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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
:See also Primitivism in 20th Century Art

Primitivism refers to a) an artistic movement in particular which originated as a reaction to the Enlightenment, or b) the general tendency to idealize any social behavior judged relatively simple or primitive, whether in the arts, social sciences or elsewhere.

Rousseau was the first to draw attention to the concept of the 'noble savage'. What 18th Century culture lacked, he argued, was nature, passion, emotion, instinct and mysticism. The Romantics developed this idea further. They believed that 'modern' society was moving away from its traditional roots, losing touch with its true 'primitive' condition. Out of this came Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, Byron and Wordsworth, and later Conrad and Picasso.

Primitivism could also be seen as a set of modern European and Euro-American representational conventions inspired by non-Western art and artifacts. These conventions were first developed by Europeans and Euro-Americans who were dissatisfied with a variety of aspects of European culture, and sought to find what they were missing in other parts of the world. What emerged was a simplistic understanding of other cultures, structured by the primitivists' own desires, their lack of knowledge of other societies (e.g. Moroccan), and the racism of European society. Their work has contributed to an ongoing belief in the multitude of non-western societies as fundamentally similar in their "primitiveness," supposedly meaning their irrationality, closeness to nature, free sexuality, freedom, proclivity to violence, "mysticism," etc. Such artists, especially Picasso, are still popularly understood as somehow escaping European conventions and expressing "primal" impulses within themselves.

Paul Gauguin (painting) and early Igor Stravinsky (music) are two of the important examples of primitivist art. A prime example of primitivism in music is Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, whose "Dionysian" modernism he abandoned for a more "Apollonian" neo-classicism.

Some characteristics of primitivism

Primitivism is associated with:

  1. A concern with cultural phenomena on the periphery of European society--particularly sexuality, madness, spiritual punishment, violence, and alterity.
  2. Celebration of the "unconscious," often with the implication that non-western cultures are more "in touch" with the unconscious. A concern with dreams and symbols, often assumed to be "universal."
  3. Abstraction of the figure, particularly facial and bodily proportions. Inspired by "non-Western" arts, particularly African masks. Occidental primitivist artists were inspired by the visual abstraction of African artworks, which tend to favor it over naturalistic representation. This is because many African artworks, regardless of medium, tend to represent objects or ideas rather than depict them.
  4. Focus on rhythmic and percussive elements, especially in music and ritual performance.
  5. Overt sexuality, particularly when combined with exaggeration and exposure of the genitals. The assumption is that "non-Western" cultures have a greater appreciation of sexuality or sensuality than European and European settler societies. In the U.S., this movement was often associated with Africans or African-Americans--particularly the popularity of Josephine Baker, jazz, and the broad characterization (esp. in France) of Africans as "soul of rhythm."
  6. Flatness and geometric designs inspired by "non-Western" art forms.
  7. Application of paint in a rough, manipulated style, so as to connote "rawness."
  8. The history of Anthropological theory.

The origins of primitivism in western art

Western art has repeatedly searched for basic motifs to base art works upon, or to contrast with the normative world of day to day behavior, from the Greek satyr farces and use of older pottery motifs in architecture, through the acquisition of images from Ancient Egypt and Gothic revivals, the search for material from "before" has been part of the process of European art. Primitivism can be likened to other forms of archaism.

In the 18th and 19th century, many western artists took influences from other cultures, both European and otherwise, as a way of inflecting their work. Examples of this include the use of "Spanish" and "Turkish" sounds and "Egyptian" motifs. This tendency is labelled Exoticism in general and Orientalism when the culture was from the Islamic world or the Pacific Rim. Examples include the influence of Hiroshige on Vincent van Gogh.

In the late 19th century many European powers invaded and conquered large sections of Africa and Micronesia, and the United States established control over the native nations of Great Plains. These cultures were not, by and large, urbanized, and their art reflected a very different pattern of life and religion from the city based civilizations that Europeans had incorporated into artwork previously. The use of the exaggerated body proportions, animal totems, geometric designs and stark contrasts became fashionable. The first artist to systematically use these effects and achieve broad public success was Paul Gauguin; another important artist in the movement was Henri Rousseau.

It was with the rise of Modern art that primitivism gained a greater presence: in the context of the Modern, the "primitive" represented the libido, the "id" of psychoanalysis, as well as the unblemished and unrestrained sexuality associated with primitive tribes. This stood in marked contrast to European codes of behavior, which restricted sexual activity, and economic forces which resulted in later and later marriages.

Primitivism was adopted because many of the motifs and ideas associated in the minds of early 20th century Europeans - permissiveness, sexuality, the revelation of repressed urges - were associated with tribal culture, and pre-Christian religious practices, including Human sacrifice.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Primitivism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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