Primitivism and the History of Primitivist Art

Categories: Art History

Several new artistic movements were developing in the early twentieth century within the artistic epicenter of Paris, the majority of which held in common a desire for the avant garde–the emphasis on innovation. As the modern art movement began to take hold, it became clear that the only commonality this diverse range of styles possessed was creating new things for the sake of being new. This sudden overthrow of tradition resulted in an interesting juxtaposition of one such newfound art movement, known as Primitivism, against this background of avant-garde styles.

While Primitivist art did strive for new, abstracted forms of representation, the inspiration for these innovations ironically came from a deep tribal past. Primitivism can be easily defined as an appreciation for that which is simple and uncomplicated, and in terms of the art world this appreciation took the form of inspiration acquired from a wide range of tribal artifacts (Museum of Modern Art 1).While under this definition the movement may appear to be a respectful homage to the tribal and therefore a positive way of honoring non-Western art, when looked at with a more critical and analytical eye, a myriad of deep-seated problems arise because of this trend. While Primitivists idealized the work of non-Western and “uncivilized” peoples, several deleterious effects arose from their lack of genuine understanding of tribal life which took the form of aestheticization paired with decontextualization as well as a continued marginalization of non-Western art in the discourse of art history, all of which further contributed to Western centrality and the overall colonial power structure in this contemporary, imperialist setting.

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Prior to moving into the origins of Primitivism, an important distinction must be made between that which is “primitive” art and the artistic movement known as Primitivism.

“Primitive” is a derogatory term used to describe art from an “uncivilized” or tribal culture, whereas Primitivism is specifically used to describe the twentieth century abstract movement that derived inspiration for its abstracted forms from “uncivilized” or tribal culture. Primitivism found its beginnings in the travel literature and artistic works of Paul Gauguin at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Gauguin is well known for travelling to Tahiti in 1891 (Staszak 356), and while few of his counterparts followed suit in moving far away to escape civilized society, many of his contemporaries shared the feelings and desires that prompted Gauguin to do so. Gauguin traveled to Tahiti because, “Under the influence of fin-de-siecle anti-modernism, disgusted by a materialistic and hypocritical Western civilization, he aspired to a lost authenticity…” (Staszak 354). This idea of lost authenticity struck a note with many people towards the end of the nineteenth century. Seeing as Western society lacked such a source of authenticity, they turned elsewhere to find it, and for many this was to be found in the tribal lifestyles within Africa,

Oceania, and North America (Museum of Modern Art 1). This concept of a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle as inevitably better than civilized society found its origins in the Enlightenment, long before Primitivism became defined as a movement. The writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau lauded the idea of a “noble savage” who Rousseau believed to be closest to man’s natural, and essentially harmonious, state of being. Many thinkers from the Enlightenmen onwards view Primitivism as “contrary to the social ills that accompany the ‘civilizing’ process” (Lagana 2), yet they failed to see the hypocritical irony in the fact that they acquired their appreciation for the “primitive” through culture, an example of which is Rousseau’s writing (Kramer).

An interesting case study of both the positive intentions of Primitivism as well as the inevitable problems inherent in this movement can be found in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1985 exhibition; “Primitivism’in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” When first looking at the MoMA’s own description of this exhibition, they present their show as an attempt to further reinforce “informed art history” (Museum of Modern Art 1). This intention to inform the masses is easily visible in the two volume book comprised of nineteen scholarly essays and totaling nearly seven hundred pages that was published by the MoMA and edited by William Rubin, who was also the principal organizer of the exhibition. The MoMA presents itself as a force for good in that it is “Recognizing the importance of this issue in modern art history– and the relative lack of serious research devoted to it…” (Museum of Modern Art 1). Yet, while the intentions of the exhibition may have been good, the negative reception of the show by critics reveals how people were beginning to see the issue of misunderstanding inherent in Primitivism. 

One of the main problems inherent in the MoMA exhibition lies in the fact that it was attempting to create a progressive meaning rather than revealing the less attractive truth of violent colonialism. The show, as reflected in the title of the exhibition, was attempting to revealan “affinity” between the “primitive” and the modern abstract artists who claimed such as their inspiration. Yet, the affinity that is presented within the exhibition is solely an aesthetic one that “…is produced by careful selection and the maintenance of a specific angle of vision” (Clifford 639). This aestheticization is problematic in that it exoticizes these tribal cultures, leaving no room for discourse on the practical purposes these artifacts held. The museum carefully selected only the tribal works that would help further prove their argument for affinity, thus they presented a clearly biased view that tended towards clean, abstract forms. As James Clifford, an art historian and author of the article “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern,” argues, “…the tribal and modern artifacts are similar only in that they do not feature the pictorial illusionism or sculptural naturalism that came to dominate Western European art after the Renaissance” (Clifford 638). The art world had, up until this sudden outburst of non-traditional styles in the modern era, been so primed to expect naturalistic works alone that to see an abstract tribal style juxtaposed with an abstract modern movement meant that people naturally gravitated towards creating an affinity between the two. The MoMA’s exhibition largely consisted of placing something such as an ancient African mask next to a work such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This practice was based solely upon aesthetic, morphological similarity and rather than pointing to an affinity between the two, this juxtaposition could just as easily represent a coincidental similarity. This process of aestheticizing these non-Western works was inevitably accompanied by a subsequent decontextualization of them as well–thus ridding these artifacts of their true meaning–that proved to be incredibly harmful in its dehumanization of non Westerners. The necessity of this decontextualization in order for the MoMA to create a coherent affinity is based on the idea that “…aesthetic primitivism is truly the product of a repression of history and politics. It is because artifacts were initially decontextualized that they came to be qualified as works of art” (Amselle 981-982). Decontextualization itself is harmful enough in its disrespect for non-Western cultures, yet the MoMA took this decontextualization a step further in creating false, new meanings of cultural acceptance and togetherness out of these isolated objects. When viewing these objects “from a purely aesthetic point of view, devoid of all ethnological considerations” there arises the fact that by evaluating these objects under Western criteria and through the lens of the Western canon, the MoMA is succumbing to Eurocentrism (Staszak 355). As Clifford stated, “…the catalogue succeeds in demonstrating not any essential affinity between tribal and modern or even a coherent modernist attitude toward the primitive but rather the restless desire and power of the modern West to collect the world” (Clifford 640). Ultimately, the MoMA’s attempt to convey an affinity between the tribal and the modern” merely proved the West’s lack of comprehensive understanding of the “tribal” against which they were comparing their own familiar art. 

Continuing in this vein of a lack of understanding by the West, seeing as all of these tribal works had been so thoroughly decontextualized, there was little understanding of the actual meaning and relevancy these objects held for their native cultures. As discussed earlier, decontextualizing the non-Western pieces within its exhibition was necessary for the MoMA to create its argument for affinity, yet this resulted in a deepening of the stereotypical understanding of tribal cultures as entirely atemporal and ahistorical. Partha Mitter expertly analyzes how the exhibition “…while reifying tribal artifacts as timeless high art erased Third World modernisms, denying the existence of contemporary tribal artists in the name of authentic traditional art” (Mitter 537). There has been little or no attempt to compare modern tribal art with modern Western art, due largely to the tendency in non-tribal cultures to view their “uncivilized” counterparts as existing in either a “vanishing past or an ahistorical, conceptual present…” (Clifford 643). According to how the Primitivism exhibition displayed its subject matter, there is no periodization within tribal art. The Primitivists of the time as well as the creators of this later exhibition made little attempt to understand the contextual usages and meanings that these foreign objects possessed or the time periods to which they belonged. This further enabled the well-intentioned yet injurious tendency to idealize the tribal world as existing in a permanent “Golden Age” free of societal ills. Oftentimes, the MoMA even referred to the tribes it was discussing in the past tense, when in reality several of these tribes continue to exist to this day (Clifford). Instances such as this exemplify the deep rootedness of the Western tendency to generalize that which they don’t understand rather than attempting to thoroughly grasp foreign concepts so as to better represent cultures other than their own.

Marginalization of non-Western art has been an unfortunate trend all throughout art historical discourses, and this tendency has sadly continued in the tellings of modern art history as well. This marginalization takes form in the blatant lack of inclusion of non-Western arts as well as in subtle tendencies, such as labeling modern art by an Indian artist as “Indian Modern Art” for example, thus making it appear as a less important subset to the greater Western discourse. Mitter further analyzes this example of “Indian Modern Art” in discussing the work of the Cubist Gaganendranath Tagore and by pointing out that, “Unlike Picasso, whose use of African sources did not compromise his integrity as a European artist, Gaganendranath’s use of Cubism resulted in the loss of self as an Indian” (Mitter 537). This loss of self points to Non Western art’s occupation of the periphery in art history and how deeply modern discourse is centered around the West. Now, it is easy to make the argument that such a thorough understanding of and discussion on Primitivism is indicative of non-Western inclusion within the modern canon, yet the fact remains that Primitivism, as well as many other forms of non-Western art that do receive thorough scholasticism, is a non-Western movement that still deeply influences the West. The value of these movements comes from how they serve to influence and inspire the West rather than their own intrinsic worth. Altogether, Primitivism has often been focused on so deeply in modern discourse because it provides an example of non-Western art so that, upon first glance, modern discourse appears to be more inclusive, when in reality it is maintaining its Western centrality.

In essence, all of these issues are inextricably linked to one major underlying problem that is integral to the essential conception of Primitivism itself, that of the maintenance of a colonial power structure. The early twentieth century belonged to the Age of Imperialism, thus much of the dehumanization and decontextualization that inevitably occurred in the practice of Primitivism was typical of the time. A commonly discussed cause of the Primitivist movement is the fin-de-siecle dissatisfaction with modern civilized society, yet a far less discussed reason was the influx of tribal artifacts due to imperial conquering. For instance, African masks were frequently either violently stolen from the cultures to which they belonged, or were connivingly taken through the exploitation of the differing value systems between Western and tribal culture, such as a hypothetical instance of trading twenty incredibly valuable artifacts for one piece of silver. These transactions exemplified the West’s perceived superiority over “the Rest,” yet this is not a matter of superiority and inferiority, rather it revolves around differing cultural valuations.

The violence and trickery involved in the acquisition of these goods was never addressed in the near 700 page book accompanying the exhibition. The hideous face of colonialism has largely been all but ignored. The West’s feeling of superiority manifested itself frequently in their perception of themselves as the “discoverers” of these arts, they in essence took the credit and voice from the craftsmen who actually created these artifacts. Primitivist artists, whether overtly or subconsciously, believed they had “transformed the savage into the artist” (Staszak 355). Referring back to the onset of Primitivism with the travels of Gauguin, his presentation of the situation made it appear that he had given a voice to the Tahitians he depicted, when in fact he has robbed the Tahitians of a voice to this day. Gauguin was the one who was entirely creating this discourse, and now Tahiti is often seen simply as the “Island of Gauguin.” As further argued by Jean-Francois Staszak, “Primitivism, though it claimed to invert the hierarchy between the primitive and the civilized, to show the former had much to teach the latter, maintained and even reinforced the dichotomy between the West and its Others” (Staszak 358). This is the aspect of Primitivism that makes it so deleterious to tribal culture. Primitivism presents itself as a movement towards positive, inclusive discourse. Yet, what can establish the “Other” further than the placement of an African tribal mask next to the work of Picasso? This is not inclusive, rather it serves to exoticize and dehumanize entire cultures through simple generalizations and purposeful decontextualization. Mitter further articulates this point in asserting that, “…the artistic ‘borrowings’ of Picasso and other modernists from simple ‘primitive’ cultures did not amount to a debt to these societies. On the contrary, the European ‘discovery’ of ethnographic art redeemed these fetishistic objects for the modern world and elevated them to the level of high art” (Mitter 535). This is the message that the West wanted to present to its people, that they were the savior of these “savage” cultures through their refined and civilized colonization.

Returning to the MoMA’s Primitivist exhibition, any mention of colonialism was done through a colonialist lens, specifically in that it referenced the newfound accessibility of these objects to Western artists, yet without any mention of the violence inherent in these acquisitions. While the MOMA’s claimed intention was to inform museumgoers of the relation between the tribal and the modern, in reality “…primitivism camouflages this historical event, disguises the problem of imperialism in terms of art, affinity, dialogue, to the point (the point of the MOMA show) where the problem appears ‘resolved” (Foster 61). Yet, since this is a movement that in essence robbed the voices of non-Westerners under the facade of inclusion, then this problem is clearly not “resolved.” Colonial motivations of power cannot be emphasized enough in the discussion of Primitivism because this structure underlies the entirety of this movement and formulated the majority of the contemporary discourse on the matter, thus furthering the perceived Western ownership of the rest of the world.

In conclusion, the problems inherent in Primitivism don’t solely have an effect on the art world. This movement is one of several that helped to repackage the terror and violence inherent in colonialism into a positive, civilizing process. Yes, Primitivist artists held a deep admiration for tribal culture, yet this should not take away from the severe dehumanization thus experienced by all those who were a part of these non-Western cultures. All of the issues that Primitivism presents, whether it be aestheticization, decontextualization, lack of genuine understanding, or marginalization in art historical discourse serve an Imperialist agenda thats deleterious effects go far beyond the art world.

Works Cited

  1. Amselle, Jean-Loup, Noal Mellott, and Julie Van Dam. “Primitivism and Postcolonialism in the Arts.” MLN 118.4 (2003): 974-88. JSTOR. Web.
  2. Clifford, James. “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern.” Grasping the World. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 636-52. Print.
  3. Foster, Hal. “The “Primitive” Unconscious of Modern Art.” The MIT Press 34 (1985): 43 70 JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.
  4. Kramer, Hilton. “The “Primitivism” Conundrum.” “Primitivism” Conundrum by Hilton Kramer. The New Criterion, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.
  5. Lagana, Louis. “The Primitivism Debate and Modern Art.” The Primitivism Debate and Modern Art. Academia, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.
  6. Mitter, Partha. “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery.” The Art Bulletin 90.4 (2008): 531-48. Web.
  7. Museum of Modern Art. New Exhibition Opening September 27 at Museum of Modern Art Examines “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art. N.p., n.d. Web.
  8. Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Primitivism and the Other. History of Art and Cultural Geography.” GeoJournal 60.4 (2004): 353-64. JSTOR. Web.

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Primitivism and the History of Primitivist Art. (2021, Sep 13). Retrieved from

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