A term that has been widely used in art history and, to a lesser extent, in literary studies. It is used narrowly
to identify a specific modern school of art and writing that emphasizes simplicity of form or theme.
In this narrow sense it is an ongoing and important influence on modern art. In modern writing, however, it is less frequently employed as a critical term, being associated with simplicity of style and a deliberate employment of simple themes and subjects (for example, the representation of peasant life). In some cases, notably in Latin American writing, it has had a radical association absent from most of its European uses. However, in many places it has formed part of a more general movement of national self-assertion, for example in Slavic countries in the second half of the nineteenth century when it fostered the recovery and employment of motifs and themes from peasant and folk art as nationalist symbols.
Its broader use defines a form or style perceived to represent an early stage of human cultural endeavour. Thus early human art is often described as primitive art. The problem with the term used in this way is that it assumes a linear, ideological unfolding of human history from simple to complex. Thus early or primitive art is seen as leading to a culmination and fulfilment in later sophisticated or civilized art. Even more dubiously, such criteria may lead to further categories. Thus uneducated, that is untrained and unschooled, artists whose work does not reflect the dominant artistic conventions, such as France's Henri Rousseau, or the American painter Grandma Moses, or even trained artists who deliberately repudiate the conventions, such as the British painter Stanley Spencer, may be categorized as "primitive".
Furthermore, whole alternative cultural and artistic traditions may be assigned to this category simply because their conventions do not match those of the dominant artistic codes of the West. This discrimination lends itself too easily to unfounded and often pejorative comparisons of the "value" of different cultures. Thus African or Pacific Islander or Native
American/Canadian or Australian Aboriginal art was often described as "primitive" (implying a savage crudity and simplicity, if also a welcome freshness and a child-like vision) because its conventions did not match those of the dominant European tradition whose values were considered to establish the norms of civilized and mature art. Even the most positive descriptions based on the category of the primitive are in danger of exoticizing these cultures and othering them.
As these dominant European traditions associated with the modernist movement at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became questioned and challenged, Western artists, such as Picasso, often deliberately sought to reproduce the innocence and "child-like" qualities of primitive art. This was, in part, a repudiation of their own culture and did not necessarily involve an affirmation of the validity and difference of the cultures they employed as signifiers of the
liberating force of the primitive. The signs of the primitive continued to be juxtaposed with icons of Western art, reinforcing the binary of primitive (savage) and modern (civilized), even as it sought to dismantle the claims of the latter. Thus, for example, in Picasso's famous and influential early painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), the classical Greek icon of the three Graces in the grouping of the young women is juxtaposed against the image of an African mask which replaces the face of one of them. Such a juxtaposition may seek to dismantle the status of the classical tradition but does not necessarily affirm the value of the alter/native tradition it employs.
For these reasons, primitivism remains a problematic concept, and one that most post-colonial studies have treated with caution as a descriptive category, whilst recognizing that the artistic and social movements it describes have had powerful historical links with colonialist and post-colonialist discourses.
- Arac, J. and Ritvo, H. (eds.) Macropolitics of Nineteenth-century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.
- Hillier, S. (ed.) The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art. New York: Routledge, 1991.
- Rhodes, C. Primitivism and Modern Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.