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Josephine Baker dancing the charleston at the Folies Bergère in Paris for La Revue nègre in 1926. Notice the art deco background. (Photo by Walery)
Josephine Baker dancing the charleston at the Folies Bergère in Paris for La Revue nègre in 1926. Notice the art deco background.
(Photo by Walery)

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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.


Whether and to what extent we should simplify our lives and get "back to basics" is a debate that has been going on since the invention of writing. In antiquity the superiority of the simple life was expressed in the Myth of the Golden Age, depicted in the genre of European poetry and visual art known as the Pastoral. The debate about the merits and demerits of a simple, versus a complex life, gained new urgency with the European encounter with hitherto unknown peoples after the exploration of the Americas and Pacific Islands by Columbus and others.

During the Enlightenment, arguments about the supposed superiority of indigenous peoples were chiefly used as a rhetorical device to criticize aspects of European society. In the realm of aesthetics, however, the eccentric Italian philosopher, historian and jurist Giambattista Vico (1688–1744) was the first to argue that primitive man was closer to the sources of poetry and artistic inspiration than "civilized" or modern man. Vico was writing in the context of the celebrated contemporary debate, known as the great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, over which was better, the classic poetry of Homer and the Bible or modern vernacular literature.

In the eighteenth century, the German scholar Friedrich August Wolf identified the distinctive character of oral literature and located Homer and the Bible as examples of folk or oral tradition (Prolegomena to Homer, 1795). Vico and Wolf's ideas were developed further in the beginning of the nineteenth century by Herder. Nevertheless, although influential in literature, such arguments were known to a relatively small number of educated people and their impact was limited or non-existent in the sphere of visual arts.

The nineteenth century saw for the first time the emergence of historicism, or the ability to judge different eras by their own context and criteria. A result of this new historicism, new schools of visual art arose that aspired to a hitherto unprecedented levels of historical fidelity in setting and costumes. Neoclassicism in visual art and architecture was one result. Another such "historicist" movement in art was the Nazarene movement in Germany, which took inspiration from the so-called Italian "primitive" school of devotional paintings (i.e., before the age of Raphael and the discovery of oil painting).

Where conventional academic painting (after Raphael) used dark glazes, highly selective, idealized forms, and rigorous suppression of details, the Nazarenes used clear outlines, bright colors, and paid meticulous attention to detail. This German school had its English counterpart in the Pre-Raphaelites, who were primarily inspired by the critical writings of John Ruskin, who admired the painters before Raphael (such as Botticelli) and who also recommended painting outdoors, hitherto unheard of.

Two phenomena shook the world of visual art in the mid-nineteenth century. The first was the invention of the photographic camera, which arguably spurred the development of Realism in art. The second was a discovery in the world of mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry, which overthrew the two thousand year-old seeming absolutes of Euclidean geometry and threw into question conventional Renaissance perspective by suggesting the possible existence of multiple dimensional worlds and perspectives in which things might look very different.

The discovery of possible new dimensions had the opposite effect of photography and worked to counteract realism. Artists, mathematicians, and intellectuals now realized that there were other ways of seeing things beyond what they had been taught in Beaux Arts École des Beaux-Arts Schools of Academic painting, which prescribed a rigid curriculum based on the copying of idealized classical forms and held up Renaissance perspective Renaissance painting as the culmination of civilization and knowledge. Beaux Arts academies held than non-Western and tribal peoples had had no art or only inferior art.

In rebellion against this dogmatic approach, artists began to try to depict realities that might exist in a world beyond the limitations of the three dimensional world of conventional representation mediated by classical sculpture. They looked to Japanese and Chinese art, which was learned and sophisticated and did not employ Renaissance one-point perspective. Non-euclidean perspective (Cubism) and tribal art fascinated Western European artists who saw them as portraying the reality of the spirit world. They also looked to the art of untrained painters and to children's art, which they believed depicted interior emotional realities that had been ignored in conventional, cook-book-style academic painting.

Tribal and other non-European art also appealed to those who were unhappy with the repressive aspects of European culture, as pastoral art had done for millennia. Imitations of tribal or archaic art also fall into the category of nineteenth-century "historicism", as these imitations strive to reproduce this art in an authentic manner. Actual examples of tribal, archaic, and folk art were prized by both creative artists and collectors.

Paul Gauguin (painting) and Igor Stravinsky (music) are sometimes cited as examples of primitivism in art. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, is "primitivist" in that its programmatic subject is a pagan rite: a human sacrifice in pre-Christian Russia. It uses dissonance and loud, repetitive rhythms to depict "Dionysian" modernism, i.e., abandonment of inhibition (restraint standing for civilization). Nevertheless, Stravinsky was a master of learned classical tradition and worked within its bounds. In his later work he adopted a more "Apollonian" neoclassicism, to use Nietzsche's terminology, although in his use of serialism he still rejects nineteenth-century convention. In modern visual art, Picasso's work is also understood as rejecting Beaux Arts artistic expectations and expressing primal impulses, whether he worked in a cubist, neo-classical, or tribal-art-influenced vein.

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.

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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