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CulturePrintCritical dictionary

Primitivism

José Bragança de Miranda


Critique of primitivism (in art)

«Primitivism» was a complex phenomenon, affecting all spheres of modern life; its influence on the arts from the beginning of the twentieth century is decisive but also symptomatic of the ambiguity which characterizes it. Primitive refered to an earlier moment of History, regarded as an insufficiency, as well as something more spontaneous, closer to the «origins».

Keywords: ethnocentrism; risk and modernity; exoticism; museum



«Primitivism» was a complex phenomenon, affecting all spheres of modern life; its influence on the arts from the beginning of the twentieth century is decisive but also symptomatic of the ambiguity which characterizes it. «Primitive» refered to an earlier moment of History, regarded as an insufficiency, as well as something more spontaneous, closer to the «origins».
 
It is simultaneously at the origin of deep artistic mutations – namely, the avant-garde - and is contaminated by the ethnocentrism that looks at Western modernity as the high point of the civilizing process.

Primitivism presented an alternative to aesthetic art, gradually developing since the Renaissance. This last stand ended up being decisive in the arts: on the one hand, stressing spontaneity, as in the valorisation of children’s art by Klee and the German expressionists, or even the art of the mentally ill, as described in the influent book by the German psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933), Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally ill), published in 1922. The idea of a natural creativity, or that every one is an artist, has its origin in this perpective that ended up forming an art genre alltogheter – outsider art – where naïve art, Dubuffet’s Art brut, graffiti art, etc., are included.

 

Among the most interesting uses of primitivism is the way how overseas objects were used and connected to local rituals and myths, against the aesthetic canon of art, both in literature – as with German expressionism – but, above all, in plastic arts. Radicalizing nineteenth century exoticism, of which Gauguin is a good example, around 1905 artists were collecting African objects, namely masks, as is the case of Derain and Vlaminck and, almost at the same time, also Pablo Picasso who became a paradigmatic case of primitivism with the famous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). The attack on perspective and naturalist mimesis made way for the avant-gardes and experimentalism, being at the base of the expansion of the arts which occurred throughout the twentieth century. A first theorization of this movement of rupture is found in the book Negerplastik (1915) by Carl Einstein (1885-1940). Having cubism as background, it seeks to re-establish contemporary art through the critique of objects and the multi-stratification of art spaces.

 

Not by accident, Einstein is one of the first critics of the «false concept of primitivism» (sic), based on unsustainable, aesthetic discriminations and on a «vague evolutionism». Although in a significant number of artists there is dialogue with the African and overseas objects and even the intention to criticize the unilaterality of Western forms of art, the «appropriation» of those objects was always ambiguous, whether presenting them as «documents» from the past, or exploring them to feed an exhausted art and its corresponding market. During many years sent to anthropology museums or accredited by the great artists from the twentieth century, their entry in the museum is contemporary of the critical demolition of primitivism in art. Symptom of that turning-point are the exhibitions Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, organized by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe at the New York MOMA in 1984; and the corresponding one in Europe, Magiciens de la Terre, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou (1989). The bitter critique these exhibitions deserved, despite the curators’ good intentions, reveals that the «concepts» of primitive and primitivism are politically problematic and explosive. In fact, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is «global art» that is at stake, both in space and in time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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