Primitivism is an artistic phenomenon of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was based on the search for artistic inspiration in mostly non-European cultures. At a time of intense industrialization, many artists turned to the artistic traditions of Africa and Oceania in response to the modernization trends of the West. Famous artists who worked in the spirit of primitivism are Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Henry Rousseau, Constantin Brancusi, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova.
Primitivism and Otherness
The idea of primitivism is based on the paradox that Western culture should be reshaped on the principles of non-Western cultures, although it a priori categorizes them as inferior through the very epithet primitive.
Edward Said’s theory of Otherness in his famous work Orientalism points to the dynamics of the development of this phenomenon and the deep roots of cultural patterns that survive on the Orient-Occident dichotomy. Primitivism as an artistic phenomenon translates this dichotomy into the Industrialized West – the Non-Industrialized Rest of the World. The art of primitivism, whose most famous representative is Paul Gauguin, longed above all for new motives and a new ambience that needed to be found as far away as possible from European industrialized cities. The philosophy of the Enlightenment, which largely determined the political life in many countries of the world during the so-called long nineteenth century, also had an impact on the emergence of primitive art. The idea of harmony and true freedom that characterizes the state of Nature is impossible to realize in its fullness in modern societies claimed Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Following these ideas, myths arose about noble but primitive, unenlightened but wise peoples whose visual culture served as a model for artists of primitivism.
After rejecting the impressionist principles of painting, Gauguin transformed his painting expression during several waves. The key phase in the development of his painting is the one during which he stayed at Pont Aven.
In this painting colony, Gauguin came up with defining formulas in the domain of form, color, and perspective. The traditional frames of life in a small town, the pious population, and various forms of folk art in Brittany inspired Gauguin to a great extent.
At this point, Gauguin comes to Synthetism – a painting principle based on the two-dimensional nature of painting and its essence expressed through the synthesis of lines and painted surfaces with the initial idea or sentiment of the presented scene. This structure of the painting, which Gauguin later developed in collaboration with Vincent van Gogh, reached a peak in his work in the 1890s. Gauguin left France and went first to Panama and then to Martinique.
Landscapes and paintings with motifs of everyday life of the locals created on this island are the first authentically primitive Gauguin’s paintings – created outside the European continent. His stays in Tahiti will finally shape his primitivist style.
Art history offers different views on the role of Gauguin’s art and his life in Tahiti in general. On the one hand, Gauguin’s departure from Europe for the sake of living in Polynesia can be interpreted as an expression of true devotion to his art for the sake of which the artist is ready to give up comfort.
Some art historians see this procedure as a privileged adventure of a white patriarchal capitalist who uses the colonial apparatus for the needs of self-promotion and exploitation of the local population. However, in order to understand the phenomenon of primitivism in a historically adequate way, it should be viewed in the context of the historical circumstances of that time.
Gauguin’s primitivist art created in Tahiti brings numerous themes and scenes from the authentic life of the locals, and even more stylized individual or group portraits and landscapes that resonate with traditional European painting. In paintings such as The Moon and the Earth and Primitive Tales, in the woodcut Maruru – Offerings of Gratitude or in wooden idols he made, the influence of the visual culture of Tahiti is noticeable. In terms of motifs, Gauguin’s painting underwent a complete transformation thanks to his stay in Tahiti.
His primitivist painting, which was created during the 1890s, relied entirely on the synthesis of Pont Aven in terms of technique, but in terms of motifs, it brings a revolutionary novelty to European art history. In pictures like Delightful Land, Two Tahitian Women, Maternity or Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Gauguin’s tendency towards iconographic solutions characteristic of Christian sacral compositions or classicist portraits is recognizable. Gauguin’s great posthumous retrospective exhibitions held at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1903, and another in 1906, had a huge impact on many modern artists.
Henri Rousseau is a self-taught artist who has exhibited regularly at the Salon des Indépendants since 1886. His painting did not attract much attention and was often judged by critics as naive and infantile. However, the unusual painting style that Rousseau developed thanks to the lack of formal education was the factor that determined his highly ranked position in the history of modern art. Although he did not travel to the exotic places he painted, nor did he have the opportunity to stay in tropical rainforests, the city’s natural oases such as botanical gardens were enough for Rousseau to develop his primitive poetics. The harmony of tones and lines with a kind of dream atmosphere that Rousseau managed to develop aroused the admiration of many modern artists in Paris, including Pablo Picasso, who hosted Le Banquet Rousseau in honor of this artist, attended by Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Metzinger, Max Jacob, André Salmon, Maurice Raynal, Leo Stein, and Gertrude Stein.
The period between 1906 and 1909 in Picasso’s work is also known as the African period. This proto-Cubist phase was characterized by the artist’s fascination with traditional African masks, Iberian sculpture, and the art of ancient Egypt. Following in the footsteps of Cezanne’s achievements in experiments with perspective and Gauguin’s primitivist motifs, Picasso painted numerous paintings during these three years, the most significant of which is The Young Ladies of Avignon. This painting ingeniously brings a synthesis of mentioned influences. By annulling the linear perspective and innovatively grouping the geometrized bodies of prostitutes with mask-like faces as well as choosing the title, this painting does not take us to distant exotic countries, but with its wholeness represents local – domesticated primitivism.
Neo-primitivists bring a new dimension to the art of primitivism through the prism of national art. Artists gathered around the ideas formulated in the book Neo-Primitivism by Alexander Shevchenko from 1913 worked on the synthesis of formal achievements of Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso with Russian folk art. In the case of these artists, the escape from industrialization and alienation from nature is not an escape into Otherness but into one’s own past. Notable members of the group are Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, David Burliuk, Aleksandr Shevchenko.
Constantine Brancusi is one of the founders of modern sculpture. Although he worked in the workshops of Antonin Mercié of the École des Beaux-Arts and in the workshop of Auguste Rodin, Brancusi then completely abandoned the traditional approach to both the making and form of sculpture. By emphasizing clean geometric lines and mostly working in the carving technique, this sculptor paved the way for the development of sculpture in twentieth-century art. In addition to the European cultural heritage such as Romanian folk tradition and Byzantine art, Brancusi was mostly inspired by non-European cultures.
Notable Primitivist Artists
- Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
- Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)
- Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962)
- Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964)
- Aleksandr Shevchenko (1882-1948)
- Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
- Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
- Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)
Related Art Terms
- Non-Western Art
- Modern Art
- Folk Art
- African and Oceanic art