisation is at the core of the appearance of the so called ‘primitive’ in the modernist movement.

Signe Howell points out in her essay, Art and Meaning that “the interest in so-called ‘primitive art’ in the twentieth century by many artist, collectors and curators and the public was rooted in a romanticisation of the ’primitive’” and is a reaction to “a perceived dehumanisation in modern life and a longing for a purer less decadent culture.”  For Howell the core explanation for this is the largely held European belief in “an evolutionary paradigm, whereby it was thought that societies went through certain stages to arrive at the contemporary western one.”

This retreat to the ‘native primitive’ is evidenced in the pre modernist work of Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Millet, William Lamb Picknell and many others peasant subjects.  Artists were gathering in small groups and forming collectives that followed the bourgeois practice of retreating to the countryside during the summer.  The collectivising and ‘going away’, this seeking out of primal and primitive subjects became central to those who incorporated non-western elements into their art. None more so than Gauguin.

4. Primitive collective and conservative resistance

Writing in 1923 Herbert Keuhen noted in a stylistic analysis that imaginative and symbolic art is produced by self subsistant societies and sensory styles are the product of parasitic societies.  He pointed to the ability of western society to appreciate both forms imaginative and sensory because “we are at a turning point in the history of art, at the end of a long period of sensory production, at the beginning of a period of immaginative forms.” This analysis is heavily dependent on left wing thinking based on the ideas of Pruhdon who believed “all property is theft,”  Bakunin‘s anarchist philosophies and Marx‘s economic based concepts of historical social development,  all of which support in some way the myth of the ‘primitive‘ as a prior evolutionary state of superior human existence. (Goldwater Primitivism in Modern Art pg 30) Primitive communism as a political precursor in the economic evolution of social order allowed for the consideration of a new primitivism in art as a herald of the evolved mass communism of a utopian modern age.

Many modernist Artists saw in the ‘primitive’ a form or a process of making that rejected bourgeois ideals of art production.  They defied the sensory; the academic and the accepted status quo of capitalist society.  The formation of collective movements within the art world and the retreat into small communities was an example of the belief in the collective.  There was a naïve belief in the power of art to transform society.  Goldwater identifies 18 such groups in Germany alone at the end of the 19th century.  The Brucke and Blue Reiter are also examples of a desire to collectivise the spirit of the primitivist moderns into a movement.  Even Vincent Van Gogh  attempted to form an artists commune in the yellow house in Auver sur Oise with Gauguin as the high priest.  All these movements were doomed to eventually be pulled apart by the individual artists ever changing directions in creative work and their inability to agree on unified philosophies of creativity and social organisation.  They also were faced with the frustration of witnessing the failure of art to have any transformative ability over society.

There was also huge resistance to the stylistic move toward the decorative primitive in modernism. This culminated in the condemnation of ‘degenerative art’, the most extreme counter-reaction of the fascist Nazi State in Germany in the 1930’s.   In 1932 Paul Shultz-Naumberg in The battle for art wrote:

“A life and death struggle is taking place in art, just as in the realm of politics.  And                  the battle for art has to be fought with the same seriousness and determination as                  the battle for political power.” The Battle for art 1932 (pg 34 Newton S.J. The politics                  and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

The negative view of society since the 1860’s perceived such art as a threat. German fascists denunciation of ‘primitive art’ resulted in the ‘degenerate art’ exhibition held in Munich  in 1937. Newton points out that:

“the primitive impulse as it is manifested in modern art is disruptive and threatening.               It should be clearly recognised that this impulse is not just regressive in the sense of             a return to roots, but is also strongly radical in a political sense in its threat                               to overturn the status quo.”(pg39 Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of                           primitivismziggurat books London 1996)

Even though the revolutionary impulse of the primitive within modernism was identified with left wing politics it was later rejected by the soviets for being too subversive and undermining social cohesion.  The new Soviet states that grew out of the overthrow of Tsarist Russia and the defeat of  Germany in WWII also turned on and suppressed primitivism within modern art.  ‘Primitive’ and non-western art had such a profound effect on modernist art that it was felt necessary by the governments of these politically extreme and idealistically driven states to suppress modern art, marginalise it and in some cases destroy and eradicate the art and artists that they perceived to be ‘primitive’ in style. But ultimately the ‘primitive’ stylistic borrowings established in the modern movement remain within art being made today and regardless of the extreme rejection to the ‘primitive’ in modernist art we have inherited today a cannon of what are now historic works of art that make our experience and enjoyment of art far the richer by surviving the passing attitudes of extreme politics. 

 5. The debate over Stylistic formalism

It remains very difficult to ascertain to what degree any particular modernist artist’s was influenced by direct or indirect borrowing from ‘primitive’ and non western art considering the access to printed reproductions and the various ethnographic exhibitions and colonial expositions that were being presented to the public of European colonial powers. It is safe to say that there was a general and constant synthesis developing between western and non western art in the work of modernist artists in Europe.

The debate as to the level of borrowing and influence continues among the art historians and academics, Frances Connolly in her book The Sleep of Reason, Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics 1725-1907 points out that “…these so called primitive arts were rarely more than an indirect influence.  European artists were influenced as much by the idea of primitive art as by the specific visual images.” (pg 2)

This may be true in many cases as European artists also began to automatically generate images that bear a resemblance to non-western art that they had never seen.  Colin Rhodes in Primitivism and Modern art cites work by Gauguin:

“There are clear formal similarities between….works by Gauguin and typical female             characters in the Ajanta paintings, which he could not have known, but which                           themselves share a certain formal correspondence between the Javanese pieces.                      (pg128 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art)

Rhodes goes on to look at how the work of Krichner was directly influenced by 16th century Buddhist cave temple paintings of Ajanta in India comparing them to Five Bathers in a lakeof 1911. He had been exposed to this work through high quality colour reproductions.  But he qualifies the level of ‘primitive’ influence by comparing their process with that of Picasso:

“As with Picasso such direct formal influences were quickly absorbed and incorporated in Kirchners individual style in Half length Nude with Hat (1911). It is in these works, where the influence from primitive prototypes is far from clear, that we find some of the artists most powerful images.” (pg125 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

Even what appears to be a clear and well documented formal influence of primitive art concerns Picassos guitar of 1912 and a Grebo Mask from the Ivory coast or from Liberia.  Here, like the eyes of the masks, Picasso projected the hole in the plane of the guitar surface forward.  But Picasso himself would deny any direct formalistic borrowing from the large collection of non western art that he was gathering in his studio.  Whether he did copy stylistically or not there are striking resemblances in the aesthetic aspects of his work and the African masks.

6. Conclusion with a view toward Contemporary primitivism

Modernist art has become another chapter in art history books, but as J.S Newton points out:  “the primitive impulse drives on, and in much contemporary artwork manifests itself still in that urge towards a raw and uncompromising ‘de-aestheticised’ edge.” pg11 Newton S.J.The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

To what extent has modernism appropriated history and culture – “prehistoric, archaic, Oceanic, African and so on for imagery and style… that the post modern artist is faced with the apparent demise of originality and any concept of progress, and the seeming exhaustion  of all critical and subversive modes of art” only time can tell.(pg11)  But some contemporary artists have used the ‘therapeutic intention’ and ‘de-aesthetics edge’ to continue searching for answers and modes of generating art work.

We can look to the work of Anselm Kiefer, Baselitz, Julian Schnabel – These artists maintain a ‘therapeutic intention’ a  ‘working through.’  The work of these artists, “forecasts the dislocated spirit of post-modern art while holding the theraputic intention and desire for cohesion and integration alongside the acknowledgement of an inevitable divide. (pg86Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

There is however a distinct difference between their work and that of the modern period.  Newton points out how distinctly different it is:

Contemporary primitivism, as it relates to external cultures, is substantially different from its earlier modernist counterpart.  Naïve appropriation is no longer a possibility. (Newton J.s. pg 45)

Naïve appropriation is no longer possible because of what is now seen as an obvious absence in the ‘primitive’ and ‘non western’ sources that influenced modernist art. The most striking absence in all of the analysis of the ‘primitive or ‘non western’ in modernist art from the period is the voice of the colonised.  The authors of the tribal art were not a part of the discourse between modernist artists and primitive non western art.  There is no response to or possibility to respond to the sweeping generalisations applied to the definition of what is perceived to be ‘primitive art‘.  The uniqueness of each tribal culture is not recognised.  The European Anthropologist speaks on behalf of the native.  European modernist artists appropriating tribal and religious art from the colonies was in a way the final act of domination, exploitation and affirmation of European cultural and spiritual superiority.






Connelly, Frances S.  The Sleep of Reason, Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics

                1725-1907.  The Pensnylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1995.

Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube. California University Press, London, 1986.

Goldwater, Robert.  Primitivism in Modern Art. Random House, New York, 1986.

Harrison, Charles. Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction, The Early Twentieth Century. Yale University Press,                 London, 1993.

Hiller, Susan.  The Myth of Primitivism, perspectives on art.  Routledge, London, 1991.

Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism. ziggurat books, London, 1996.

Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1994.

Rubin, William (Ed.). Primitivism in 20th Century Art Volume I. The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1988.

Rubin, William (Ed.). Primitivism in 20th Century Art Volume II. The Museum of Modern Art, New York        1988.

Walther, Ingo F. (Ed.) Picasso. Taschen Germany 2000



 Notes from Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996

 S.J. Newton provides an acceptable definition of primitive in his book “The Politics and Psychoanalysis of primitivism.

“Primitivism is a western phenomenon, and basically is an attitude or impulse producing an art which aims to pass its cultural confines.” (S.J Newton pg 10)

“Ludwig Meidner condemned the fake naivety of the primitive world view”(Pg10 Newton S.J.The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

Ernst Grosse though adhering to Darwinism did insist on considering it as “a social phenomenon and a social function”(Goldwater Primitivism in Modern Art pg. 25)

“What is considered to be primitive is itself determined by the differing tastes, conventions and fashions of any given time, and is not a fixed idea.”

“Our contemporary sense of primitive art as Oceanic or African tribal art is a strictly twentieth century definition” (pg 9 Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivismziggurat books London 1996)

“In such a fragmented and alienating environment, [industrialised capitalist society] artists must fall back on their own subjective devices to achieve a cohesion, and an integration, which in a primitive society might have been achieved  traditionally by collective rites and initiation ceremonies designed to preserve social unity, morality and the integration of culture” (pg 65 Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

This depth search by the modern artist was essentially a deliberate regression to find and retireve a more ‘authentic’ , ‘spititual’ or honest state, and was as suggested, expanded, exernalised and duplicated culturally in the guise of primitivism.”(pg 65 Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

Under modernism the primitivist impulse is an instinctual drive activated by the desire to stimulate greater and even heroic feats of integration by the modern artist.(pg66 Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

Modernism had been very much about the individual artist attempting to counter the alienation of an industrial society no longer concerned with collective art and patronage

In post-modern credo the surface of the sign is the only reality. The sign ceases to be a double, or a representation of something, but is perceived as being part of an all-important structure that in effect determines reality. A good analogy might be a set of chess pieces: if one piece is removed, the whole system becomes meaningless and breaks down.(pg69 Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

Donald Kuspit argues actually implies that post-modern art is a schizophrenic art which he scathingly suggests is: ‘expressively attractive to an audience of one dimensional individuals..’ He suggests [post-modern art] accommodated the status quo of capitalist society, in which fame and fortune count above everything else. Stripping avant-guard art of its missionary, theraputic intention, post-modern art converts it into a cliché of creative novelty or ironic value for its fashionable look

Mike Bidlo copies famous pieces of Modern Art in a deadpan and expressive manner to strip them of their creative value.  In effect the message is that art is finished apart from clever little ironic games.  This postmodern art elaborates surface rather than exploring depth.  It deals with the manifest rather than with the latent.  It stays on the surface of the experience rather than stripping it away to find depth.  Its use of theatricality, stardom and false fame are ways of avoiding self-analysis, self-criticism and so any transformation or change. (pg 79Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

At the end of the century, such an avoidance of cliché has become so much harder because the speed at which society can neutralise any artistic threat – through assimilation by the gallery and museum culture – has greatly increased. (pg 82 Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

Primitive art is thus perceived as being highly stylised in order to anaesthetise the threat of the unknown. (pg83Newton S.J. The politics and psycho analysis of primitivism ziggurat books London 1996)

The creativity of modern art in its very essence is about the healing and therapy of self and society

It is still possible that the implicit primitivist impulse as it exists in the creative process, can still engender a de-aesthetics edge and enter an unknown space.

Anthropology as a product of modernism, searches for earlier cohesion and totality and projects its own mythology of authenticity onto what it has often been inclined to perceive as an earlier and more original stage of human development. Pg 45

“The whole romantic conception of the primitive also extends to the idea that there is no individual interest, that individuality as we perceive it is an invention of modernism and that the natural condition of man is the collective.” Daniel miller pg 46

Essentially only discourse exists and the subject is only a function of it.

Notes from Harrison, Charles. Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction, The Early Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, London, 1993.

Picasso began to incorporate primitive elements around 1906 to 1907.  Les Demoiselles d’Avingnon regarded as the seminal work in the move toward the primitive and the rejection of academic. But of course this is not the first western artwork to contain the characteristics of a perceived alien or other culture.  It could be argued that the cultural appropriation evident in eurocentric art history is a pre-colonial phenomenon of Occidental Culture.  The influence of primitivism is a further example of a trend in  Occidental Culture.

The Barbarians who sacked Rome adopted many of the Empires structures for ordering and managing the civil and military order.  The initial impulse that drove them to invade the borders of the Roman empire, their desire to live within the perceived borders of a civilised world, reveals their envy of a stable and well organised and prosperous region.  To look at the tapestry that is western European history reveals a melting pot of peoples empires, cultures.  The fluidity of Western Culture is imbeded in the history of that culture.  Every dominant invader adopting many of the traits and characteristics of the subjected peoples over sometimes centuries of development.  In art history Phoenicians barrowed from the Egyptians who had been influenced by the Samarians.  The Romans barrowed from the greeks were influenced by the Egyptians.  The dominant cultures at the fall of the roman empire no longer sought or desired the highly representative sensory art the turn of the century, the growing religion from the middle east brought more stylistically driven images of symbolic religiosity. The Byzantine, pre-renaissance decoration of late medieval Italy, seen by art historians as a decline of artistic production is caught up in the problematic fallacy that one period of history or one style of artistic production at any given point of time can be greater or lesser than an other when held up in comparison with each other.  Art is used as a cultural indicator of development and the concept of high civilisation being more advanced is born out of a fabrication.  The desire to surpass what has come before to be greater than our predecessors is a euro-centric sin of pride that drives a fallacy.

This opinion is of course promoted by the Italian art tourism industry, which continues to tell the world that the greatest art produced in the history of mankind is on the walls of Italian churches and in the ditches of Roman excavations.  This renaissance propaganda feeds the fallacy that there is a developmental progression in european history.  We are told that the greatest civilisation had the greatest art. If this is the case than the art produced today is in fact the greatest art ever produced, because any historian will tell you that in terms of civilisation we are more advanced today than at any other time.  But his is not the case.

If we can avoid comparison and take every work on its own merit as an object made by someone at sometime than there is no such thing as the primitive.  The impulse to make marks is not a primitive impulse but a human one.  In the same way that a musical note contains the harmonic principles of all audible sound the impulse for human beings to make marks contains all human art history.  Looking at linear progressions denies the right of art to be anything more than milestones on a time line.

In the 19th century through the work of Millet to Gaugain the subject of the noble savage or the primitive life of the agrarian peasant was heralded as an icon of man in his utopian state, unconcerned with the increasingly urbanised construct  that was becoming the nature of western society.

“Gauguin’s primitivism – that is his tendency to represent, and to idealise a supposedly uncivilised culture.” (PG 8 prim ,cub, ab)

“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 painting” (PG 8 prim ,cub, ab).  A statement like this can be very misleading when looking at the influences of the so called primitive in modern art history.  It is simply another form of what any artist will say when faced with the crisis of mark making.  What should I make?  In desperation artists will create something from a small beginning and the origins of work become lost in the process of making.  When asked the response will be as that above or a clearer statement is that of Jasper Johns who began to paint flags because he was trying to find a way to make pictures.  The same could be said of Gerhard Richter who painted photographs as a way to make paintings when faced with the crisis of what to paint.

The subject and form of this work became increasingly fragmented as the order of western society was changing.

“The characteristics of primitive sources were thus seen to conform to, rather than simply inspire the changing interests of modern artists.”( pg3 Harrison, Charles.

Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction, The Early Twentieth Century)

Notes from Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art Thames and Huson Ltd. London 1994

Some would put colonialism at the heart of theories of primitivism.

“The Colonial enterprise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provided a wealth of examples of cultures new to the west, set within a system of unequal power relations which determined that the primitive, or more often in contemporary writings the savage, was invariably the dominated partner.” (pg7Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

But the influence of colonialism is only an extension of western culture that also identified peasants, children and the insane as lesser human beings in a state of arrested or early development and thus regarded all those cultures that were perceived as lesser or lower in the same way.

“Primitivism in modern art has traditionally been seen in the context of artists’ use of nominally primitive artefacts as models for developments in their own work.”(pg7 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“There is a lage body of primitivist art, particularly Dadaists and Surrealists, which bares no direct relationship to primitive art”  these are more related to attempts “to gain access to what are considered to be more fundamental modes of thinking and seeing.” (pg8 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

The primitive was regarded, on the whole, as always more instinctive, less bound by artistic convention and history, and as somehow closer to fundamental aspects of human existence” (pg9Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )  Paul Klee referred to a primitive impression in his work as “no more than economy; at is the ultimate professional awareness, which is to say the opposite of real primitiveness” (pg9Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“…the conventional Western viewpoint at the turn of the century imposed itself as superior to the primitive,  the primitivist questioned the validity of that assumption, and used the same ideas as a means of challenging or subverting his or her own cuture or aspects of it.

Darwin’s descent of man and Rousseau’s idea of the Noble savage are at the heart of the misguided tendencies toward primitivism but as a result of this approach which dominated anthropological study so called “primitive society was inevitably defined in terms of qualities that were opposed and hostile to western society.”(pg15 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

By the turn of the century the belief that the vision of the savage was somehow pre rational or childlike had passed into popular thought”  (pg 17 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

The mistaken comparrison of the art of so called primitive peoples to children is evidence of the compleely misguided and inappropriate evaluation of western art and non western art at the turn of the century.  However the western approach to childrens art is that it was transitory but the art of the so called savage was arrested in development to a childlike world view.

“The second half of the 19th century in Europe witnessed a tendancy among progressive artists and writers to turn the focus of their attention away from academic high art to the folk production of rural populations” (pg23Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art ) Emile, Nolde, Kandinsky.

The work of Barbizon painters reinforced bougeois misconceptions of country life.  The highly developed agricultural economy of Brittany was continually portrayed as “relatively primitive in comparison with the industrialization sweeping across most of Europe at the time.”(pg25Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“Escape into nature from urban industrial centres need not be regarded as wholly reactionary – the idea of removing oneself temporarily from civilisation often stemmed from the primitivist assumption that revitalisation of culture could only spring from a period of regression to more direct modes of living.” (pg32 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art)

In pictures of bathers by Heckel, Kirchner and Pechstein that arose from  the Brucke’s own practice of nudism the viewer is presented with self-reflexive images of the urban dweller celebrating his or her body in a setting that is seemingly closer to nature.”(pg35Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“…some notion of innocence in the liberation from bourgeois social convention, is implied”

“..The actions of the sexualised woman were compared to those of the savage and the child.  This is an important part of the Primitivism in pictures such as Picasso’s les Damoiselles d’Avingnon, which subverts the contemporary viewers expectations by depicting self assured women who are not bound by the social conventions of self conscious modesty”(pg62 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“Kirchner’s Primitivism is also subtly manifested in his pictoral use of a physical condition that had come to b seen as a specific sign of the primitive sexuality of African women, namely steatopygia – protruding buttocks.” (pg65Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“The search for the primitive is equated to some extant with a search for the unknown and it might reasonably follow that the peasant-the primitive close by – offered the promise of the unknown  but was found to  contain too much of the culture that the primivist wanted to escape.” (pg68Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“Paintings [Gauguin] sent home o France were almost without exception images of noble savages living in noble harmony with a fertile and bountiful nature.” (pg71Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“Gauguin’s representation of Tahiti – through his pictures and in Noa Noa – consisted mainly of an attempt to reconstruct imaginatively a lost time before the European ‘Discovery’ of the island.”(pg72 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“…the progressive art of Gauguin and his colleagues in Pont Aven consisted of a synthesis of primitive subject matter and primitivist style that owed something to Breton folk arts and crafts…”pg78Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“There are obvious similarities between Edward Said’s description of Orientalism and the ideas underlying definitions of the primitive.  Both relate to the colonialism as the arbiter of knowledge about subject peopes.”

“Said defines  Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the orient.”(pg78Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“The dynamic relationship operating in Primitivism between subject matter and style is, as we have seen, on e of the fundamental elements of representation that separates it from Orientalism”(pg86Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“Joun Berger:‘For the first time in Picasso’s work, the expression of the faces neither tragic nor passionate.  These are masks almost entirely freed from humanity.’ The women in the Damoiselles, therefore operate not as a sign of the otherness of the coloial primitive but an otherness internal to Western Culture, based on their presumed dangerous sexuality.” (pg91Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“…stylistic primitivism has been an enormously important feature in the history of modern art precisely because of the radical effect it had on the appearance on the art pioneers such as Picasso.” (pg107 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“Artists were initially drawn towards primitive objects in the first part of the twentieth century by virtue of their physical appearance.” (pg107 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“Artists went to primitive art expecting to find in it qualities that they presumed to be absent in contemporary European art.”(pg107 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“The qualities [Picasso and the Brucke in Germany] sought in the primitive were ones that suggested an intuitive and expressionist creative method and they believed that they could find this in African art.”(pg107 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“When artists made use of primitive art they adopted a critical stance not to the primitive itself, but rather,  to the civilised norms of their own society.  This was either a way of proposing social change or a critique of established Western Artistic practice.”(pg110 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“It is conventionally stated that modern artists were the first to recognise tribal works of art and to incorporate its forms into an already rich repository of primitive types.  Modern artists were intrigued at first by the utter difference of these primitive form, an idea that was partly fueled by the physical distance between Europe and their places of origin.”(pg110 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“A vital alternative to the moribund classical Greek and renaissance art, an illusionist tradition surviving still in academic art”(pg110 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“African carvings are usually seen as the most important influences behind the new concern with sculptural effects and colour planes in the work of….Picasso.”pg114 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

In Paris in 1904 Islamic art. 1905 Japanese art, 1906 ancient Iberian art exhibitions.

“Picasso is a case in point…..he sought at times to question common assumptions about art and life through appeals to artefacts and ideas considered to be outside the European tradition, and often outside the designation art.”(pg115 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

Picasso’s introduction to African sculpture in 1907 (Nude with Arms raised 1907) led to a radical change in his paintings”(pg117 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

Colin Rhodes quotes Carl Einstein: “African sculptures are self contained, oriented not towards the viewer, but in terms of themselves.  They function not so much as representations, but as things in themselves.”

Form and function argument deities in a wholly contained tradition.

This is a very important point.  Somewhere in our western Psyche or imagination we also connect with this, but centuries of cultural conditioning have removed us from the animistic practice of idolatry.  The tradition of  Judeo-Christian intellectualism will not allow us to accept these masks and carvings as gods or deities, for us they can only be seen as art objects.

In Picasso’s Nude with raised arms and its comparison to the Kota reliquary figures Goldwater points out the difference.  He describes the figure as “static, hieratic, impersonal; whereas Picasso’s painting is all movement ad violence.” (pg 116 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

Francois Gilot describes Picasso’s reaction to the discovery of tribal art in the Trocadero.  Picasso focused notso much on the formal qualities of tribal sculpture but on what he saw as their magical elements:  “Men had made those masks for a sacred purpose, a magic perpose as akind of meditation between them and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them.”

This misinterpretation was a formative moment in the development of Picasso’s art.

“In response to the failure of reason, the atavistic to more primitive modes of of feeling seemed to many to offer a way of negotiating the reality of this suddenly fragmented world.” (pg136Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

Misguided by the early theories of social Darwinism artists like Kandinsky, Klee, Marc and Arp

The conventional belief that held the primitive mentality to be different in substance to the civilised one was current until well after the second world war.  Today, it would be impossible to claim legitimately as it seemed to be until mid century, that the psychologies of peoples from the whole of central and Southern Africa, and of the native peoples of  North America and Oceania are fundamentally indistinguishable.  It would be equally unrealistic now to draw an equation between the thought patterns of these culture and those of children.” pg133 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

Notions of the primitive that had been used conventionally as part of the western mechanisms of domination and control over ‘outsiders’ were afforded  enormous positive value by artists as far removed in time and place as Klee, Gottlieb and Beuys.(Pg135 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“An attempt on the part of Western artists to retreat from reason and thereby gain access to the very sources of creativity itself which they believed was exemplified in its most  authentic and liberated form in the minds of children, tribal peoples and the insane.” (pg133 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

It is worth remembering, thought, that the notion of the primitive as a homogenous category has no real underlying common denominator, other than the assumptions of a discredited social Darwinism.” (pg133 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

“Artists were initially drawn towards primitive objects in the first part of the twentieth century by virtue of their physical appearance.” (pg107 Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )

Notes from Connelly, Frances S.  The Sleep of Reason, Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics 1725-1907.  The Pensnylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1995.

“The reasons for reassessment are multifaceted, but they include the recognition that the methodological foundations of the discipline [of art history] are by their nature Eurocentric and thus have proved in adequate for the study of non western art traditions.” (pg 1)

“…these so called primitive arts were rarely more than an indirect influence.” “European artists were influenced as much by the idea of primitive art as by the specific visual images” (pg 2)

“primitive art only served as a  kind of stimulating focus, a catalytic which, though not in itself used or borrowed from, still helped the artists to formulate their own aims because they could attribute to it the qualities they themselves sought to obtain.” (Goldwater pg 252)

5. The debate over Stylistic formalism

 A clear and well documented formal influence of primitive art concerns Picassos guitar of 1912 and a Grebo Mask from the Ivory coast or from Liberia where like the eyes of the masks Picasso projected the hole in the plane of the guitar surface forward as a cylinder reading space as sculptural volume.  This stylistic formal barrowing has nothing to do with the so called magical elements.


“Cubist space possesses an internal logic distinct from external reality – one that contains, connects and seals logic.” Cubist paintings “construct a pictorial space that has the same effect in painting as the closed form in sculpture.” (pg124Rhodes, Colin.  Primitivism and Modern Art )





Perceptions of the primitive

Social Darwinism and primitive Society

The savage mind

Primitives of a new art


The noble peasant

The escape into nature

The aesthetics of innocence: The Blue Reiter

Neo primitivism in Russia


The discovery of child art

The European body as primitive


The distant body

Picturing the exotic

Imagining the primitve

The primitive in the city

The brucke studios


The discovery of primitive art

Picasso, cubism and tribal art

Expressionist appeals to the primitive


The retreat from reason

Zurich da da

At the well springs of creation

The surrealist experiment

Surrealism and primitive art

Art and anthropology



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