Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art

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'Primitive' art has been integrated into the artworks of many twentieth century artists, but why did these artists have such a fascination with the primitive? This topic is dealt with in the views of various Art Historians, Curators and the exploration of three works, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Matisse's La Danse II and Kirchner's Bathers in a Room.A really fascinating topic that until recently was not viewed as an important aspect of Modernism.

Text of Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art

Julian Woods

Primitivism in ModernismBy Julian Woods Unpublished 2011

Many artists of the early twentieth century affiliate with art of primitive or non-Western culture, primarily of Africa or Oceania. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso integrated the stylized aesthetic of the human form in African and Oceanic sculpture with painting styles derived from post-impressionist works of Cezanne and Gauguin. Similarly, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, of the German Expressionist movement, combined primitive art with the Expressionists aesthetic, discordant colour tones and figural exaggeration. In essence, it was the avant-garde artist groups of Europe who were associated with the trend. In their view, primitivism would move art beyond naturalism and focus on conception and stylized emotion rather than renderings of what *is seen+ and hence, the primitive influence reinforced and nurtured changes which were occurring.1 In addition to the aesthetic form, primitive objects reflected how humanity had transcended the particular lives and times of their makers which the avant-garde artists felt connection and great mysticism. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a mass import of African and Oceanic fabrics and sculptures entered European museums and markets. Basically, this was due to colonisation of the African continent and Oceania by European empires, primarily Great Britain and France and, to little extent Germany and Italy. It was in museums, such as Muse d'Ethnographie du Trocadro, where artists, dealers and critics viewed primitive artefacts for artistic inspiration. It was said by Picasso after visiting the Muse d'Ethnographie du Trocadro that he understood his purpose as a painter.2

1 2

(Ferris 2010) (Murrell 2008)


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Pablo Picassos 1907 painting Les Demoiselles dAvignon, can be assessed as, not only an aesthetic breakthrough, but a breakdown, psychologically regressive, politically reactionary of Western cultures clash with the primitive. As Foster presents in his essay Primitve Unconscious of western art: the painting presents two scenes: the depicted one of the brothel and the projected one of the heralded 1907 visit of Picasso to the collection of tribal artifacts in the Muse d'Ethnographie du Trocadro.3 Additionally, correlation with Iberian faces of the two central figures and simplified human figures affiliate with Spanish historical past and therefore, associate Picassos origins and preoccupations as outside (and against) the French classical tradition.4 This inherent centrifugal aspiration of Western art and society, by integration of the primitive, was the intent of avant-garde artists, seeking to move from convention and naturalism and towards abstraction and stylized emotion. Les Demoiselles dAvignon was painted shortly after Picassos visit to Muse d'Ethnographie du Trocadro where, [Picasso] responded with intense emotion to a magical force he sensed in the objects.... He regretted that western tradition had lost touch with the primordial sense of image-making as a magic operation.5 Consequently, Picasso was attracted to the primitive objects and began to create imagery reflective of the magical force he experienced. In Les Demoiselles3 4

(Foster 1985) (Leighton 1990) 5 (Primitivism in 20th Century Art 1984)


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dAvignon, the main imagery represented is African tribal masks and ancient Iberian art. The primitive African influence in Les Demoiselles dAvignon, according to Patricia Leigh, intends to avert from the conventional female nude towards a new, staggering violence [against Western art]. Leigh suggests the violence comes not only as an aesthetic of distorted faces and forms and transformation of passive nudes into aggressively mock temptresses but also an allusion to the dark continent unavoidably carried with them.6 The aversion which Leighton affiliates with the African masks is perhaps a perceived cultural clash between the Western and primitive cultures, as when Picasso first exhibited Les Demoiselles dAvignon amongst friends, their reception was shock and disgust. However, the African masks incorporate a mystical and tribal presence into the painting, emulating the sexual intent of Picasso. But perhaps the greatest contribution was the aesthetic integration of the African masks, creating a three dimensional image on a two dimension plane and simplifying the form. A visual similarity of the human form can be identified between Picassos Les Demoiselles dAvignon and Paul Gauguins Tahitian Women Bathing, 1892. Gauguins work had assimilated the art style of the primitive Oceanic cultures, which inherently influenced Picassos compositional style. The flatness of form and lack of perspective are principal features of modern art and used throughout the twentieth century by avant-garde artists as a way of breaking the previous naturalistic style. However, Les Demoiselles dAvignon demonstrates a greater adaption of primitivism through the geometrically deformed and radically distorted human figures by partial shifting of viewpoint (most notably visible on the bottom right squatted female)7 essentially influenced by the African ritual6 7

(Leighton 1990) (Green 2001)


Julian Woods

masks, such as the Fang Mask. Picassos fascination with African masks, as William Rubin states in his 1984 MOMA Primitvism in Twentieth Century Art, Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern introduction: there is a link; for what Picasso recognized in those sculptures was ultimately a part of himself, of his own psyche, and therefore a witness to the humanity he shared with their carvers.8 Perhaps this empathetic view and the easily accessible primitive art created the affinity, defined by Rubin, between Western and primitive art in the early twentieth century. Conversely, it was most likely a purely aesthetic and spiritual attraction between the Western artists and primitive objects.

Similar to Picassos Les Demoiselles dAvignon , Henri Matisses work La Danse II, 1910 utilised primitive art as an aesthetic. However, the primitive element of La Danse II does not, like Les Demoiselles dAvignon, suggest a clash of cultures; it is instead a harmonized composition of celebration and unity. A The thematic depiction of the nude body is representative of classical painting, yet is portrayed in a style similar to that of ancient Athenian frescos and pottery or primitive Mediterranean cultures. Perhaps Matisses incentive to stylistically characterize the nude human form in the primitive was to portray a translation from modern society to another. As Schwarz says:Dance II is about the effort to escape from the turmoil the hope and fears of this world to an idealized one It is a story of movement, primitive ritualized movement, and of escape from the diurnal world to an aesthetic realm where dancing is perpetual and


(Rubin 1984)


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sensuality and passions renew themselves in their very enactment.9

Essentially, Schwarz comments that Dance II reflects a transition from one world into another. The escape may translate two ways, in terms of modern society, or in terms of artistic style and is represented through the theme of dance and integration of a primitive aesthetic. The primitive nature of Dance II is not just in form, but also in theme. Matisse had viewed African ritual masks in Paris museums and markets and perhaps had seen a ritual while on his journey in Morocco in 1906. Unlike Picassos Les Demoiselles

dAvignon, Matisse saw the masks as more philosophically symbolic than visually representational. Matisses aim, mentioned in Notes of a Painter, 1908, was to discover the essential character of things and produce an art of balance, purity and serenity.10 The work constitutes a primal dance scene of free flowing circleof bodies, infusing the ancient classical tradition of the Mediterranean with the

"primitive" energy of masks and rough-hewn tribal sculptures.11 The integration of the two primitive elements in context of modern society creates a work of balance, purity and serenity.Schwarz suggests, Dance II is a search for lines and colour. There is no indication of the direction of the circle and the lobster-vermillion colour suggests humankinds pre-crustacean antecedents,12

though more likely

is the influence of primitive Athenian pottery. Dance II, similar in

composition and theme to Emil Noldes Dance around the Golden Calf, 1910 which is also representative of primitivism in the sense of energy and ritualistic style, explores freedom of colour and expression of form are communicated as a creation of new visual language. The composition of both works, flamboyant and ritualized movement, can be understood


(Schwarz 1997) (Dabrowski 2004) 11 (Jones 2008) 12 (Schwarz 1997)10


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as the artists fascination with what the essential character of African ritual mask is.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchners work, Bathers in a Room, 1908 utilised the aesthetic of the primitive as well as the sexual connotations, similar to Les Demoiselles dAvignon. Kirchner spent much time at the Ethnological Museum in Dresden, the home of his avant-garde group Die Brucke or literally the bridge, and viewed primitive objects. Kirchner, whom was explicitly sexual, became fascinated by beam friezes of bachelor houses from Palau.13 Essentially, it was the primitive sexual desire and lust which Kirchner became obsessed with as it was not displayed so overtly in Western art. In Bathers in a Room, Kirchner was concerned with the nude both as a symbol of primitive associations and as a problematic image in the history of representation. Consequently, the female form is treated in a similar way to Les Demoiselles dAvignon and The Dance II, a flattened and abstracted form is u