Everything you need to know about Primitiveism

Everything you need to know about Primitiveism


Paul Gauguin, Three Tahitian Women, 1896. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Primitiveism is a subset of Modern art inspired by the works of amateurs in nonindustrial societies, particularly tribes of Africa and Oceania. Although not a complete art style in itself, Primitiveism inspired many key artists and movements of the early 20th century, most notably Pablo Picasso and Cubism. .

What is Primitiveism?

Primitiveism: An appreciation and fervor towards original art, commonly understood as the art of Africa and the Pacific islands. Western artists were especially interested in this national art form from 1905 to 1935, starting with Fauves, Cubists and Die Brucke, who incorporated elements of primitive art into the work. mine. Therefore, anthropologists and art historians had to study this art movement more deeply.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Portrait of Alfred Döblin, 1912. Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard Museum of Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

When and where did it appear?

Primitiveism appeared in the second half of the 19th century in France. A major catalyst was the opening of the Trocadéro Museum in 1878 – the first museum to display the art of African tribes in Paris, France. Many artists have visited Trocadéro in search of inspiration, and quite a few of them have become African and Oceanian art collectors. Although Primitiveism began in France, it soon spread throughout Europe and America thanks to the great influence of the artists who first adopted it.


A Fang mask from 19th century in Gabon. Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen.

While the trends in artistic creation have seen a sharp shift after World War II, it can be said that Primitiveism never really ends. The lessons that mainstream European-American art learned from Africa and other “primitive” art styles are still useful today.

What is the meaning of this art movement?

Primitiveism can be seen as a movement against both conservative academic arts and the non-individual Industrial Revolution. In general, “primitive” art does not attach the same importance to naturalism, narrative and symbolism as traditional European art. Consequently, the adoption of these traditions has opened up many new visual paths to explore. Artists who find inspiration in Theravadaism also find a deep connection between non-academic art and spirituality. In other words, there is an opinion that art created by supposedly less civilized people is somehow purer and more instinctive than the modern western artificial art styles. Popularity.


Paul Gauguin, Three Tahitian Women, 1896. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Unlike other art currents, Primitiveism does not have consistent characteristics. Rather than being a true art style, it is also a general trend that appears in the works of various artists in diverse movements. Each person uses it differently. Its influence can be found in Post-Impressionism, German Expressionism, Surrealism, and most notably Cubism.

For many artists, the lack of emphasis on spontaneity, shape, linear perspective, and narrative is the main attraction of Primitiveism. Accordingly, we often see flat forms and the use of non-traditional perspective in works influenced by this tradition. The fractured images and many views of Cubism are also from Primitiveism. Many Theravada-inspired artists also use abstract geometric motifs and bright colors. As African masks are one of the most attractive objects to collect in the pioneering photo collection in Paris, mask-inspired images are also very popular. The most famous examples appear in the paintings by Pablo Picasso such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Gertrude Stein’s Portrait.


Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, (1907) © Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

The Theravada reference source is not necessarily limited to non-Western art. European artists also seek inspiration from their prehistoric culture artwork as well as from modern peasant culture. Some Theravadaists were also interested in folk arts, amateurs and children’s arts.

Primitiveism can also sometimes be reflected in the theme, absurdly by artists such as Paul Gauguin and Henri Rousseau. Rousseau is famous for its jungle scenes, while Gauguin lives among the French farmers in Brittany and the natives in Tahiti. Meanwhile, Surrealists explore the perceived spiritual aspects of Primitiveism rather than its aesthetic aspects. Many believe that “primitive” work of art embodies basic human truths in a way that is not possible with European-trained artwork.

Some prominent faces of Theravada include: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Constantin Brancusi, Ernst, Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Amedeo Modigliani, Max Weber, etc.


Constantin Brancusi, Portrait of Mlle. Pogany, 1912. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Origin of the name “Primitiveism”

There are a lot of interesting facts about Primitiveism, but its name is not among them. This term stems from the fact that the West often calls African, Oceania, and the indigenous cultures of North and South America “primitive”. It’s ironic that the artists drew inspiration from these cultures while at the same time defaming them through this term. Although the term “primitive art” to describe the arts of Africa, Oceania and Native America has lost interest recently, it is quite common to hear the term “Primitiveism”. to describe modern European artists influenced by these traditions.

It is also a pity that Theravada-inspired artists often make no effort to understand and respect their sources of reference. For these artists, it doesn’t matter who, how, and why. Instead, they take only the aspects they like and remove the rest that they consider inferior. Theravada, therefore, should not be confused with African-inspired works of art created by contemporary African artists.

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