The Question of “Primitivism” and the Fauves

Today, “primitivism” is considered a derogatory term, connoting the Twentieth Century Western attitude towards the presumed “inferiority” of non-Western art.  “Primitivism” refers to the abiding belief that non-Western cultures and peoples of color were, by definition, “primitive” and uncivilized and in need of the civilizing influences of European powers.  “Primitivism” has become equated with imperialism and colonialism and the exploitation of the Other by the West.  A more polite term has replaced primitivism: “Tribal Art,” indicating an indigenous art by non-Western people.  However, it is important to note two little discussed facts: first, that the so-called “native” art came from colonized peoples and second, this art was often made expressly for the tourist trade and/or had been altered by Western influences.  The tribal art so admired by Parisian artists was likely to be both “African” and inauthentic. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, fully eighty-five percent of the world was dominated by a tiny group of European nations.

Art critic, Robert Hughes, called the aesthetic pillaging of non-Western art by Western artists “cultural imperialism”—an apt phrase, given that the artistic looting was paralleled by wholesale colonization of the globe.  The artists were riveted by the freedom with which the African artists treated the human body. Instead of an anatomically idealized Classical ideal, the African body was not perceptual but conceptual or symbolic in form.  The huge mask like faces, the generalized bodies and the stunted arms and legs suggested anything but beauty and beauty and art had long been co-dependent in Western art. The idea that the body could be stylistically and expressively deformed and that the face could be grotesque and morphologically transformed inspired artists in Paris to re-conceptualize the human form.

The early writings on “primitivism,” such as Primitivism and Modern Art (1938) by Robert Goldwater, equated non-Western art with the art making of “undeveloped” people, such as children. But Goldwater valiantly attempted to point out that this equation was made by the art world of pre-War Paris and that the art of Africans was sophisticated and beautifully crafted.  “Primitivism” was, instead, a state of mind or a mindset on the part of certain artists, looking for new ideas.  African art was “discovered” in Paris around 1904 by the Fauve artists, notably André Derain, and by Pablo Picasso.  The sources and sightings included the Musée de l’Homme and artifacts purchased by travelers.  Henri Matisse purchased some examples of  African tribal art, and the inspiration of these objects appears in his Green Stripe with his wife’s mask-like face.  The interest in tribal art caused these artists to shift their attention from the bright colors of Fauvism to the “darker” aspects of the “primitive.”  Derain painted a series of clumsy nudes, Bathers, lumbering through a dark jungle and Matisse painted a subdued Blue Nude by 1907.  It is highly unlikely that any of these artists knew or cared about the original (and probably lost) meanings of the tribal works or about how the art might have functioned in tribal societies.  Fauve “primitivism” consisted of seizing upon new ideas and absorbing the concepts and adapting the tribal for the avant-garde.

As the book, Primitivism, cubism, abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, put it,

The appeal of African and Oceanic objects for the Fauves as rooted in those same interests and assumptions, which underpinned the appeal of Gauguin’s work for the group.  They signified the exotic or the ‘primitive’ redefined according to a Western avant-garde artistic code.  Moreover, the absence of an accessible iconography or history to these objects allowed them to be easily absorbed into a modern artistic culture.

In their own time, the Fauves inherited the Nineteenth Century’s fear of anarchism and political chaos and were called barbarians (or wild beasts), indicating a baleful anti-authoritarian attitude.  The Fauves may have been seeking new artistic ideas but they had no intention of overthrowing any governments.  To the establishment mind, any feints, no matter how remote, against the prevailing powers, was a threat and had to be countered with cries of childishness, youthfulness, and dangerous waywardness.  The possible Dionysian attitudes of the Fauves and their rollicking colors seemed quite possible compared to the regal and serene murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, painted in cool cerebral colors.   But the Fauves were more interested in stripping modern art of tradition and in finding new ways to draw and new reasons to paint than in importing tribal art into their art world.  What drew them to African art was the powerful urge to withdraw from an over industrialized landscape into something more simple, hence “primitive,” and primal: the lost atavistic golden age.

The “Primitivism” of the Fauves could be found in their choice of subjects—the nudes bathing in landscape with a new treatment of the human body.  Compared to Emile Bernard’s painting of nudes in a landscape in 1097 in which the artist expressly contrasted the women to nature, the Fauve nude is part of landscape and is co-extensive with nature.  The nude and the landscape are drawn and colored and painted without hierarchy, with equality.  There is no humanistic center, only a reduction of the painting to a mood.  There is no unified action and there is no exterior determinant or reason for the picture to exits other that the figures that fill the frame.  The forms are psychologically unrelated to each other and  the figures are rendered unimportant by the random cutting of the edges by Derain and Vlaminck.   In the fantasy world of Matisse, nudity accepted as being a signifier of harmony between humans and bucolic nature in a pastoral landscape.

The Fauve artists simplified their lines, often leaving them unfinished or forgotten about, as if a child had been distracted by another task.  Also child-like (in the sense that Friedrich Schiller meant it) is the use of large areas of pure and undifferentiated color, floating unanchored by perspective.   In addition to their appreciation of children’s art and the naïve art of Henri Rousseau, the Fauves were not concerned about the traditional subtleties of drawing and attempted to find simplicity (primitivism).  The artists wanted to communicate directly with the spectator by replacing the world of objects with basic human emotions (considered “primitive” by authoritarian regimes).  Some of the more immature artists, such as Vlaminck were dependent upon violent effects of color and upon the sensationalism of deliberate dissonance, but Fauvism sought merely a return and renewal of a more direct way of living and of self-expression.  The “primitivism” of Fauvism was a means to an end, not the end itself.

In fact, the Fauve turn towards the “primitive” was brief, a mere glitch on the way to the end of the movement.  The same was true of Picasso who used “primitivism”—Iberian and African influences—to start but never finish Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) on the way to Cubism.  The whole concept of “primitivism” and the influence of tribal art on Modern Art was revived after the two world wars and was reordered as a kind of formal affinity.  The last gasp of “affinity” was the 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” curated by William Rubin.  Rubin came under a barrage of criticism by a younger generation of art critics, such as Thomas McEvilley, for equating modernism with the universal and for viewing tribal art as a kind of raw material for Western artists to elevate into transcendence.  As McEvilley charged, the curators wanted to present modern art as a creative process, not as an art of appropriation (in the sense of colonialism).  More tellingly, in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief,” McEvilley pointed out that Rubin’s so-called affinity was based upon a morphological resemblance without establishing any connection between selected examples of non-Western art and modern art.

In the end, after a few short eventful years, the imfluence of Fauvism far outweighed its duration.  Although the art of Matisse suggested that the logic of form or reality could be created thru color, this liberation of color did not immediately affect Twentieth Century art, due to  the monochrome of Cubism.  But for the more mainstream art world, lagging behind the avant-garde, there were educational consequences.  The bright colors helped painters to leave Impressionism and to come to terms with Post-Impressionism. The late Cézannist period of Fauvism combined a Western structure and geometricism with  “primitivism” by 1907.

After Ernst Ludwig Kirchner saw Fauve paintings in Berlin in 1908, Die Brücke in northern Germany took up this route of structured “primitivism,” or sharp edged figures.  Although Matisse’s work in Berlin in 1908 was badly reviewed, Die Brücke artists began heightening their palettes and simplifying their forms.  Both the Fauves and Die Brücke were impacted by tribal art, with the German artists finding or “discovering” the new forms in the ethnographic museum in Dresdent.   Both groups were actively seeking a return to nature and saw “primitivism” as a means to accomplish a more simple way of life.  In contrast, the Munich group, Der Blaue Reiter, led by Kandinsky and Jawlensky, saw Fauvism at Salon d’automne in 1905 and were inspired by the formal innovations.  By 1908, Kandinsky at Murnau, near Munich, mixed the Fauve technique of high color and flat planes with Post-Impressionist exaggerated broken brushstrokes. Interestd in Bavarian folk art, Jawlensky used high pitched colors, harsh bright outlining, complementary shadows, all borrowed from the Fauves to create a kind of raw modern folk art in the frontal aspect of his painted mask like faces.

Formally speaking, “primitivism” led the Fauves and those influenced by them to find an all-over construction through color.  Reductiveness and simplicity, directness of means and a search for the basic elements of art, stripped of conventions—-all were hallmarks of Fauvism.  The desire to return and to renew suggested a reliance on instinct, indicated through intense color and free form that indicated a primal wildness.  In Fauvism, imagination and feeling ruled, but being French, their formal dislocations were tempered and tamed by a devotion to the decorative.   To the art intellectuals, this frankly decorative tendency, especially on the part of Matisse, was an excursion into the exotic, the “primitive,” the alien Other to the civilized European.  The “primitivism” of Fauvism, like Fauvism itself, waned.  Derain and Vlaminck became virulently conservative, especially after the Great War and Braque became a controlled Cubist and Matisse became a cultural lion, a giant of the Twentieth Century.  Fauvism was tamed and the Fauves grew up.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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