The Status of the Primitive in Narratives of Modern Art

Originally, I wrote this essay for an art history course in 2016. In January of 2017, after some touch ups, I submitted it to EQUALITY—a multidisciplinary academic conference—to which it was accepted. I will be doing a short presentation of the essay in early March of 2017.


European colonial expansion and the subsequent travel and trade that became popular in the 19th century, introduced a new generation of artists to the culture, ideas, and people of places that they had previously had little contact with. This would offer wider exposure of what had already been labeled the “primitive.” Modern artists exhibited a high degree of fascination with the primitive; however, the role of the primitive or the Other in discourses of their art is often tacked on as a footnote by these artists themselves, their critics, and art historians. This paper explores the origins and consequences of these attitudes with particular attention paid to the prolific Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin, both who exposed a wide audience to art influenced by primitive aesthetics. Of significant interest is how colonial domination and ensuing power dynamics have had an influence on the status of the primitive, problematizing cultural equality within narratives of modern art in the past and present.

Dynamics of Appropriation and Artistic Debt

At face value, the idea of modernism typically conjures ideas centred around a Western avant-garde. Its birth in Europe during colonial rule situated it as a distinctly Western concept that challenged the traditional academic landscape during a time of rapid change and exposure to new cultures. In his writing, Partha Mitter discusses the complex unfolding of modernist art across Europe and its colonial subject nations. He explores how their relationship of mutual appropriation does not reflect equally in the recorded history and how the role of art historical books and exhibitions serve to provide information on where we presently find ourselves in the discourse.

Through the process of colonization, and the brutal forces that put it in place, colonial subject nations were very naturally placed at odds with their new European ruling powers. During this same period of time, the Western avant-garde began their revolt “against academic naturalism and its attendant ideology [which] was openly welcomed by the subject nations, who were concerned with formulating their own resistance to the colonial order.” This brief connection between these two revolting groups begins to lay the groundwork for helping to explain why modernism spread to “non-western” places. As mentioned earlier, the relationship is complicated, because while they may share some of the same characteristics, the modernists and the colonial subjects are by no means the same. It’s important to recognize that the modernists continued to function as members of the colonial power, benefitting from their subjugation of the colonized.

This difference in power is highlighted by the ways in which “the artistic ‘borrowings’ of Picasso and other modernists from simple ‘primitive’ cultures did not amount to a debt to these societies.” In stark contrast, when Indian artist Gaganendranath used Cubism as an influence in his work he was dismissed for his “use of the visual language of a culture to which he did not belong.” The implications of power have two clear explanations. One, Picasso is not appropriating another culture’s visual language because it is made by a culture that is societally defined as inferior to his, which in turn defines their visual language as null. The second possible way this power dynamic can be explained is that “the use of Cubism, a product of the dominant West, by an Indian artist who belonged to the colonized world, immediately locked [Gaganendranath] into a dependent relationship.” Further contributing to this process of Western domination was the introduction of “evolutionary doctrines [that] enabled art historians to map world art from its putative ‘primitive’ base to its triumphal climax in Victorian history painting.” Modernism having revolted against the Victorian history painting then positions itself as the next stage in this linear evolution. As such, modernism in non-Western cultures fails to receive, even now, a status of similar grade to those of the West. The factors involved in the study of the non-Western modernism is what Mitter calls the Picasso manqué syndrome.

While these bleaker histories populate much modernist art, there are instances of recognition amongst some artists. Mitter makes reference to Piet Mondrian’s fascination of non-Western philosophy, poetry, and mysticism, which Mondrian gave due credit as his sources. In this way, Mitter writes that “Colonial mentality deems cultural transmissions to be a one-way process flowing from the Occident, but fascination with the East has periodically surfaced in the West in different guises.” This “fascination with the East” is widely visible around the beginning of the 20th century in the works of Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso, amongst others.

The Primitive and the Primitivists

The development of modern art hinges on its exposure to “primitive” art and culture—controversially referred to as primitivism. The influence that this unfamiliar art had on the avant-garde artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was significant as it provided them with a new source of aesthetic inspiration. Primitivism carries with it the weight of colonization and as such, all of the weights of colonization itself. Jean-François Staszak writes about the role of Paul Gauguin in the furtherance of primitivism, suggesting that Gauguin is “maybe even the inventor of primitivism.” While the paintings by Gauguin in Tahiti do not tell much about Tahiti, they do provide an in-depth narrative on Gauguin. As a colonial and artist, Gauguin’s paintings can help to tell the story of the colonial mindset, social norms and bring out cultural nuances of the time.

Contemporary Tahitian people believe that “Gauguin ‘had no particular influence on our people’” going on to say further that, “[h]e is only one among numerous Western voices who robbed us of our expression’” suggesting that there is a distinct difference between the art of Gauguin and the art of Tahitians. Staszak writes that “Primitivist art is not primitive art: the first has certainly borrowed from the second, but mainly drew from what it had placed there.” It is important then to create a clear distinction between primitive art (with all of its connotations) and primitivist art, which exists more or less as modern art appropriating elements of primitive art.

Spirit of the Dead Watching

Colonialism in Tahiti provided Gauguin with his ability to settle there while he did, and while his paintings perhaps project connection to the lives of Tahitians, he was still “a stark defender of the interests of the French community.” By keeping tight ties to France, it is impossible to remove Gauguin from a discourse in French colonialism that is fraught with racism and violence. As a painter, Gauguin’s representations of Tahitians communicated to a wider public of European art consumers what Tahitian was like—only it wasn’t the real Tahiti they were seeing, but Gauguin’s colonial perspective. This was used “as an instrument of colonial propaganda” by the French government in the 1930’s.

Staszak argues that Gauguin’s place in history is not so easily just negative. He had a major impact on the furtherance of modern art by expanding its canon and providing many more artists points of reference. According to Staszak, “Gauguin’s legacy is paradoxical.” On one hand, Gauguin is a supporter of French colonization, but on the other he moved himself to Tahiti because of his “dissatisfaction with his society and modern art (realism, impressionism).” This places Gauguin in a place where he is in effect perpetuating the very society he wishes to escape by being a colonial, but finding temporary release for himself.

Gauguin’s place in the history of art is without doubt problematic. Staszak writes that “[Gauguin’s] work plays a major role in the perpetuation of misunderstandings between the West and Tahitians, due to the myths that they uphold. Reducing Tahiti to ‘the island of Gauguin’ diverts attention from the realities and the problems specific to Polynesia.” With the effects of colonization still imprinted in Tahiti and tourists making pilgrimages to Gauguin’s grave, his effect on the island has been without doubt dramatic; however, as Staszak writes, his impact on French colonialism and modernist art draws complex questions about the nature of that impact. By painting in Tahiti, Gauguin contributed to a shift in modernist art. His representations of “primitive” cultures and the widespread acceptance of his work by the European avant-garde speaks volumes about their attitudes and ideologies.

Dealing with Unconscious Primitive Influence

When thinking about the factors that influenced Picasso, there is no doubt in the minds of scholars and critics that the likes of “Ingres and Goya during his Gósol sojourn, Gauguin during the ‘Blue Period’ or Cézanne during the cubist phase” impacted his art. This places Picasso into the larger discourse of Western art moving linearly from the Greeks. The role of the primitive is evident in Picasso’s art; however, its brief mention and casual influence contrasts vividly to the expansive intertextual discourse that Western art occupies. Gikandi explores how Picasso’s complicated relationship to African may help explain how primitivism functions within his art and modern art as a larger body of work.

Primitive art was without a doubt of interest to many modernist artists; however, within discourses directly related to their art, it becomes clear that there is an attempt to downplay the significance of primitive influence on creation. Gikandi writes that this idea is perpetuated by critics and historians in more recent times as they attempt to position artists like Picasso within a neat, Western modernist framework. In addition to this explanation, Gikandi says that modern artists “needed the primitive in order to carry out their representational revolution, but that … the Other needed to be evacuated from the scene of the modern so that it could enter the institutions of high art.” This assumes that the art institutions would not accept the primitive in its “raw” form, which led modernists to instead cloak the primitive in a guise. This guise is what Gikandi says Picasso referred to as a sort of unconscious influence.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Picasso is said to have had little interest in the actual lives of Africans, despite his work showing strong influences of their art and bodies. “Apparently, Africa was most useful to Picasso when it was confined to the unconscious—there but not there,” which allowed Picasso to take ownership of his painting, able to confidently argue that the African or primitive served no use in their “embodied form,” instead functioning best as an idea. Picasso showed a preference for African objects, “but there is little evidence of an interest in Africans as human beings.” When African bodies did serve Picasso, they did so because they allowed him achieve his goal of rendering classical nudes, but with a modernist edge. The dark, overtly sexualized bodies of Africans provided him this opportunity to shock the institutions while still exhibiting a high degree of technical skill.

This idea of an unconscious African influence carried into Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of which he said “came to him unconsciously.” His dismissal in being influenced by any African art form could suggest the distancing that Gikandi writes modernists attempted to engage in as a means of making their work suitable as high art. Picasso urged that primitive art was not important to the production of modern art, but instead that “tribal objects in his studio were ‘more witnesses than models.’”

The impact that this perspective of an unconscious primitivism is perhaps evident in the way that African is tacked onto the modernist discourse. The linear history of art finds itself interrupted by the new influences of art coming out a newly colonized Africa. This reality caused artists such as Picasso to find ways to keep their art “purely” Western by positioning primitive influence as a point of internal fascination that manifest itself through the artist’s genius in unconscious ways.

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