Artworks and Artists of Primitivism

Progression of Art
Paul Gauguin: Vision After the Sermon (1888)

Vision After the Sermon

Artist: Paul Gauguin

Gauguin presents the viewer with a visionary scene: women in white bonnets and dark dresses, some of whom have their eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer, stand with their backs to the viewer witnessing a scene from the Old Testament, Jacob wrestling with an angel. Gauguin sets the spiritual vision on a field of red to imply it is not happening in the physical world. The flattened space and simplified forms speak to the new visual language that Gauguin and other Symbolists were developing at the time.

Before Gauguin's infamous South Pacific travels and relocation to Tahiti to escape the suffocating norms of civilized, modern Paris, he and others found relief in Brittany, a rural area of Northwest France famed among artists for the local customs and rituals associated with peasant life. As art historian Gill Perry points out, Gauguin's primitivizing tendencies were well developed in the pictures he painted in Pont-Aven in the late 1880s. Gauguin wrote to a fellow artist about his stay in Brittany, "I love Brittany. I find something savage, primitive here. When my clogs echo on this granite earth, I hear the dull, muffled powerful note that I am seeking in my painting." While overlooking the technological developments and the prevalence of tourists in the area, Gauguin found a supposedly untouched civilization where the peasants, in Perry's words, were "uncorrupted by the sophistication and materialism of the modern world."

Gauguin associated the simplified and flattened forms of his composition with what he thought was the primitiveness of the Breton people. Such abstractions corresponded not to observable reality but an inner meaning that had parallels with the Bretons' religious practices as well as Symbolist aesthetics. Gauguin would use these newly found forms and abstractions to represent similar aspects of the Tahitian culture that he later encountered, famously depicting Polynesian girls and women in eroticized poses in abstracted landscapes and interiors.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Artist: Pablo Picasso

One of the most recognizable paintings of the 20th century, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon depicts five nude females in various poses. Four of the five women look out toward the viewer. Their bodies are angular and rather abstract, and three of them possess mask-like faces. While the setting is stylized, with hints of a curtain and a still life on a low table in the foreground, Picasso's numerous studies make it apparent that the women are in a brothel. In this groundbreaking pre-Cubist work, Picasso combines his studies of Primitive art, namely Iberian and African sculpture, with references to El Greco and Michelangelo to create a new synthesis that would have reverberations throughout the 20th century.

Much has been made of Picasso's appropriation of Primitive art. He already had an interest in the early art from the Iberian peninsula as well as Romanesque art, and around 1906, after a conversation with Henri Matisse and visits to the Trocadéro Museum, he began collecting African sculpture himself. In 1937, Picasso recalled an epiphany he had while visiting the Trocadéro in 1907. While he was put off by the smells and arrangement of the museum, Picasso remembered that when he saw the African sculptures and masks he realized, "The masks weren't like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things.. The Negroes' sculptures were intercessors.. Against everything; against unknown, threatening spirits.." Picasso borrowed the formal qualities of the African masks, such as ovoid shaped faces and angular and geometric facial features, but he also, according to art historian Jack Flam, took in the idea "that the process of making a work of art could be conceived as an integral part of its function." While Picasso was not well aware of the contexts and uses of these masks, he linked the ritualistic and magical properties he assumed they had to his own artistic process when he described Les Demoiselles as his "first canvas of exorcism." The exploration of Primitive art and the rethinking of the creative process set Picasso on the path to develop his analytic Cubist style in which form and space were integrated and Renaissance spatial illusionism was completely abandoned.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Bathers in a Room (1909, repainted 1920)
1909, repainted 1920

Bathers in a Room

Artist: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

In this large-scale painting, Kirchner transposes the usual idyllic, outdoor site of traditional bathers into his studio, brightly colored and decorated with pseudo-Primitive artifacts and textiles. Tall, dark statues decorate the door jamb in the middle ground, and a boldly colored curtain separates two rooms on the left. In the roundels on the curtain, one can make out a seated king as well as an amorous couple. Kirchner was familiar with African and Oceanic sculptures he saw in the Dresden Anthropological-Ethnographical Museum. While the sculptures and curtain are vague and not specific, as art historian Gill Parry points out, the Primitive objects along with the garish colors, the distortions and angularity of the figures would have signaled a "direct" or "authentic" expression then associated with Primitive, or uncivilized, cultures.

In the 1906 Die Brücke manifesto, one reads, "With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all youth. As youth, we carry the future in us and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and of movement against the long-established older forces. We claim as our own everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity." Die Brücke's embrace of the Primitive declared their opposition to bourgeois values and the rapidly industrializing landscape and indicated their mediation between so-called Primitive thought and modern thought and dreams.

Oil on canvas - Saarland-Museum, Saarbrücken, Germany


Little French Girl (The First Step [III])

Artist: Constantin Brancusi

Brancusi's sculpture of a young girl stands about four feet tall and bears a strong resemblance to certain African sculptures. Brancusi's interest in the Primitive had its origins in Gauguin's Primitivism, which he would have seen at a retrospective in 1906 at the Salon d'Automne, as well as in the sculptures he studied at the Musée de l'Homme, the later incarnation of the Trocadéro Museum, in Paris. Scholars have also pointed to native Romanian folk art as a source of inspiration for Brancusi.

The sculpture recalls several different types of tribal sculpture found in Africa. The elongated neck and spine recall Bambara figures, but the grooves along with the projecting ear and the bell shape of the skirt also resemble Senufo helmet masks from Ivory Coast. An argument has also been made that Brancusi's figure in its armlessness and pinched legs echoes a Bijogo fertility figure. While Brancusi was obviously taken with the formal qualities of African sculpture, it was the Direct Carving in wood that most influenced him. Rather than modeling clay or plaster and then casting in bronze, Brancusi favored direct manipulation of the material of the sculpture. Later in his life, Brancusi remarked "Only the Africans and the Rumanians know how to carve wood." As art critic Sidney Geist points out, Brancusi's emphasis on Direct Carving implied an honesty and authenticity that he thought missing from European sculpture. This sense of authenticity, or genuineness, that Brancusi inferred about African sculpture led him to explore ways in which his art could be similarly direct and unmediated.

Oak on pine base - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York


La Belle Jardinère

Artist: Max Ernst

While the Surrealists were certainly interested in the forms of Primitive art, more than other modern artists, they were deeply interested in Primitive mentalities as they were being studied by anthropologists in the first decades of the 20th century. For example, French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl described that Primitive peoples understood the world dualistically, with physical and spiritual realms, and that the spiritual animated the physical. Additionally, Lévy-Bruhl recognized dreams as the crucial place where the two realms intersect. Combined with Freud's theory of dreams, the Surrealists embraced these notions of the Primitive mindset in describing the role of the artist as a sort of magician or shaman who was able to tap into the unconscious realms.

La Belle Jardinère was probably destroyed by the Nazis after being exhibited in the Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937, but in the extant photographs we can see Ernst's burgeoning interests in Oceanic cultures. In this painting, a nude female figure stands atop a tiny landscape. Her torso resembles an anatomical model that would be used in the aid of dissection, and a white bird hovers in front of her pubic region. Additionally, a ghostly outline of a figure stands behind her. Ernst clearly based this figure on an image of a tattooed figure from the Marquesas Islands. Ernst wrote that the Papuan man, who stood for Primitive man in general, "possesses all the mysteries and realizes the playful pleasure in his union with [nature]." Ernst as an artist saw his role as one probing mysteries and delighting in play. As art historian Evan Maurer explains, "What he sought was not some literal communication with spirits and supernatural forces, but rather the ability to give material existence to the images that emerge from the primal recesses of man's creative consciousness." Ernst's appropriation of Primitive arts and ideas exemplified an attempt to redefine what the subject matter of art could be - one's deepest, interior thoughts, feelings, and fears - and to give that subject a new form.

Oil on canvas - Presumed destroyed



Artist: Jean Dubuffet

In this arresting image, a woman gives birth to a baby while two onlookers stand by her side. Dubuffet rendered the female figure crudely and simplistically. Her arms and hands are raised and her legs splayed, while the baby appears, upside down, below her and between her legs. Dubuffet has tilted the bed on which she lays up toward the surface of the picture, thus flattening the whole composition.

Dubuffet developed an art that looked unskilled and childlike. He looked to the examples of Primitive art as well as art made by children and the mentally ill to find an aesthetic expression that countered traditional Western values. Dubuffet developed the idea of Art Brut, or raw art, or sometimes even "outsider art;" it referred to art, including his own, made outside of academic traditions and by those who did not consider themselves artists. In a 1951 lecture, Dubuffet told his audience that he thought the art of so-called primitive peoples was in fact more sophisticated than Western art, adding "Personally, I believe very much in the values of savagery; I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness....For myself, I aim for an art which would be in immediate connection with daily life, an art which would be a very direct and very sincere expression of our real life and our real moods." Yet, as the many European artists who came before him and expressed an interest in primitive art, Dubuffet does not acknowledge the indigenous traditions and training that were the context of the art he praised.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Artist: Adolph Gottlieb

Like his European forebears, Adolph Gottlieb looked to the arts of non-Western traditions to revive what he thought was the stagnant customs of Western art. While not based on a particular object, the images in Pictograph recall female fertility figures, totems, and the abstract designs of rock art. Gottlieb divided the composition, cordoning off each image in a section of an irregular grid. The resulting composition appears to be a puzzle, just hovering above legibility.

Interested in African sculpture as well as the textiles of Northwest Coast Indians, Gottlieb borrowed the simple and geometric forms of these arts to create a new artistic vocabulary. As curator Kirk Varnedoe explained, "Gottlieb's Pictographs insist on a prominently divided field of signs in a way that rejects the cursiveness of automatist 'writing' and evokes not the spontaneous eruption of deep-level flow of consciousness, but a primal ordering impulse and the Primitive mind's ability to hold its elements of meaning in suspension rather than dissolve them in seamless flux." After the atrocities of World War II, Gottlieb, along with several other Abstract Expressionists, turned to Primitive art in an effort to find universal meaning that would provide common ground among isolated individuals. Like many of the earlier modern artists, they sought in Primitivism a utopian and idealistic model of a harmonious society.

Oil on canvas - Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York



Artist: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat combined styles and sources, including Expressionism, early 20th-century Primitivism, and graffiti, to create bold and dramatic images that spoke to African history, the plight of African Americans, and the streets of New York City. Here, a black male figure faces the viewer with his arms interlocked above his head, suggesting power and authority. Some have suggested it is a tribal king or perhaps a griot, a figure common in West Africa who would travel from villages and towns telling stories and singing songs.

Art historian Fred Hoffman explains that in Basquiat's paintings around this time the heroic black male becomes king-like and even divine; he suggests, "The figure in Flexible cannot be viewed as a mere mortal. This figure exists beyond our world, a manifestation of a higher power." Basquiat draws the features of the figure - a broad head and nose, almond-shaped eyes with surrounding cowrie shells, and open mouth - from various representations of divine figures that were common in sub-Saharan African cultures. While earlier 20th-century artists borrowed forms from African sculptures, Basquiat does so with full knowledge of their context and history, transposing the power and sacredness of such figures to contemporary depictions of black males.

Acrylic and oilstick on wood - Private Collection

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Primitivism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 28 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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