Definitions of the term primitivism have varied historically in their intellectual usage and inflection across the disciplines. In its broadest sense, primitivism is an interest in or study of societies and cultures that have an ostensibly less developed notion of technological, intellectual, or social progress. Primitive societies defined thus are those that have not progressed to a state of technological advancement and are therefore perceived as antecedent to the industrialized economies of the West. While more recent definitions of primitivism in literature, visual arts, and anthropology have emphasized the temporal relationship between primitive societies and modernity, discourses on “otherness” are discernible in the Plato’s Republic and in Homer’s description of the Cyclops in The Odyssey.
As an intellectual practice or school of thought, primitivism can be broken down into two main strands of inquiry—firstly, that of the empirical study of primitive societies. This approach typified nineteenth-century anthropology, in which empirical study was carried out to chronologically ascribe customs and social structures of “primitive” societies in an evolutionary relationship to Western notions of modernity. Secondly, there is the study of cultural primitivism, which can be traced to Enlightenment philosophical interests in the ideas of nature versus reason seen most notably in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1749) [Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts ] and his idea of the noble savage in Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755) and later in Denis Diderot’s Supplément au voyage au voyage de Bougainville (1772). In French literature, René Chateaubriand’s two novellas, Atala, ou les amours des deux sauvages dans le désert (1801) and Réné (1802) continued to explore this post-Enlightenment fascination with non-European cultures.
In the visual arts, earlier aesthetic explorations of the primitive in the work of artists Emil Nolde (1867–1956) and Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) in the nineteenth century began to develop in conjunction with new directions in the social sciences in the early twentieth century. In Europe this development was seen most clearly in the break from the disinterested intellectual focus of Victorian anthropology into the newer paradigms of cultural relativism of ethnology and ethnography that had been emerging since Franz Boas wrote The Mind of Primitive Man in 1911 (1983) in which he set out a new model of cultural relativism for the anthropological study of non-Western societies. This approach was taken up and developed by later cultural anthropology in Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) and The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia (1929).
The formation in 1926 of the Institut d’Ethnologie in Paris by ethnologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939), and ethnologist Paul Rivet (1876–1958) heralded a new era of ethnographic enquiry into the concept of the primitive in the social sciences. Large-scale interdisciplinary ethnographic projects such as the Mission Dakar Djibouti 1931–1933 brought together writers, artists, sociologists, and anthropologists to work on new conceptualizations of cultural primitivism. In Europe this development of the term primitivism was simultaneous with the emergence of the modernist movement in art and literature and a new aesthetic engagement with a notion of the primitive that found diverse expressions in painting, as in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), inspired by his contact with African and Oceanic art in the Musée du Trocadéro. This was also found in the modernist avant-garde performances in the dadaist Cabaret Voltaire and in poetry in Blaise Cendrars’s “Prose of the Trans–Siberian” (1913) and Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone” (1913).
This renewed literary interest in primitivism was in part motivated by several texts that explored psychology, society, and religion from new intellectual and cultural perspectives: Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, first published in 1890 (1990), the work of Sigmund Freud in Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics (2000 ) and later in Civilization and Its Discontents (2005 ). All in some way influenced some of the major works of European literary modernism such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), and D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent (1926).
Frazer’s study of the primitive roots of religion was the first of its kind to examine religious practices and rituals from a cultural rather than a theological perspective, and this marked a twentieth-century movement away from simple evolutionary binary divisions between notions of “primitive” and “civilized” forms of religious practices to more culturally relativist approaches influenced by the theories of Karl Marx (1818–1883), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), and Max Weber (1864–1920).
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Boas, Franz; Cultural Relativism; Culture; Ethnology and Folklore; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Religion
Boas, Franz. 1983. The Mind of Primitive Man. Westport, CT: Greenwood. (Orig. pub. 1911.)
Chateaubriand, René. 1905. Atala, ou les amours des deux sauvages dans le desert. Boston: D. C. Heath. (Orig. pub. 1801.)
Chateaubriand, René 1970. Réné. Geneva: Droz. (Orig. pub. 1802.)
Clifford, James T. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Press.
De Montaigne, Michel. 1979. Des Cannibales. Essais, ed. J. C. Chapman and Frederic Mouret. New York: Atlene.
Frazer, James George. 1990. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s. (Orig. pub. 1890.)
Freud, Sigmund. 2000. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. (Orig. pub. 1913.)
Freud, Sigmund. 2005. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1930.)
Goldwater, Robert. 1986. Primitivism in Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Guillaume, Apollinaire. 1972. Zone. Dublin: Dolmen. (Orig. pub. 1913.)
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: G. Routledge.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life among the Natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. London: G. Routledge.
Mauss, Marcel. 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.
Price, Sally. 2001. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1935. Discours sur les sciences et les arts. Paris: E. Flammarrion. (Orig. pub. 1749.)
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1954. Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes. Paris: Ed. sociales. (Orig. pub. 1755.)
Rubin, William, ed. 1984. “Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Stocking, George W., Jr. 1987. Victorian Anthropology. New York: Free Press.
Taussig, Michael. 1993. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. London: Routledge.
Thomas, Nicholas. 1994. Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Torgovnick, Marianna. 1990. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
PRIMITIVISM is an ideological position that developed in Western civilization in order to characterize subjugated people as "other." Even though the term primitive has been used for an extensive period, it has been particularly important since the beginning of modernity and the Age of Discovery. During this time its influence has been pervasive, with dramatic and often traumatic consequences on the cultural developments of both "civilized" and "primitive" peoples.
From the beginning of cultural contact with Europeans, other people of the world were characterized as "primitive." Since 1492, however, the term has expressed an ambiguity. On one hand, the idea of primitivism was initially utilized as a way to justify conquest and colonial exploitation of a variety of human beings. On the other hand, primitivism referred to a way of forming a Protestant Christian response to the authority of the Catholic Church.
The most prevalent uses of the term primitive in the fifteenth century relate to the early Christian church. The "primitive church" has been a positive conceptualization in the West of a communal organization of like-minded Christians whose society was untarnished by the corruptive influences of civilization. Primitive Christianity has been a dominant mythological formulation of European groups who were oppressed in their cultural situations. This mythology fueled a push toward establishing new communal, or utopian, experimental communities in various parts of the world around a more directly inspired form of Christian devotion.
The development of Protestant Christianity corresponded with the Age of Discovery. In response to perceived abuses in Rome, Protestants, primarily in Northern Europe, formed a different understanding of a Christian community. Ironically it has only been in the context of large colonial enterprises, and particularly in the British Empire, that such groups could materially achieve their dream of establishing a primitive Christian community. Such is the case with the Puritans in North America, for example. Conceptually, the notion of primitivism underscores a cultural feature in the development of Christianity in Europe, where there is an emphasis on, and yearning for, the origins of the church. While initially this might be seen as a contradictory use of primitivism, there is actually a unity between a yearning for the pristine state of the "primitive" Christian community and colonial exploitation of people who have been characterized as primitive.
Primitivism, therefore, in its first more positive meaning, is directly associated with what is "primary" for proper life. Locating where to promote this sort of Christianity proved more of a dilemma. The utopian character of the primitive develops from an ongoing search for God in Europe. For Europeans the conceptual dilemma with Christianity as the basis of authority was displacement. From the time of the conversion of Europe, beginning in the eleventh century, through the Crusades and into the Renaissance and the early modern period, European kingdoms based their hierarchical authority on the God-Man, Jesus Christ, whose people, language, and culture were in a foreign land. Christ's miraculous appearance in the world had taken place in a now foreign place that was controlled by non-Christian people. The origins of Christianity, and therefore its power to authorize Europeans to extend its message around the world, were in some other place under the control of "primitives." The irony of the ideology of primitivism is a foundational feature in the development of Western Christianity. On one hand primitivism is associated with a utopian vision of the original church. On the other hand primitivism is associated with those non-Christians who have dominion over the lands and resources necessary for the "correct" propagation of the faith.
Primitivism has been valued positively as that which is primary or fundamental to meaningful human community. It has also been used as an oppositional structure upon which "civilization" has been built. A double-edged understanding of the primitive has been extended by academics interested in conceptualizing the origins of religion. In general, academics in this area have valued the primitive to such an extent that their theories have been seen as disparaging of civilization, or the very cultural formulation that makes scholarly reflection possible. In anthropology, E. B. Tylor, Bronislaw Malinowski, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Arthur Lovejoy are examples of major theorists of religion who have appealed to seemingly primary appearance in what were regarded as the most basic religious formulations in primitive people. Scholars credited with having founded entire academic disciplines have utilized the idea of the primitive to understand the general phenomenon of religion in areas of philosophy (William James), psychology (Sigmund Freud, C. G. Jung), religious studies (Mircea Eliade), sociology (Émile Durkheim), political science (Max Weber), and economics (Karl Marx).
There is, therefore, a gap between the Western conception of primitive religions (articulated here as primitivism ) and the experience of empirical others that have undergone Western imperialism. There have been ongoing attempts by scholars, activists, and members of indigenous communities to more accurately account for their conceptualization as "primitive" as a strategy to devalue and discount a tremendously rich and varied array of traditional knowledge. Acknowledging the cultural limits of knowing about other religions, and particularly in the Western academy, would include considering the dilemma of writing about others who do not write. Writing, a scholarly activity with direct association to the "Great religions" of the West, has often had dramatically negative consequences for indigenous traditions, or those people that have not organized their religious practices around sacred books.
How then do indigenous people (the preferred term for people who were once characterized as primitive ) understand the role of religion in their traditions? Often they point out that there is no clearly decipherable element of their society that could be called "religion." Rather, a sacred reality permeates all aspects of their lives. The category of "religion" therefore does violence to the integrity of their traditions. Religion did not rise from a "worship of nature" but from the sacred reality embedded in the material world. The hierophany (i.e., manifestation of the sacred) in the natural world refers to the manner in which animals, plants, the sky, and the landscape reveal modalities of reality to human beings. Even though these phenomena also have utilitarian value, this does not explain why "religious" veneration is an important component of dealing with them.
The oldest deities in most cultures are sky-gods. The sky expresses eternity, infinity, and transcendence. Wilhelm Schmidt refers to this as "primitive monotheism." Even though sky-gods form an important component of ancient religious practice, they nevertheless are dei otiosi, seen as being removed from direct contact with the material world. As a result, veneration of sky-gods is often regarded as less urgent than veneration of those deities that populate an immediate environment.
Animals, which were venerated at prehistoric sites from Paleolithic through Neolithic times, are another venue for hierophany. The use of animal bones for divination ceremonies, and cave paintings of animals in all parts of the world, including Europe, has been understood as magico-religious. The pursuit of game animals not only required great skill, training, and courage, but also that the hunter negotiate with the animal through ceremonial means. "Bear magic" among the Ainu of Japan and the early Paleolithic people of Western Europe, for example, referred to strategies to connect human beings with the spiritual beings of animals. Not only would bear magic ensure a successful hunt, but it would also ensure that the bear would continue to make itself available as food. Carvings and cave paintings from all over the world represent animals and are bound up with hunting culture. Various levels of exchange ranging from the material/pragmatic to the magico/spiritual developed between humans and animals. For indigenous people there is no essential break between the two, yet for more "civilized" people these levels of exchange form the basis of the distinct character of "religion."
In Western scholarship much attention has been paid to "primitive totemism." From Freud to Durkheim to Eliade, the totem has been seen as a dominant mythic/symbolic force in the organization of "primitive" society. Two features have been most pronounced about the totem. First, the existence and identity of a human group is inextricably linked with a particular animal in a clan or ceremonial complex. Second, there are various rules of behavior (taboos) that surround the totem animal. For the history of religions, however, it is enough to acknowledge that around the totem animal there is understood to be a sacred power, and the continued existence of the human community materially and spiritually is linked to this animal.
Plants have also been an important element in the religious understanding of the natural world. The transition from the Paleolithic to Neolithic ages is defined, to a great extent, by the creation of new understandings of the relationships between human and plant life. Agriculture brought into being a structure of the sacred. The emphasis was on dying and resurrecting gods (such as Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, according to James Frazer). When the structure of the sacred is seen as representative of the life of plants, then the manifestations of that sacred power, as with all living beings, must also undergo death and resurrection.
Lunar symbolism is also associated with the periodicity of life in all of its forms, including human. But these innovations should not be seen as a natural consequence of the development of agriculture. Rather, these religious discoveries, or new hierophanies, were the result of the "new world" that was created with the domestication of plants and animals. In addition, the fertility cycle of the earth (including the agricultural and seasonal cycles) was directly connected to the periodicity of human life. Birth and new birth ceremonies mark the beginning of the agricultural cycle, while death and ancestor veneration are generally connected with the harvest and the end of the agricultural cycle. The earth as mother is a truly ancient understanding. Much Western scholarship on primitivism emphasizes how the nurturing quality of the earth as mother is a "primary" or "archaic" religious formulation.
In discussions of primitivism specific categories are advanced as universal among "primitive people." These often include the understanding of the leadership of ancient empires as "theocracies" in which the power of the priest is combined with the power of the warrior. The kingly lineages of Europeans are often fused with the chief of "tribal societies." The other office among "primitives" was understood to be the shaman, a term that originated from Siberian peoples but has been applied to indigenous people all over the world. In general, Western scholarship has designated the offices of king, chief, shaman, and medicine man (as well as more pejorative terms like witch-doctor ) to "primitive" societies. The reality, however, is much more complex. Indigenous terms for leadership positions reflect a tremendous variety of relationships. For example, the Haudenosaunee term for chief is royaner (in Mohawk), which means "good mind" and refers to a person whose principal responsibility is to speak well enough so that people will overcome their conflicts. This is a far cry from the popular understanding of the chief who rules by brutish physical power. Simply adopting categories that have been universalized to suit all indigenous people tends to diminish what is unique and important about each group. Rather than looking to construct the universal of "primitivism," the tendency now is to utilize the local insights of various groups as social critiques of Western assumptions and to appreciate the cultural insights of indigenous people.
But Western scholars have been largely correct in emphasizing the importance of a leader's relationship with the sacred. In general the leader of local, indigenous communities can be seen as an intermediary of some kind, often an intermediary between several different communities of beings. In this sense the sacred for indigenous people has been a consistent example of the efficacy and power of religion. Several authors throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have emphasized the unadulterated influence that the sacred has had on "primitive societies." The sacred is seen as a powerful reality, as with mana among Melanesians, orenda for the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and wakanda for the Lakota (Sioux). All of these concepts are similar and yet distinct from one another. Power in material forms is just one aspect of these indigenous understandings.
The conceptualization of primitivism has played a vital role in the organization and characterization of civilization. This has had dramatic consequences for the development of modernity and often traumatic consequences for those deemed "primitive." On the one hand the "primitive" are often seen as wholly in touch with their surroundings, and as a result they are imagined to be more "religious" than modern human beings. This is in spite of the fact that it is often understood that "primitive societies" have no notion of "religion" per se. Because modernity has to cope with both the fictive status of the "primitive" of its own fabrication and with the empirical other of indigenous peoples with whom it has come into contact, one often gets mixed messages about these groups. The solution for gaining a more reliable knowledge of indigenous or local cultures and people, however, is not simply to go into the field (as anthropologists do). The fictive status of the "primitive" is too strongly entrenched in the modern imagination for it to be shaken loose by coming face-to-face, so to speak, with the "primitive." Rather, one has to incorporate the cultural dimensions of the interreligious contact and negotiation that has occurred over the last five hundred plus years for an adequate picture of indigenous religions to emerge.
Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology (1912). Translated by J. W. Swain. New York, 1915.
Eliade, Mircea. Myth of the Eternal Return, or, Cosmos and History. Translated by Willard Trask. Princeton, 1954; rev. ed., 1965.
Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Translated by Rosemary Sheed. New York, 1958.
Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York and London, 1890–1915.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913). Translated by A. A. Bill. London, 1918.
Long, Charles H. "Primitive and Civilized: The Locus of a Problem." History of Religions 20 (1980): 43–61.
Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Philadelphia, 1986.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. Coral Gardens and Their Magic ; Vol. 2: The Language of Magic and Gardening. Bloomington, Ind., 1965.
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by Ian Cunnison. Glencoe, Ill., 1954; New York, 1967.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Translated by John W. Harvey. London, 1923; 2d ed., 1950.
Schmidt, Wilhelm. The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories. Translated by H. J. Rose. New York and London, 1931.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions. Leiden, 1978.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago, 1982.
van der Leeuw, Gerardus. Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomenology. Translated by J. E. Turner. London, 1938.
Philip P. Arnold (2005)
During the first decade of the twentieth century, primitivism became a cultural rage in Europe and influenced much of the avant-garde cultural production in the following decades. Its genealogy goes back to the concept of the "noble savage," which saw its first heyday during the eighteenth century when modernity and its antithesis evolved simultaneously. The concept of primitivism evokes the notion of the inferior primitive and savage, conveying both a sense of simplicity analogous to primitive lifestyle and technology as well as a life based on instincts, irrationality, and violence. But primitivism as a cultural construct conjures also the opposite: a belief in the superiority of the trouble-free and enviable primitive existence, a polar opposite to that under the corruption of modernity. It is this latter belief in the life of the "noble savage" that has made primitivism a mainstream worldview in art and literature since the beginning of the twentieth century.
This belief in humanity's natural goodness—evident in the contrast between a simple natural life and the deprivation of civilization—coexisted perilously close to the notion of the primitive and the savage as inferior. The romantic images of the Pacific islanders were coterminus with popular images of cannibals; Romanticism and racism both took the savage as their ultimate subject matter. Cannibalism and human sacrifice were common in European depiction of the native savage at least since the Renaissance and they would remain part of the mythologies of the savage. Historically, images of savages were also invoked closer to home; first represented by the peasants and later among the urban poor ("the nomadic races") who endured the expansion of the Industrial Revolution. Primitives was a closely related term, though during the nineteenth century it referred in art to Italian and northern schools (to the Pre-Raphaelites and the Flemish primitives) who were viewed as the infancy of modernity, and alternatively the term was used to describe antiquity in the sense of the early primitive Christian Church. The terms primitive and savage became more interchangeable early in the twentieth century.
The European search for the exotic led continuously during the nineteenth century to expanding explorations. Although not geographically linear, the orient, India, and China provided successive aesthetic foci for the alien and the exotic. Familiarity necessitated change and a continuous journeying—real and imaginary—that led to the prominence of Japonisme as a fashion in the last third of the nineteenth century. But when the influence of Japan became too pervasive (James Abbott McNeill Whistler [1834–1903], Edgar Degas [1834–1917], Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [1864–1901], and Paul Gauguin [1848–1903] were just a few of the most prominent artists who depicted Japanese motifs), further explorations became necessary. The relatively rapid commodification of Japonisme induced the sophisticated explorer as well as the emerging avant-garde artists to shift their endeavor to discover a new source of primeval inspiration farther afield. This led to the South Seas and Africa. It was during the highest stage of imperialism
late in the century that the duality of the primitive and the savage reached a crescendo enabling both the repression of non-Europeans, primarily in Africa, while employing the same images to liberate the imperialist agents and mind from the constraints of Victorian civilization.
Although primitivism evokes an appearance of reality that is mostly projected on societies in the Pacific and Africa, it does not refer to any external specific empirical phenomena but is rather a western constructed perception of the "other" representing an artistic creative movement. Primitivism, as a perpetual search for the exotic, never conveyed a particular style or aesthetic preference, nor a preference for the simple and peaceful or the savage and violent. Styles and subjects intertwined, and were best characterized by their opposition to modernity. This search for the exotic was closely related to imperialism and anthropology. Neither explicitly embraced primitivism, but each dominated and changed in distinct ways the world it considered primitive.
Beginning in the last third of the nineteenth century, the primitivist exchange intensified and expanded to include objects, people, and ideas. Europe was importing exotic objects—artifacts sent from military and scientific expeditions, travel engravings and photographs—and exporting colonial agents—including missionaries, explorers, and anthropologists—and providing an imaginary space into which the Victorian mind might escape. Three Europeans who illustrate this confusion of the seduction of imperialism entangled with racism and malice toward "the savage" were David Livingstone (1813–1873), Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890), and Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). Livingstone, a missionary and an explorer who was seeking converts, desired an end to the slave trade, and hoped to penetrate Africa further than any previous European. He became a most popular national figure and perhaps the benevolent face of British imperialism. Distinctly more controversial was Burton, whose adventures, curiosity, racism, sexual proclivities, and even knowledge were mediated through engagement with the "other." An antecedent of the twentieth-century primitivists, Burton combined anthropology, science, religion, power, and sex to be everything the Victorians pretended they never were. His life, in hindsight, shows the extent of continuity between the Victorian period and modernism. This connection was even more pronounced in the work of Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness (1899) has become synonymous with the violence of imperialism. It is not insignificant that the book remained controversial, viewed by some as a classic foundational tale of the primitivist rejection of modernity, while others (most notably, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe) see it as the embodiment of European racism.
Much of the primitivist exchange took place in Europe itself, where most Europeans enjoyed the glamorous imperial domination through the various World Fairs that imported the world as a theme park, including "treasures," "artifacts," and flesh and blood "primitive" people and "villages." In addition to entertainment, the fairs provided justification for civilizing the globe out there, while providing raw material for exposing the contradictions of modernity. Social theorists pondered the limits of rationality (Max Weber [1864–1920]), solidarity (Emile Durkheim [1858–1917]), or how attractive primitive irrationality could be to a modern society (Lucien Lévy-Bruhl [1857–1939]). Anthropology projected a scientific discourse that postulated the polarized idea of "primitive" as a place of exoticism, eroticism, and virility.
It was in the shift from the social and political to the cultural and artistic that primitivism as we know it most contributed to modernism. If primitivism had an annus mirabilis, it must have been 1907, when Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which would prove to be a watershed in modern culture. Earlier artists, most famously Gauguin, eclectically combined "primitive" inspiration from medieval Europe to Polynesian Islands, as his images of the South Pacific fused conventions of French decadent art and colonialism. In Paris, beginning with the Fauves (the wild beasts), the best known of whom were André Derain (1880–1954) and Maurice Vlaminck (1876–1958), "wildness" became the rage. But it was Picasso's depiction of five naked prostitutes in a brothel, and the fusion of classical Greek influence with African masks, that most dramatically exhibited modernity as sexual savagery and launched "Cubism"—the epitome of the libertarian impulses of the European avant-garde ranging from sexual mores to form and content in art.
The Cubist African mask of modernism culminated the modernist revolution of beauty and art: primitive, simple, and even ugly became valorized high culture. The degree to which Gauguin, Picasso, and artists of their generation were influenced by anthropology and tribal art is significant to the dilemma of creativity and appropriation in modernism. While the issue will likely continue to be debated, there is no doubt that the exuberance of artistic primitivism led to a deeper scholarly interest in the subject. Primitives as the ultimate outsiders have always been represented by others in a distorted way. Often these misrepresentations are viewed as racist and exploitive. On other occasions, however, the depictions turn out to be inspiring and expansive, and to enrich human experiences. Primitivism as a component of modernism is precisely such an instance. Over time the "correctness" and "legitimacy" of these images have varied. While few will wish to argue that Burton's descriptions of Africa are acceptable in the twenty-first century, even fewer will contest Picasso's legitimacy to "distort" his subjects and to apply motives out of context.
Primitivism made it to center stage with the most evocative production of Igor Stravinsky's Rites of Spring (1913) staged by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes with its star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The combination of irrational "primitive" harmonic dissonances and explicit sexuality sent even the Parisian audience into frenzy that verged on a riot. The commotion began at once, and the audience, though accustomed to all of the components—disharmony, sexuality, primitivism—was seemingly shocked by the combination. The anxiety of primitivism would be replaced by aestheticization later on in the century, but not before the real savagery was about to unfold the following year, as the violence of modern warfare engulfed the continent.
Barkan, Elazar, and Ronald Bush, eds. Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism. Stanford, Calif., 1995.
Goldwater, Robert. Primitivism in Modern Art. Rev. ed. New York, 1967.
Rubin, William, ed. "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. New York, 1984.
primitivism, in art, the style of works of self-trained artists who develop their talents in a fanciful and fresh manner, as in the paintings of Henri Rousseau and Grandma Moses. The term primitive has also been used to describe the style of early American naive painters such as Edward Hicks and has been applied to the art of the various Italian and Netherlandish schools produced prior to c.1450. More recently the term has included modern artists who research the past as well as cultures foreign to their own, such as Robert Smithson and Joseph Beuys.
See W. Rubin, ed., Primitivism in 20th-Century Art (1988).
prim·i·tiv·ism / ˈprimətivˌizəm/ • n. 1. a belief in the value of what is simple and unsophisticated, expressed as a philosophy of life or through art or literature. 2. unsophisticated behavior that is unaffected by objective reasoning. DERIVATIVES: prim·i·tiv·ist n. & adj.