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Primitivism Collage

Primitivism

Started: 1890

Ended: c.1945

Primitivism Timeline

Quotes

"Its absolute primitiveness, its intense, often grotesque expressions of strength and life in the very simplest form."
Emil Nolde
"We must be brave and turn our backs upon almost everything that until now good Europeans like ourselves thought precious and indispensable. Our ideas and our ideals must be clad in hair shirts, they must be fed on locusts and a wild honey, not on history, it we are ever to escape from the exhaustion of our European bad taste."
Franz Marc
"One does not seem to suspect in Europe that there exists, among the Maoris of New Zealand, as with the Marquesans, a very advanced decorative art."
Paul Gauguin
"I am striving for, strength and inwardness."
Emil Nolde
"When I am in these hothouses and see the strange plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am entering a dream"
Henri Rousseau
"An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc."
Henry Matisse
"To value as art what is now a ruin; to locate what one lacks in what one has destroyed: more is at work here than compensation. Like fetishism, primitivism is a system of multiple beliefs, an imaginary resolution of a real contradiction: repression of the fact that a breakthrough in our art, indeed a regeneration of our culture, is based in part on the breakup and decay of other societies, that the modernist discovery of the primitive is not only in part its oblivion but its death. And the final contradiction or aporia is this: no anthropological remorse, aesthetic elevation or redemptive exhibition can correct or compensate this loss because they are all implicated in it."
Hal Foster - The Primitive Unconscious of Modern Art

KEY ARTISTS

Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin
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Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
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Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
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Constantin Brâncu?iConstantin Brâncu?i
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Ernst Ludwig KirchnerErnst Ludwig Kirchner
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Jean DubuffetJean Dubuffet
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"Primitive sculpture has never been surpassed."

Pablo Picasso Signature

Synopsis

A complex and, at times, contradictory tendency, "Primitivism" ushered in a new way of looking at and appropriating the forms of so-called "primitive" art and played a large role in radically changing the direction of European and American painting at the turn of the 20th century. Primitivism was not so much an artistic movement but a trend among diverse modern artists in many countries who were looking to the past and to distant cultures for new artistic sources in the face of increasing industrialization and urbanization. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, the influx of tribal arts of Africa, Oceania, and Native Americans into Europe offered artists a new visual vocabulary to explore. In many ways, Primitivism provided artists a way to critique the stagnant traditions of European painting. Primitive art's use of simpler shapes and more abstract figures differed significantly from traditional European styles of representation, and modern artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse used these forms to revolutionize painting and sculpture.

While on its face, Primitivism was an attempt to embrace and raise the status of tribal arts, it was itself an inherently Eurocentric enterprise and, in many cases, was biased against the very arts it appropriated. Throughout the later 20th century and into the 21st, artists and scholars have attempted to historically contextualize Primitivism and expose its shortcomings as a framework for understanding art from non-European cultures.

Key Ideas

As understood by the modern artists, primitive art not only provided new aesthetic forms, it also offered a deeper and more complex emotional and spiritual model that the artists employed to critique the modernization of Western society. Tinged with nostalgia, Primitivism sought connections to a pre-industrialized past in which people were more connected with nature and each other.
The lasting legacy of Primitivism and the long-enduring assumptions about the inferior quality of art from colonized areas has made it difficult to incorporate African, Aboriginal, and Native American artists into art historical narratives, but attempts at creating a global art history are underway.
Contemporary responses to Primitivism, often by African American artists and others with a connection to various countries in Africa, are an attempt not to simply appropriate the forms of tribal arts but to explore, recuperate, and reimagine the fullness of African heritage in contemporary society.

Beginnings

Primitivism Image

The term "primitive" derives from the Latin, meaning "the first or earliest of its kind." Travelers to the South Seas and Africa brought back tales of new cultures that little resembled what Europeans knew or valued. Europeans admired these new cultures for their exoticism but also looked down upon them, understanding them to be essentially "uncivilized" in their manners and customs. As art historians Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten point out, the label "primitive" does not exist without the idea of the "civilized." The two terms are necessarily relational and create an ideological construct that renders what is primitive lacking in sophistication, but the interest in the primitive also pointed to a nostalgic tendency to prioritize a pre-industrial past in which one's relation to nature was primary.

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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