March 11, 2008


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"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:

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