The debate on primitivism: a wider perspective

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This article tries to achieve a wider perspective on the current debate on primitivism in modernist art. This is done by means of an overview of the history of primitivism in Western culture. After an introductory section in which key aspects of the current debate are presented, a fairly lengthy overview of the most important developments in the history of Western primitivism follows, starting with classical Greece and Rome. This makes it possible, in the concluding sections, to return to the current debate with a wider frame of reference, which can lead to new insights. Although the historical overview encompasses a wide variety of forms and applications, which might well prompt the reader to wonder whether the concept of primitivism has not been stretched somewhat, the use of this term throughout is maintained strictly within the boundaries of this concept as defined in the two classic works on the subject – by Goldwater (1938), on primitivism in modern art, and Lovejoy and Boas (1935), on the history of primitivism in Western culture.

In the introductory section the issue of colonialism is discussed in some detail – not only its impact on modernist art and art dealers, but also on the African masks that played such a fundamental role in the development of early modernism. It is shown that the mask that Maurice de Vlaminck discovered and later showed to André Derain, who showed it to Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, was a product of an indigenous response to the impact of colonialism. Likewise, the masks that inspired Picasso’s watershed sculptural piece Guitar seem to have been made in response to the devastating impact of colonialism.

In the historical overview it is shown that there were several forms of primitivism in ancient Greece and Rome, most notably “soft” primitivism and “hard” primitivism. The former takes the form of the familiar myth of the Golden Age, in which primordial humankind originally lived in blissful innocence, close to nature. During the Middle Ages this classical myth was merged with the Judaeo-Christian myth of an earthly Paradise to create a concept that was to have a momentous impact on Western intellectual history: From the 16th century onward, travellers in newly discovered parts of the world, such as the Americas, brought back accounts of “savages” who, uncorrupted by the evils of civilisation, were living in a blissful paradisiacal state. Many travellers and learned men in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries outdid one another in extolling the noble, innocent and blissful state of these “savages”. Thus the myth of the “noble savage” was born. However, this myth was essentially a renewal and continuation of the myth of the Golden Age – of the perfection and innocence of the primordial age. Primitivism in general, and the myth of the noble savage in particular, was used through the ages as a polemical device by would-be reformers – among others, egalitarians, communists, philosophical anarchists and pacifists – to criticise Western society, which, by contrast, was held up to be vicious, corrupt, and decadent.

The Renaissance transposed the primitivist myth of the Golden Age on to the historical period of classical Greek and Roman antiquity in a cultural programme that aimed, in a certain sense, to restore contemporary society to that ideal primordial state through cultural renewal, which entailed a return to what was seen as the ideal culture of classical antiquity. The Neo-Classical movement of the 18th century revived this Renaissance programme in a manner that brought its underlying primitivism strongly to the fore, with primitivist tendencies being manifested with startling vigour in fine art, poetry, as well as architecture.

The Romantics of the 19th century developed a new form of primitivism in the cult of the child, espoused by poets such as William Wordsworth and Friedrich Schiller as well as painters such as Philip Otto Runge. This tendency was developed further by Henri Rousseau, whose “naive” form of primitivism had a fundamental and wide-ranging impact on the development of modernism. Paul Gauguin gave a definitive form to the traditional “soft” primitivism propagated by Enlightenment philosophers such as Denis Diderot a century earlier and came to be regarded as the originator of a movement of which he is, in fact, the summation. It is argued that Rousseau has traditionally been viewed through a primitivist lens by art historians and the public to the detriment of his reputation as an artist. As a victim of primitivist attitudes, he has until recently been denied proper acknowledgment of his extraordinary contribution to the development of modernism as well as of his artistic genius.

In the next section Picasso’s Le Demoiselles d’Avignon is discussed in considerable detail, starting with feminist critiques of his attitude towards women in this painting. Leighton’s argument that this work as well as others by Picasso express his anarchist views, and can be seen as an anarchistic attempt to overthrow Western classical culture, is then presented and elaborated on by engaging the wider perspective of the history of primitivism. Several forms of primitivism are at play in this work, it is argued, and Picasso’s articulation and manipulation of them is complex and layered.

In conclusion it is shown that primitivism is not an exclusively Western phenomenon – many of the indigenous societies encountered in the Americas and elsewhere by early European discoverers and travellers and duly cast in the mould of the “primitive” or the “noble savage” themselves had primitivist myths of a lost primordial age of idyllic innocence and harmony. This type of myth was also widespread in Africa. Furthermore, it is fundamental to many religions worldwide, from the “primitive” to the “high” religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. This widespread occurrence gives some indication of why it is so difficult, even today, for us to move beyond primitivism – something that Geertz thinks might be impossible to achieve. It is argued here that the ethical values that implicitly underpin current criticism in the debate on primitivism in modernist art might themselves, to a significant extent, be the product of primitivist thought, as developed through the ages, not only by anarchists, communists and other radical groups, but also as a central aspect of Judaeo-Christian thought. In other words, the very values that lend weight and validity to these criticisms might themselves be inseparable from primitivist thought.

Keywords: Africa; colonialism; masks; modernism; Picasso; primitivism


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Die debat om primitivisme: ’n wyer perspektief

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