The rise in popularity of primitivism can be united with two other prevalent forces in Europe during the late 19th century, theology and industrialization. Naturally dissatisfaction with European life increased, steeped in centuries of monarchies, wars, feudal wars, and multiple revolutions. Christ symbols, towering church steeples, and scads of spiritually historical iconography permeated nearly all of the Europe, even while its principles waned.
Meanwhile, Europe began to feel the effects of its going industrial centers. In the 1860s, Paris radically rejuvenated itself under Napoleon III and Haussmann’s city restructuring. Apartments, streets, transportation, and commerce were all restructured, becoming new, uniform, sleek, and systemized. Conditionally, primitivism is understood as the ‘other’ through Western perception. This implies that outsiders to Europe are different inherently, and deserve special attention.
While Europe idolizes themes of cleanliness, efficiency, and puritan values, the ‘other’ offered an escape into a world that was perceived as exotic, mystically spiritual, and entirely natural. In “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Clement Greenberg says that avant-garde criticism “has not confronted our present society with timeless utopias, but has soberly examined . . . the forms that lie at the heart of every society. ” Vincent Van Gogh, in an attempt to recover simplified realism, focused on less urban subjects.
He moved to south France and began painting provincial scenes using thick impasto paint application. Paul Gauguin joined Van Gogh to establish the Studio of the South in Arles in 1988; however, even this is not removed enough from modern Western values. Gauguin had “studied medieval art (sculpture, tapestries, and stained glass), Primitive woodcuts, and certain types of exotic art which he had seen at the World’s Fair of 1889. ” Comparatively, the Western projection of art appeared to him dystopic, and he sought renewal in submersing himself in Tahitian culture.
Warily, Gauguin traveled to a country under French rule at the time, guaranteeing him ‘safe’ primitivism than un-Colonized areas. In Tahiti, Gauguin painted with no shaded areas of depth and rounded, blunt features, loose applications of representative color, as seen Maternite II. All this, added with mythical looking mist and bare women give a sense of pastoral serenity of antiquity, while also remaining distinctly different than the European spectator who enjoyed the painting.
The women are all dark-skinned and blissfully exposed, while engaging the viewing to partake of the serenity of the scene. Gauguin used Primitive representative techniques, by favoring simplified, unenlightened forms or expression. As Imperialism extended the relations between Europe and civilizations that were previously untouched by European ideology. Simplified, organic forms of nature and natural life were fluidly exposed to European culture, including Gauguin’s paintings. It was completely antithetical to anything appreciated in the West in form, staging, or perspective.
Another feature of Westerners embracing primitivism can be found in Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhon. In the utopia/dystopia world of Erewhon there is a complete absence of machines, simply because any variety of them could prove potentially dangerous. This novel was published at a time when industrialized nations began relying more on machines in industry, and features an extreme alternative that demonstrates the allure of the Primitive who live the ‘other’ lifestyle. Those who see modern Western life as a dystopia can find its ultra alternative in the Primitive.
Thus artists flee for simpler, idyllic or virginal locals, consequently implying that something is inherently wrong with the Europe, its industry, theology, and ideology. References: Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. Read, Herbert. A Concise History of Modern Painting. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. , 1957. Schwartz, Robert . “France in the Age of Les Miserables. ” Mount Holyoke College. 4/19/2009 <http://www. mtholyoke. edu/courses/rschwart/hist255-s01/mapping-paris/Haussmann. html>.
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Topic: History of Modern Painting
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