Definition, Characteristics of Primitive Art.

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Adam (1938, Harewood House)
By Jacob Epstein.

Primitivism and Primitive Art


Definition and Characteristics: Primitive Art, Primitivism
Influence of Primitivism on Western Art
Primitive Style Sculptures
Primitive Style Paintings
Primitives: Art Brut or Naive/Outsider Art
Primitivism Versus Prehistoric Art
As Opposed To Academic Art
The Issue of Aesthetics
What Are the Features of Primitive Art?

Traditional Congolese Figurine (c.1900)
Fetish effigy of Nkisi Nkondi
BNK collection. A vivid example of
so-called "primitive" African sculpture.

Definition and Characteristics

The term "Primitive Art" is a rather vague (and unavoidably ethnocentric) description which refers to the cultural artifacts of "primitive" peoples - that is, those ethnic groups deemed to have a relatively low standard of technological development by Western standards.

It includes African Art (sub-Saharan), Oceanic Art (Pacific islands), Aboriginal Art (Australia) as well as other types of Rock Art from prehistory and also Tribal Art from (eg.) the Americas and South-East Asia. The notion of "primitive" people dates from the Age of Discovery (c.1500 onwards), and is largely (though not exclusively) associated with a Christian-Caucasian world view.

One should note however that the term "primitive art" is not typically used to describe Chinese, Indian or Islamic artworks, or works from any of the major cultures including Egyptian, Greek or Roman Civilizations.

The Dream (1910)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
By Henri Rousseau.
A masterpiece of primitivist naif art.

Many examples of primitive art
are available online as poster art.

See: History of Art.

For sculpture and assemblage,
see: Plastic Art.
For ornamental designwork,
see: Decorative Art.
For artworks made from salvaged
material, see: Junk Art.
For a general classification,
see: Visual Art.

The term "Primitivism", which emerged in fine art during the late 19th-century, is used to describe any art characterized by imagery and motifs associated with such primitive art. Marked by ethnographic forms, often of great visual power, this artistic primitivism dates from the 1890s when it appeared in the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and quickly led to a trend among French and German artists of the Expressionist avant-garde. Indeed, several began to visit collections of ethnological artifacts: in 1902, the British-American sculptor Jacob Epstein visited the Trocadero Museum in Paris, as did Derain and Vlaminck in 1904-5, and Picasso in 1907; in 1903 and 1906, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner visited the ethnological collection in Dresden; in 1907, Kandinsky saw the new collection of primitive exhibits in Berlin, which was also visited by Schmidt-Rottluff, Franz Marc and others.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.
For the best plastic art,
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Influence of Primitivism on Western Art

From 1906 onwards, dealers like Paul Guillaume, as well as artists like Matisse, Picasso, Derain and Braque, began buying African tribal masks and figurines. As a result, the influence of "Negro art" on both painting and sculpture became quite noticeable in Paris after 1907, and in Berlin, Dresden and London after 1912. By 1920 it had become virtually universal, and continued until the early 1930s when Oceanic, Indian and Eskimo art became a leading source of inspiration for the Surrealists and their followers.

Among artists most influenced by primitivism were the German expressionists Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and Max Pechstein (1881-1955), the Fauvist Henri Matisse (1869-1954), the modern Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), the British sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), the Paris-based Italian portraitist and sculptor Modigliani (1884-1920), and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), among many others. Russian primitivism had a major impact on Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) who developed a style calle Neo-Primitivist art. The impact of African, Oceanic, Aboriginal and other so-called primitive art on Western artists continues to this day, and encompasses a number of forms including painting, sculpture, assemblage, body art (such as face painting and body painting), tattooing, wood carving and others.



Primitivist Sculptures and Paintings

Although painters were the first to take an interest in primitivism, its greatest impact was on sculpture. The Fauvist painter Andre Derain even taught himself to carve limestone in order to produce primitive-style works. Among the greatest works of art created in the primitive manner are the following:

Greatest Primitive-Style Sculptures

Oviri (The Savage Woman) (1891-93) by Paul Gauguin.
Crouching Figure (1907) by Andre Derain.
Standing Nude (1907) by Andre Derain.
The Kiss (1908) by Constantin Brancusi.
Woman Dancing (1908-12) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Sleeping Muse (1910) by Constantin Brancusi.
The First Step (1913) by Constantin Brancusi.
Red Stone Dancer (1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound (1914) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
Assunta (1921) by Georg Kolbe.
Adam (1938) Jacob Epstein's awesome Neanderthal statue.
Crouching Woman (The Farewell) by Henri Laurens.
Jacob and the Angel (1940-41) by Jacob Epstein.
Baboon and Young (1952) by Pablo Picasso.
Divided Head (1963) Easter Island-style bronze sculpture by Cesar.

Greatest Primitive-Style Paintings

The Moon and the Earth (1893, MoMA, New York) by Paul Gauguin - a work in which Gauguin identifies the uncivilized female body with both lunar rhythms and the regenerative powers of the earth.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, MoMA, New York) - Pablo Picasso's ground-breaking Cubist work based on African art forms.
The Dance (1910, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), Matisse's monumental blue-orange-green painting.
Caryatide (1912, Sogetsu Museum of Art, Tokyo), one of Amedeo Modigliani's many "primitivist" canvases.
Young Men From Papua (1913-14, Staatliche Museen, Berlin), Emil Nolde's hugely expressive canvas which melds native figures with breaking waves.

Primitives: Naive/Outsider Art

In addition, the term "Primitivism" is also used to describe art created by "primitives" - the name given to certain artists, usually self-taught, whose paintings are usually simplistic in form and colour, and lacking in conventional motifs like chiaroscuro, linear perspective and other types of proportionality. Characterized by child-like imagery, this Western-style category of primitive art is also known as "Outsider art", "Naive art", or Art Brut ("raw art") and is exemplified by the work of Henri Rousseau 'Le Douanier' (1844-1910): see, for instance, his masterpieces The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) and The Dream (1910), both at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Other primitive artists include: Paul Klee (1879-1940), Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964), L.S. Lowry (1887-1976), Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Asger Jorn (1914-73), Karel Appel (1921-2006) and other members of the 1950s European avant-garde. The largest holding of Outsider art is Jean Dubuffet's Collection de l'Art Brut - located in Lausanne Switzerland. A smaller assembly is The Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), featuring works by artists like Aloise, Henry Darger, Madge Gill, Hauser, J.B. Murry, Oswald Tschirtner, Van Genk, Wolfli, Zemankova, and others.

Prehistoric Art is not Primitivism

All sculpture (eg. Venus Figurines) and painting (eg. cave painting) created during the Paleolithic Era (Stone Age) - that is, during the period up to 10,000 BCE - is classified as Prehistoric Art. Since all humans of this period lived a primitive existence, the term "primitive art" does not apply to the prehistoric age. (See also: Prehistoric Art Timeline.)

Integral Part of History and Culture

Note however, that art is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a culture, linked up with the history of the culture and with the history of the people. Consequently, we should view primitive art as merely a general term covering a variety of historical phenomena; the products of different races, mentalities, temperaments, historical events, and influences of environment. Every people, however primitive, has developed a specific style by giving preference to certain objects and patterns or certain arrangements of lines and spaces.

Primitivism As Opposed To Academic Art

The dehumanizing effects of 19th-century industrialization, combined with the carnage of the Great War (1914-18), caused a number of artists to become disillusioned by the culture and values of their own society which they saw as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Fine art - especially the official "academic art" taught in the Academies - was identified with these corrupt values. In comparison, "primitive" art seemed more spontaneous, more honest and more emotionally charged.

Primitivism and Aesthetics

To categorize a painting or piece of sculpture as "primitive" presupposes the existence of "non-primitive" art. How should we describe such a category of "non-primitive" art? - Modernist? Progressive? Technologically advanced? None of these descriptions seem satisfactory. Perhaps because there is no such category. After all, aesthetics is not a science - there is no such thing as "advanced beauty" or "primitive beauty".

We Most Appreciate Art That is Familiar to Us

Quite often it seems as though a complete enjoyment of beauty is only possible when we are confronted with a work of art which either belongs to our own kind of culture, or is at least superficially related to our own aesthetics or ideals of artistic beauty. The combinations of form and colour evolved by foreign civilisations may have many attractions, but they remain shrouded in a mysterious atmosphere which can be quite alien to us.

Works reflecting the style of "primitivism" can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.


Bad Art is Not Primitive Art

Since the first stage of anything is usually undeveloped and unfinished, a popular meaning has grown up for the word "primitive", denoting something crude - lacking that certain accord of lines, spaces or colours, which is the source of our emotional sensation when we look at a real work of art. The "primitive work" in this sense, may be simply the work of a bungler who lacks both artistic inspiration and technical skill, in which case it has nothing to do with real primitiveness but is simply bad art without even a documentary value to recommend it. On the other hand, if it is the work of a savage or a child, it will have some importance at least as genetic or psychological evidence.

Fashion Dictates Aesthetics

An art style is not a static but a dynamic phenomenon, bound up and changing with a specific period of cultural development. It is an established fact that there is something like a periodicity of art styles, corresponding to a periodicity of tastes. It is not certain to what extent the style and the emotional reaction to it are conditioned by each other. The most obvious characteristic of modern artistic taste is simplicity. Living in a highly complicated world, noisy and mechanised to breaking point, twentieth-century man developed a strong tendency towards simplicity - simplicity in the external forms of daily life, a distaste for ornamentation in architecture, furniture and utensils, and a preference for primitiveness and spontaneity, rather than refinement and sophistication. That is why the simplicity of many primitive arts appeals to him so strongly. The critic G.A. Stevens once wrote: "Primitive art is the most pure, most sincere form of art there can be, partly because it is deeply inspired by religious ideas and spiritual experience, and partly because it is entirely unselfconscious as art; there are no tricks which can be acquired by the unworthy, and no technical exercises Which can masquerade as works of inspiration. Such a judgment, however, is only justified by comparatively limited sections of the art of primitive races. In point of fact the "primitive" artist is not always as naive as one would like to think.

What Are the Features of Primitive Art?

(1) Technique

Inadequate technical means are not necessarily characteristic of "primitive art". On the contrary the materials in which the primitive artist works - stone, ivory, bone, wood, day and metal - are largely the same as those of the European artist. Even in painting, the colour pigments from minerals, vegetables and even animals are in many cases similar. The means at the disposal of the primitive artist belong to his cultural level, and to his surroundings. In an African shrine or temple an oil painting on canvas would be both historically untrue and aesthetically unpleasing. Primitive methods vary considerably yet we find similar techniques applied in altogether different areas. The method of sculpture in wood, for example, is predominantly chopping, not carving. The tool is a kind of adze. The result in the finished piece is a faceted surface showing the unplaned marks of the tool. This technique is' prevalent in Western and Southern Africa, New Guinea and Northwest America. The aim of the primitive artist is good craftsmanship. The conditions under which he works are different from those of his" civilised" colleague. Before he can begin an artistic work he has first to collect, manufacture and prepare his tools and his material, and usually he has to do all this single-handed. Take, for example, the North American Indian painter. Among the Plains Indians it is the women who are responsible for the geometric type of decorative art. The men confine themselves to representative paintings. In both cases plants or minerals must be collected to provide the paints. They must then be boiled or ground and mixed with size or fat to set the pigment. A buffalo hide must then be carefully prepared and the surface made as smooth as possible for the painting. Even after a very complicated preparatory process the surface is still so rough that outlines must first be pressed into the ground before the drawing proper can be carried out, and the drawing must be repeated several times to press the pigment thoroughly into the hide. Consequently, a polychrome picture is actually a coloured engraving rather than a simple drawing. Fixing requires another complicated process, but this is only applied in geometric designs. All this preparatory work requires skilled craftsmanship and is largely mechanical. So was the work of a European painter in former times. Today, art material of every description can be bought ready made. It is only the sculptors who are still tied to any considerable amount of mechanical craftsmanship.

Generally speaking, the primitive artist is faced with a difficult technical task. That does not mean, however, that he is not a true artist with ideas of his own and sometimes genuine artistic inspiration. Many years ago Professor Franz Boas of Columbia University met an Indian from Vancouver Island who had been a good painter, though his works were in the traditional style of the Northwest coast. This Indian was so seriously ill that he was confined to his bed. But during his illness he used to sit up holding his brush between his lips, silent and apparently oblivious of his surroundings, He could hardly be induced to speak, but when he spoke he dilated upon his visions of designs that he could no longer execute. Undoubtedly his was "the mind and the attitude of a true inspired artist." This intimate connection with solid craftsmanship seems to be the reason why the primitive artist is so frequently successful. The primitive artist not only knows from the beginning exactly what he wants, but continues with unwavering constancy until it is attained.

(2) Vision

It has been suggested that the absence of perspective and other aesthetic devices makes even primitive arts of high quality tend to seem either grotesque or monotonous to us on first contact with them. This may hold good for some primitive art but it cannot be accepted for all. In view of the great variety of altogether different types; generalisations are dangerous. Similarly, violent deviations from reality cannot be taken as characteristic of purely primitive vision, for they are found also in the art of highly developed cultures. This is especially true of the lack of perspective which one finds in Egyptian, Byzantine and Gothic art, but it is also evident in the arbitrary proportion of limbs in figures painted by Botticelli or El Greco. On the other hand paleolithic and South African bushman artists have produced remarkable attempts at foreshortening, overlapping colours, linear perspective and colour shading. Indeed, some primitive artists have attained the highest level in realistic portrayal. Bushman paintings and drawings appeal to us strongly because we have no difficulty in understanding them. This type of graphic art is reminiscent of our own. It is simple and unsophisticated. Consequently, we find these works naive and "primitive" in an appreciative sense. We do not have to apply any new or unaccustomed kind of vision, for, in the long run, the primitive artist, like the European artist, works from life. It is true that a large proportion of primitive art has obviously been worked from memory, and that gods, demons and fantastic creatures are products of the artist's imagination, though some details may be, derived from real forms. But innumerable works of art, particularly sculptures, from Africa, the South Seas and America, are so realistic and individual that one can assume with certainty that the artists were actually working from nature. Above all, the sculptors of ancient Mexico and Peru (who were, of course, far from being really primitive) must have been looking directly at nature, and their works are in fact masterpieces of portraiture. In Africa the beautiful heads from Ife are no doubt life portraits, though some foreign influence may be responsible for this extraordinarily high standard of sculpture. But we find life portraits among even more primitive African tribes, in the Ivory Coast, the parkland of the Cameroons and the Congo Basin. Portraiture exists also in the Pacific area. The Maori of New Zealand have developed what may be called, "schematic" portraiture, whereby the patterns of tattooing, that infallible means of identification, rendered it possible to preserve the memories of the individual ancestors through pictorial representation.

The terms "realistic" or "naturalistic" art are usually applied to work which is done from life and hence is true to nature. But their meaning, though definite enough in sculpture, tends to become ambiguous when applied to the graphic arts. If we speak of a naturalistic painting we mean that it is true to the optical impression of the model as observed at a given moment from a given angle. But in a different sense of the term we may speak of naturalism or realism if an artist represents all the details actually in existence, not only those he can see at the moment but those he knows are there as well. In most primitive arts realism is of this kind. Arguably, it reaches its highest development in the X-ray drawings of Australia, Melanesia and the coastal regions of British Columbia and Southern Alaska. Here the artist depicts every detail of the body, including backbone, ribs and internal organs, because he regards these as no less important than the characteristic features of a man's outward appearance. This amazing method often comes from the artist's material interests in particular details, rather than from any aesthetic appreciation.

In Northwest America there are monumental wall-paintings representing killer whales (or other animals) which are distinguished by the rendering of vertebras and ribs. Typical of all Northwest American graphic art is the stylised representation of the joint. This strange visual method is restricted to a few regions in the Pacific area, and is supposed to be one of the indications that this district may have been affected by Western influences at some remote period in the past. Intellectual realism of this sort cannot claim to be either naive or simple. It is (paradoxically) a sophisticated kind of primitiveness.

The accentuation of certain features in a figure often leads to the disregard of others, so that realistic representation is gradually abandoned. It is eventually replaced by symbolism, where a few characteristic traits suffice to convey the idea of an object, and may be stylised and transformed into conventional signs. In an extreme stage of development an isolated claw and a single wing may symbolise a raven. But here we have already left the realm of naturalistic art and entered the sphere of abstract or conventional design.

Geometrical forms are found both in decorative drawings and as patterns in textiles and basketry. The variety of these patterns is endless, though some of them, such as zig-zag bands, frets, triangles, various types of crosses, etc., are frequent among altogether different peoples. They are, in fact, almost universal, and do not necessarily indicate any historical relation between the several arts in which they occur: We find four-square frets, for example, not only in ancient Greece and China, but also among South American Indians, Melanesians, African Bantus and other African peoples. But by a certain combination of patterns, however common the individual elements may be, the artist produces a specific style of marked national colouring which makes it possible for us to ascribe a decorated object to a certain people and often to a certain period. This, of course, holds good for the study of art in general and is not confined to primitive art.

In many cases decorative patterns are supposed to symbolise the material objects - animals, plants, and so forth - after which they are named. The connection between the pattern and its symbolic meaning arises in two ways; either by the deliberate simplification of a representative design as in Northwest America, or else conversely by the observation of incidental resemblances between the geometric pattern and its naturalistic interpretation.

In the decorative designs of the Indian tribes in the upper Xingu of the Matto Grosso (Brazil) two peculiar patterns are predominant: a simple equilateral black triangle called uluri and a parallelogram with the four angles marked by small equilateral triangles. The latter pattern is called mereshu. This is the name of a fish which is almost square in shape like a plaice. The four black triangles in the angles would then represent the head, dorsal fin, caudal fin, and ventral fin. Uluri is the name given to the only dress worn by the women of the tribe, actually a hygienic protection against insects, rather than a garment. It consists of a folded piece of palm leaf in the shape of an equilateral triangle covering barely two square inches and ending in a perineal band tied to a string which serves as a belt.

Professor Max Schmidt (late of the Ethnographical Museum at Berlin) has shown that both the uluri and mereshu patterns come about incidentally in plaited basket-work, which is the principal craft among the Xingu tribes. They arise particularly from the use of light and dark strips of palm leaf crossing each other in various combinations. It is clear then that both names must have been applied to them later, after the association of ideas had been aroused by the appearance of the patterns.

In some such way, the particular technique used by the craftsmen has often led to the development of symbolic designs and of a specific ornamental style. Incidental resemblances can easily produce associations which give a susceptible artist the impulse either to elaborate a natural object into a more complete representation of something which it already resembles, or simply to take it as a model. It has been suggested that the first artists of the Stone Age may have been inspired by strange natural forms, such as curiously shaped stones or rock promontories. One day in London, an antiquary showed me a stone in the shape of a bull's head, about two and a half inches long, which he held to be an example of paleolithic carving. This object actually had an amazing resemblance to a bull, but it proved on closer inspection to be a natural formation, and the resemblance was purely accidental.

Not only the form but also the colour of the material used in sculpture may influence the artist's inspiration. To take an example from a high cultural sphere: the Chinese, who have a special taste for working on hard stone of various colours (jade, agate, chalcedony, rose quartz, etc.), often adapt the incidental form and colouring of the stone in an incredibly skilful way In their carved vessels and figures. If by chance a piece of white agate reveals a red patch or vein, the stone cutter may produce a white vase surrounded by a cherry spray, and he so arranges it that the red patch gives the effect of the cherry. Similarly, a green vein may inspire him to represent a frog or a lizard.

Generalisations are particularly dangerous when it comes to the suggestive effect of technical forms. Among the Indians of Guyana we find the same type of plaited basket work as in other pans of South America, but here dark and light strips are deliberately and very skillfully arranged to represent animal figures (usually jaguars and snakes), so that it is no longer a question of accidental effects and their subsequent interpretation.

An appreciation of the effects of artificial decoration to a certain degree extends beyond the limits of the human race. Man in his earliest uncultured state may have been impressed by beauty as it occurs in nature long before he started to produce artistic forms himself or to imitate the lines and figures occurring in his natural environment. Certain primitive peoples of today have an obvious appreciation of the beauties of nature, and there are some tribes in Melanesia who, in their decorative art, attempt to depict even such phenomena as the rainbow and the luminosity of the sea by symbolic ornaments and not in a naturalistic style. For the full appreciation of a work of art it should be seen as far as possible in the setting for which it was created.

This is particularly true of primitive art because of its strange and altogether different cultural background. The statue of an ancestor or of a deity under African conditions of light, and intended to remain always in the gloom of a shrine or temple, cannot be expected to produce the same effect when it has been removed from its original surroundings and displayed in a glass cabinet in a European room. Other light and shade effects may appear and they may be no less attractive, but they are not original and they add a foreign note to the statue.

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