When it comes to primitivism, there is an ongoing debate whether it should be seen as an art movement in its own right, or a certain sensibility or cultural attitude. The fascination with “primitive” cultures has been widely present in Western art, literature, and philosophy since the late 18th century, when intellectuals started to reflect on the era of Enlightenment and the ideas of progress. At that point, when “civilized” people of Europe discovered their discontent with the civilization, many artists turned towards the idea of the primitive societies and the dream of the Golden Age. Even before the concept of primitive art entered Western visual art production, ideas about the superiority of “primitive” cultures were spreading through literary theory like a wildfire, most notably in the works of Johann Gottfried Herder and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, it is not until the beginning of the 20th century, that the term emerged and started signifying the art of modernists who were working in the style of folk art and naïve art, borrowing the inspiration from non-Occidental cultures.
To tackle the idea of primitivism in art, we must first see the wider context and the implication of the term “primitive” in the history of ideas. There are two ways we can read the concept of primitivism. Chronologically, it refers to a period in history before civilizations were born, and it is often seen as a period of prosperity and simplicity, when humans lived closer to nature. Chronological primitivism is often connected to the myths of the Golden Ages and paradise lost and it brings the idea that ancient and prehistoric times were better than modern. Cultural primitivism, on the other hand, is founded on the idea that life in a civilized world has made men lose their potential of goodness that can be only found in “primitive” societies. Cultural primitivism is best described through a metaphor of a noble savage, notable in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although, Rousseau never used this exact metaphor, the notion of noble savage as an idealized indigene not corrupted by civilization is often attributed to him, because of his works that helped endorse the idea that primitive societies, attuned with nature, were superior to civilized people.
The concept of “primitive” is a dialectic one and it developed in relation to the idea of modern. This distinction informed by Occidental ethnocentrism brought a plethora of binaries into the conversation bout primitivism: nature vs. civilization, simplicity/complexity, honesty/self-consciousness, irrational/rational. The word primitive was genuinely used in Occidental discourse negatively, to signify a deficiency in qualities that defined civilizational progress. During Romanticism, however, other theories emerged and “primitive” people became epitomes of artistic inspiration. In work of some scholars like Herder and Giambattista Vico before him, “primitive” men were seen as those closer to the sources of poetry, imagination and artistic inspiration than “civilized” men. This fascination with the “other”, nostalgia for the virtues of primitive life, and critique of the contemporary ideas all merged in the works of those artists who were looking for the inspiration outside of the conventional, academic art practice and mainstream culture. The interest in the idea of “primitive life”, led to the revalorization of the concept of “primitive art”. During the twentieth century, non-Western art, tribal art, prehistoric art, originally exhibited at ethnographic museums and regarded as a category in the domain of anthropology studies, entered the fine art world and art history conversations.
The turn towards the art of indigenous first became notable in the works of modernists who were looking beyond the teachings of the academic institutions. The ideas of simplicity and sincerity influenced and attracted many of those who rejected sophistication, realism and classic aesthetic canon. European Modernists became fascinated with tribal art from Africa, America, South Pacific, Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and folk art and they began exploring the different notions of primitive in art, whether it were, techniques, styles or themes and motifs. The term primitivism was first used to mark Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings and later to mark a trend in modern art connected to the use of ethnographic forms. The idea of “primitive art” became popular in the works of German Expressionists from the Brücke group who were exploring its emotional and expressive potential, Picasso and Matisse who turned towards formal aspects of primitive art, Dadaists and Surrealists who were interested in primitivism of subconscious. The discovery of tribal masks and fetishes also had a great influence on modern sculpture, especially in the works of Constantin Brancusi, Andre Derain and Jacob Epstein.
The fascination with naïve and indigenous art was born in reaction to anxieties, dehumanizing effects of industrialization, corrupt values of modern civilization and classical art constraints. Although modernists had positive views on the art and life of “primitive” people, the concept of primitivism in Western art has always been the subject of critical debates. The problematic nature of primitivism was first noted in the work of Paul Gauguin whose escape to Tahiti and search for simpler style of life manifested through eroticization of primitiveness. Although he believed that he was celebrating the Tahitian culture and drawing attention to the problems of colonialism, his critique of the Occidental world was embedded in racial and sexual fantasies about the “other” and it implicitly supported the degrading views on the non-Western world. Ethnocentrism in the works of modernists is also notable in their exaggerations of primitive cultural aspects and many critics believe that primitive art was given a false interpretation within the arts of the West. Furthermore, some critics argue that the individuals in the West evoked the term primitive to signify qualities that were repressed in the industrialized and “civilized” world like subconscious, erotic desires, sexual freedom and they were completely indifferent to the social framework in which primitive artifacts were made.
To approach the subject of primitivism in street art, we can go in two directions. We could decide to look at street art and graffiti culture in relation to situational aspects of primitive art, or to focus on works inspired by folk art and primitive cultures. With its focus on raw expression, spontaneity, simplicity, and gesture, street art and graffiti, in particular, share many features with primitive art. After all, scribbles on the walls were among the first artistic forms of expression in ancient times, and graffiti of today revitalized this simplest style. Furthermore, street art was born in reaction to institutionalized art practices. What early street art shares with primitive art is the absence of perspective, the simplicity of forms, focus on symbolic patterns and material interest in details. Street art informed by primitivism usually seeks the formal aspects of primitive art, compared to modernists who were also interested in the ideology of the “primitive”. Street artists also seek inspiration in primitive forms and tribal elements and this fascination with the art of indigenous can be traced to the works of Keith Haring and Thierry Noir, but also some younger artists on the scene like Zio Ziegler, Saner, Curiot and Zosen, to name a few.
Editors’ Tip: Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern
The two volumes of Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern represent the first comprehensive scholarly treatment in half a century of the crucial influence of the tribal arts, particularly those of Africa and Oceania, on modern painters and sculptors. From a series of essays on primitivism in the works of Gauguin to the Fauves, Picasso, Brancusi, the German Expressionists, Lipchitz, Modigliani, Klee, Giacometti, Moore, the Surrealists, and the Abstract Expressionists, this visually stunning and intellectually provocative work confronts complex aesthetic, art-historical, and sociological problems posed by this dramatic chapter in the history of modern art. It concludes with a discussion of primitivist contemporary artists, including those involved in earthworks, shamanism, and ritual-inspired performances.
Featured images: Paul Gauguin- Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892; Mural by Thierry Noir. All images used for illustrative purposes.