March 11, 2008


Writing about web page /ha240/entry/next_weeks_seminar/

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, MOMA 1984-5

Primitivism (defined, according to the Tate Modern online dictionary of art)

Term used to describe the fascination of early modern European artists with what was then called primitive art. This included tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art. Such work has had a profound impact on modern Western art. The discovery of African tribal art by Picasso around 1906 was an important influence on his painting in general, and was a major factor in leading him to Cubism. Primitivism also means the search for a simpler more basic way of life away from Western urban sophistication and social restrictions. The classic example of this is Gauguin's move from Paris to Tahiti in the South Pacific in 1891. Primitivism was also important for Expressionism, including Brücke. As a result of these artists' interest and appreciation, what was once called primitive art is now seen as having equal value to Western forms and the term primitive is avoided or used in quotation marks.

A brief look at the exhibition/ two of the artists. I’ve tried to pull together stuff from articles I’ve found so sorry if it seems a bit, well, bitty! The Exhibition catalogue itself is over 300 pages long and contains some brilliant, scholarly essays about Primitivism and the Exhibition itself.

Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern was a 1984 exhibition at the MoMA. It looked at primitive art by the African and Oceanic cultures, and discusses its influence on Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Klee, Moore and various movements in modernist art." It was curated by William Stanley Rubin.

The exhibition was large—218 tribal objects from Africa, North America and the Pacific playing counterpoint to 147 modern ones. In organizing the show, MOMA's director of painting and sculpture, William Rubin, set out to unravel a controversial subject, located in and embodied by racial discourse, by bringing all the resources of scholarship to bear on it while still leaving the viewer exhilarated by the beauty and intensity of the works. About four years in preparation, the exhibition was the height of Rubin's career—one which, in previous years, produced MOMA's great shows of Picasso and Cezanne. The four years of planning was spent finding not just the general kinds of tribal objects artists were looking at but, in many cases, the art itself. The catalogue written by a strong team of art historians headed by Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, is detailed and readable, opening a new phase in the study of its subject.

The list of artists in this show is impressive. Many of them and their works, or the objects they were looking at, are dealt with in considerable detail. For example, Gauguin: Gauguin's stay in Tahiti and the Marquesas from 1891 to 1903 is by now one of the soap operas of art history. Yet the curious fact, as Varnedoe points out in his catalogue essay, was that Polynesian art made virtually no impact on his painting; all its primitive elements—the flatness, the sinuous friezelike poses, the outlining—were either there already or deduced from photographs of Javanese, Cambodian and other Oriental material that he took with him. (One should not forget that in the 1880s, Frenchmen were still talking about Japanese art as art pri-mitif.) When he did quote Tahitian art, Gauguin played fast and loose with it, basing (in There Is the Marae, 1892) a Tahitian fence on the design of a tiny Marquesan earplug. In his Tahiti, primitivism was cousin to Baudelaire's paganism and Delacroix's orientalism—a celebration of what Gauguin called "uncertain luxe barbare d'autre-fois" (a certain barbaric luxury of older times). It rested on sensuality and nostalgia. It was Paradise Depraved.

Gauguin talked and wrote incessantly about being a primitive man—a condition he identified with that of an artist, a mind instinctively coupled to spirits, ancestors and myths. This defined his importance to modernist primitivism. But his work treated tribalism as spectacle, like the imported "native" villages and trophy walls featured in French colonial exhibitions.

From the 1880s onward, there was no lack of African and Oceanic tribal art on public view. There was also plenty to be bought—though much of it, including some of the masks and figures that influenced Derain, Matisse and Picasso, was poor stuff made, even then, in Africa for the souvenir-and-curio market. So why did the avant-garde not start imitating it before about 1905? The reason, Rubin argues, was that modernism used primitivism when it needed to, and not before. A Fang mask or a Kota funerary effigy would have been useless to an impressionist, whose ambition was to render perceptual reality as faithfully as possible. But the drift of fauvism and especially cubism was toward the conceptual: and here the idea of representing, say, a face as a flat plane with knoblike eyes and a cylindrical funnel of a mouth was infinitely suggestive. Certainly it was convenient for Picasso to re-jig the human face in terms of bladelike noses and scarification lines, a L'Africaine. But cubism was not, as has naively been said in the past, "set off" by the "discovery" of tribal art; the perception of one reinforced the perception of the other. Sometimes the most striking "family" likenesses appear between works that have no possible connection. A case in point is Russian Constructivist Sculptor Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine's Symphony No. 1, 1913, a figure done in swoops and slats of painted wood that one would swear—if there were not clear evidence that he had I never seen it — was based on an openwork Baga bird headI dress from Guinea in the Musee de 1'Homme in Paris.

The African works did not need to be masterpieces of their own style. The face of Matisse's Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1913, possibly one of the dozen greatest portraits of the 20th century, was based on a mediocre Fang mask from Gabon. Sometimes, though, a modernist work would take off from an African object of the first rank. Such was the case with Picasso's bronze of Marie-Therese Walter, 1931, whose erotically swollen blimp of a nose is based on an effigy he owned of the fertility goddess Nimba from the Baga. The sight of these two sculptures confronting each other is as much a spectacle of parity as a Rubens beside its prototype, a Titian.

"Everything I need to know about Africa is in these objects," Picasso declared.

Neither he nor any of his contemporaries cared much about the social background or specific religious meanings of the work — and probably the more low-brow avantgarde-ists, like Maurice de Vlaminck, mentally reduced it all to missionary-stew cliché. Not even Brancusi, whose borrowings of African motifs were of the most exalted refinement (as in Madame L.R., 1914-18, whose domed "head" comes from a Hongwe reliquary figure), had an "anthropological" interest in his sources. To him they were pure form.

Yet all artists, and Picasso most of all, were enthralled by the associative power of the fetish. The otherness of tribal art was infinitely compelling, and remains so today: practically no Western sculpture in the 20th century has the sheer iconic majesty of the wooden goddess from the Caroline Islands lent to MOMA from Auckland, New Zealand, or the creepy terribilita of the British Museum's figure of the Austral Islands' god A'a, one of Picasso's favourites. The main value of primitive art to modernism was not formal but quasi-magical. It gave the artist what academism could not: shamanistic power, a sense of the numinous. Muttering the spell, even in macaronic form, still provoked a delicious shudder of possibility:

What if this works? This, in essence, was the purpose underlying the uses made of primitive art by surrealism, expressionism, abstract expressionism and their various sequels. It may be sublimated into anxiety, as in the tautly mysterious early work of Giacometti; or transposed into flyaway humour, as in Klee; or semi-industrialized, as in the fulsome productions of late Dubuffet; or, by a host of minor artists, boorishly rehashed as a sign of "sincerity." But it never quite goes away — for who wants to face the tedium of a wholly secular culture?

Contemporary Reviews of the Exhibition:

I found these reviews really useful to read because they describe the exhibition and the experience of it very vividly, but they also help to read the exhibition contemporaneusly with other exhibitions going on during this period. Importantly, they give the critical analysis of the exhibition which the catalogue does not.

Primitivism and the Modern
James F. Knapp
boundary 2 > Vol. 15, No. 1/2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 365-379Stable URL:

Review: 'Primitivism' in Twentieth Century Art. Detroit
Author(s) of Review: Charles W. Haxthausen
Reviewed Work(s):
The Burlington Magazine > Vol. 127, No. 986 (May, 1985), pp. 324-327
Stable URL:

November 22, 2007

brigley's seminar

Wet Dream

The pattern of melted

Cream on faded dungarees

And a shaving rash

She’s had since birth.

The second time was better

Than the first,

Something educated in

Acting out a posthumously scripted part.

The naked man in the universe

With Blue Eyes and

A Bottle of Beer,

And any kind of sex you want

In shadow puppets on the wall.

A little social lubrication for

This outmoded furry fear.

She sees paint-by-number faces

Blocked in against her “home, sweet home”

A maladapted pig in orange.

The scar tissue like a leathered kiss

Between her dehydrated thighs

Is changing like the seasons,

Shedding lips.

On the broken arched sole of a foot

Is the typewriter missing the fatness of an “O”

And underneath pushed-back cuticles

Half-moons crown the hungry,

Swollen calluses on fingers

Of a blinded circus clown.


A distillation of a perfect form,

Sphinx-like. Extreme. The slow, careful writing

on the wall. Red encrusted mud dries out

the sole. And perfect rows of cats crack time.


Stand! Blood is bone. Many mouths and eyes feathering water. Come lie head to head, cold, newness of a good, round name. The earth, clouded. The Sun, rained-in. Two big stars and a small woman burn the ashes on the mountain road. Sand and bark, bite the cold, full sleep of knowing. A belly, neck and breast. A moon, drinking, dying. Come, walk this black night on two far fingernails and skin the dog, kneeling at the foot of the tree, longing for blood. See, hear, smoke the name that many know in sleep, this cold, full, newness of a name. Fish-eggs lie, bloodless on a leaf. I, who know not what I kill, see louse, bird, heart. The livered, yellow belly and the burning, red of the mountain road. A person, eyes, ears, head, mouth and nose, stands biting the hand of a small woman. Fingernails and bone, bloodless against the bark. Her neck is white in the new yellow moon, her breast dry, dying, swimming in two. Who drinks the tongue or tooth of a good, round name? This stone-rain, full head of hair. This fire-egg, the warm knowing of what and not the water hears. Fat on the fire, eggs sleeping in the horned skin of a mouth. Skin seeding to bone. Burn the green mountain road to red ashes, the clouded moon to water, the yellow sun to rain, the full stars to black, cold stone. Come lie and thou and thou and I and knowing sleep will tongue skin and meat, bite and eat, drink the yellow liver and the white breast, name the neck, the long tail feather of a burned bird.


It was autumn in London, that blessed season between the harshness of winter and the insincerities of summer; a trustful season when one buys bulbs and sees to the registration of one’s vote, believing perpetually in spring and a change of Government. For clandestine operatives, buoyant with expectation and careful planning, autumn-a time for pay-rises and revelations, was a perfect opportunity to lay traps down in the leaves. There wasn’t much that George didn’t know about living in the country, except that every year without so much as a batted eyelid in surprise autumn arrived on a different day, at a different time, with a different state of mind. There was something unnatural at her very core. The hard, fast fall of apples and the violated pink across the sides of tupped, tired ewes was accounted for, but the creeping colours of the sunset lying orange at the close of day hid faultless, wicked secrets of the winter that would come. But for the purposes of this story, George is already dead, I was merely using him as a marker, somewhere safe to lay the seasonal hat before I launch out into the damp, squalid future that is marked by the end of the year. And we are not in London. It was autumn in London, once. But this story is next year, or the year after somewhere in a village not far from Wrexham by a river that does not flow very strongly in the real-time of local village imagination. That is to say, I made the river up.

           There is a fete occurring. It is almost organic in its incidence, an annual circumstance of careful planning; a white elephant stall, lashings of strychnine on the 99p flake, a spot of deadly nightshade in the edible flower display. In the village near Wrexham the position is almost always open for a new detective police officer, the last several have, unfortunately, become indisposed. There is a fete, and a foreigner and a suspicious rucksack-which is merely a decoy, planted rather too close to the tombola, and slightly in the way of the Shetland pony’s bid for freedom. In the vicarage, an argument is taking place. Grandma started singing songs about black men at breakfast and with an exclamation of ‘Mother’, The Rector left to see to his proverbial flock and Mrs Rector remained, making biscuits as angrily as possible in the kitchen. The family lambs were up in the attic, flushing their youngest brother’s head down the toilet and making roll-ies from their prayer books. They most enjoyed smoking St Mark. Meanwhile, 3rd place in the Best Kept Garden competition was being disputed due to the unlawful (category 6, clause 3.2 for reference) use of a Chinese water feature, imported from Bangkok and made in Taiwan. The complaint that ensued was over issues of originality. It has yet to be resolved. And finally, there was the story-over in the corner of the paddock, underneath an hospitable looking, long-lashed Hereford, unsurprisingly known as Daisy, was the fragment of a letter, signed and sealed with a kiss, Mrs R.

           For three years, and counting, Mrs R (NOT to be confused with Mrs R the Rector’s wife) had been carrying on with The Widower, who lived in a small thatched cottage where the lane petered out into a dead end. There was so much wisteria on the front of this cottage that it was hidden from view and thus a very good place for a married woman to be carrying on with a grieving man. The love letter was a final, desperate plea of affection from the trapped and beguiled woman to a man who wished she looked like the woman he had lost. There was blood in the margins. The reason the letter was under Daisy was because, The Widower, in a flight of fancy, had run across the field towards the river in order to drown himself and had lost the letter on the way-coat tails flapping. And suddenly, among the tombola and the lawn croquet and the giant marrow competition a small boy, streaked with dirt and tears appears, jamming white knuckles into bruised and puffy eyes. Down among the reed beds, nestled between the moor-hens sleepy nest and the pock-marked solitude of the bank he found a man, upturned, mouth wide open in a watery O. And pressed against the tight curled blackness of his chest, a washed out photograph and a coronet of dried flowers. And as the boy stood and wept, kneading the soft lawn with his brown summer toes, the Punch and Judy show got up and running and someone thrust a toffee apple into his hand. Today was the day of the fete. The dead man was an unwelcome reminder that autumn was on her way and that grief still remained in the sought after moments at the end of a plentiful harvest.

And this is why this story wasn’t set in London, and why the river was a necessary addition to an otherwise dry and dehydrated pleasure that is a tale of a village near Wrexham at the ending of a summer before autumn lifts her skirts and flashes, indecently, at the unsuspecting villagers. I have learnt a fondness for raisin-laced cookies, and mistakenly sharpened toy arrows and pot-plants with suspicious compost. That is to say, in the sharp intakes of breath at the mention of a homo-sexual, or a young girl out after dark, and the gratification of quilt making and honeysuckle training there is a self-sufficient world of intrigue in the honest people of the village.

My life’s true pleasures I have found in the remains of this lost, proud culture, in the solitude of their beautiful tombs.

Blake stuff for Art History Seminar

Born 28thNovember 1757
From about the age of 8years, Blake began to have visions and saw ‘angels’ among the haymakers at dawn in a tree at Dulwich.
Aged 10 he left school and entered a drawing school. Four years later he became an apprentice engraver with Besire and learned the craft until he was 20.
Aged 22, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy where he developed a strong dislike of its president (and his art) Sir Joshua Reynolds. He particularly rejected Reynolds’ ideas of ‘High Art’ and advocacy of patronage and ‘royal liberality’. In the margins of Reynolds’ Discourse, Blake annotated “ Liberality! we want not Liberality. We want a Fair Price & Proportionate Value & a General Demand for Art”.
Blake left the RA to earn his living as an engraver, not a painter, and remained largely self taught which may have helped him to become one of the most outstanding imaginative painters and original poets that England has ever produced.
Blake married Catherine Sophia Boucher in 1782.
Blake opened a print shop in 1784 and began working for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, at whose house he met some of the leading dissenting intellectuals of the day, including the scientist Joseph Priestley, the philosopher Richard Price, the artist Henry Fuseli, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the international human rights revolutionary Thomas Paine.
Revolution and political intrigue became deep interest for Blake. He closely followed the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. These interests gave rise to his greatest works Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789), The Book of Thel (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1983), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), and The Book of Urizen (1794).
Blake developed and retained a deep interest in revolution both of the mind, the body and the country throughout his life. Although he was not hugely successful during his lifetime, his books of poetry and etchings were and are among the most irrefutably important commentaries on socio-political climates that England has ever known.
William Blake died on August 12th1827 in obscurity and poverty. He had the misfortune of being born into world wracked by war and industrial change completely out of joint with his own visionary and libertarian impulses.
Blake passionately supported the American Revolution 1775-1783, and when the French Revolution broke out in 1789 he sported the bonnet rouge in a show of solidarity with the revolutionaries. Throughout the early stages of The Revolution, Blake was a loud voice in the artistic and poetic landscape, supporting it both spiritually and through his work. However, when the revolution entered its authoritarian phase, with the rise to power of Robespierre and the Terror which followed, Blake began to doubt the power of revolution. When Britain declared war on France in 1794 he became wholly disenchanted with European politics and the revolutionaries. However, it was clearly a turning point in his work. . In the period of reaction that followed storming of the Bastille in 1789, Blake witnessed the government repression of radicals, the censorship of the “gagging Acts”, and the anger of the Church and King mobs who were ready to ransack libraries and throw the disaffected artist or poet into the mud. Blake was obliged to clothe his radical message with allegorical garments. But he never retreated into an ethereal world of the imagination or turned his back on politics in the broadest sense. The Industrial revolution of the late 18thCentury stood for everything Blake found sinful in the world and he continued to engrave and etch despite the production of industry that made his artistry redundant.
The poet Swinburne observed of Blake that “to serve art and to love liberty seemed to him the two things (if indeed they were not one thing) worth this man’s life and work.”
Blake’s politics seem to be neither coherent or consistent. He disliked traditional political philosophy, associating it with the mechanical and utilitarian mind. Blake blamed “the wretched State of Political Science” for the state of the Arts in Europe. Blake was, however, not frightened of politics, but he reached the anarchist conclusion that conventional politics in the form of governments are a denial of life and an insuperable bar to human freedom. His political views also formed an inseparable part of his religious thought: “Are not Religion & Politics the Sme Thing?” he asked, adding “Brotherhood is Religion”. And just as his political and religious views were intertwined, so are his poetry and his art-all in turn based on his particular view of nature, society and the self. Blake was an avid supporter of abolition and also saw many of the horrors of slavery reflected in the treatment of women in his own society. The ‘dark satanic mills’ of Blake’s Jerusalem are the new age of Industrialisation but also the metaphorical prisons of the mind. To the north, the new factories of England produced smoke and consumed workers; to the South, there was the din of revolutionary war and the rotting corpses on the ‘battlefields’ of Europe. In 1800, Blake recalled how in his life a ‘mighty & awful change” threatened the earth and despaired hos it ended in war:
The American War began. All its dark horrors passed
before my face
Across the Atlantic to France. Then the French Revolution
Commenc’d in thick clouds,
And My Angels have told me that seeing such visions
I could not subsist on the Earth.
However, Blake never lost his vision of a free society which the revolutions had inspired. While most of his radical contemporaries went over to reaction or fell by the wayside, Blake remained faithful to his libertarian and egalitarian ideals. Due to the state of censorship in which Blake created his art, no image or writing directly links into the revolution the way David’s of Gericault’s did. Blake’s is a more subtle use of the politic in artform and he uses both the written word and the engravers tools to furnish himself and his viewers with the armour to approach political, radical upheaval in any age.
In his old age, Blake’s revolutionary views inevitably made him an outsider. A republican and an anarchist, he could hardly feel at home in Tory England. Apart from Godwin and Hazlitt, nearly all the old radicals of his generation had died or lost their way. In 1827, he wrote to a friend, “since the French Revolution English-men are all Intermeasurable One by Another, Certainly a happy state of Agreement to which I for One do not Agree”. In the same year, in his annotations to Thornton’s New Translation of the Lord’s Prayer, Blake offered his own liturgy. It shows that for all the complexity of his imaginative world and the depth of his alienation from the everyday world, he was still calling for economic justice and social freedom to prevail on earth. He continued to pray for an end to Capitalist exploitation, repressive morality, and political authority. Blake believed that the political is the personal, and called for individual rebellion in everyday life even while working for a total transformation of society.
In his own life, Blake was an eccentric living in virtual internal exile. Yet we can now see him at the centre of the Age of Revolution in which he lived and as a key figure in English Romanticism. We continue to live in a very similar world, with warring Nation States threatening on a daily basis. The machine still dominates human beings who are divided within, from each other; and from nature. The agents of Urizen are still at large.
For this reason, Blake’s message remains as potent and relevant as ever. He offers the prophetic vision of a free community of fully realised individuals who act from impulse and who are artists, kings and priests in their own right. Neglected in his own day, distorted by posterity, Blake’s sun is beginning to rise as the post-industrial society reasons with itself and the love of freedom grows stronger every day.

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