Primitivism (art)

From Academic Kids

Primitivism is an artistic movement that looks to early human history and non-Western or children's art for inspiration and makes use of themes or stylistic elements from prehistory and tribal cultures. Paul Gauguin (painting) and early Igor Stravinsky (music) are two of the important representatives of this movement. A prime example of primitivism in music is Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, whose "Dionysian" modernism he abandoned for a more "Apollonian" neo-classicism.

Motifs of primitivism

Primitivism in western art is associated with:

  1. Exaggerated features, particularly facial and bodily proportions, especially the eyes or length of the face.
  2. Animal totems - the combination of human and animal, the use of animals as symbolic for other forces, in a manner different from the naturalistic method of the Egyptians.
  3. Stark geometric designs, particularly those evoking textile patterns such as diamonds, keys and pictographs.
  4. Focus on rhythmic and percussive elements, especially in music.
  5. Mixing of real and dream or spiritual worlds, but with a barrier between the two. Use of mythological motifs in contrast.
  6. Overt sexuality, particularly when combined with exaggeration and exposure of the genitals.
  7. The destructive forces which lurk outside of man's comprehension, particularly madness, spiritual punishment, unrestrained urges to violence or sexuality.

The origins of primitivism in western art

Western art has repeatedly searched for basic motifs to base art works upon, or to contrast with the normative world of day to day behavior, from the Greek satyr farces and use of older pottery motifs in architecture, through the acquisition of images from Ancient Egypt and Gothic revivals, the search for material from "before" has been part of the process of European art. Primitivism can be likened to other forms of archaism.

In the 18th and 19th century, many western artists took influences from other cultures, both European and otherwise, as a way of inflecting their work. Examples of this include the use of "Spanish" and "Turkish" sounds and "Egyptian" motifs. This tendency is labelled Exoticism in general and Orientalism when the culture was from the Islamic world or the Pacific Rim. Examples include the influence of Hiroshige on Vincent van Gogh.

In the late 19th century many European powers invaded and conquered large sections of Africa and Micronesia, and the United States established control over the native nations of Great Plains. These cultures were not, by and large, urbanized, and their art reflected a very different pattern of life and religion from the city based civilizations that Europeans had incorporated into artwork previously. The use of the exaggerated body proportions, animal totems, geometric designs and stark contrasts became fashionable. The first artist to systematically use these effects and achieve broad public success was Paul Gauguin.

It was with the rise of Modern art that primitivism gained a greater presence: in the context of the Modern, the "primitive" represented the libido, the "id" of psychoanalysis, as well as the unblemished and unrestrained sexuality associated with primitive tribes. This stood in marked contrast to European codes of behavior, which restricted sexual activity, and economic forces which resulted in later and later marriages.

Primitivism was adopted because many of the motifs and ideas associated in the minds of early 20th century Europeans - permissiveness, sexuality, the revelation of repressed urges - were associated with tribal culture, and pre-Christian religious practices, including Human sacrifice.

Primitivism and racism

It should be stressed that primitivism was the construction of outside observers searching for solutions to the problems of their own society. The image created of Africa as the dark seething cauldron of sex and superstition - the so called Dark continent - was one which exaggerated, oversimplified or ignored large swathes of the cultures it was meant to evoke. There was at the time a very prevalent racism in European affairs, not limited towards people of African extraction, and a cultural chauvinism which was directed at far more than "primitive" cultures. Many features of primitivism's origin can be traced to the sense of superiority that Europeans felt towards those that they had only recently conquered, and at the same time the insecurities prevalent about their own culture, and its potential to fall into a "degenerate" state. Many of the criticisms levelled by Edward Said about "orientalism" have been echoed at primitivism as well: a romanticised cultural construct which is overloaded both with negative images of other cultures, and negative images of European culture.

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