modern primitivism

The pervasive influence of tribal arts - particularly African - on modern painters and sculptors, has been recognized for many years. The effect can be seen in the work of Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Klee, Gauguin, Modigliani, Moore, Giacometti, Lipchitz, the Surrealists, the German Expressionists and the Abstract Expressionists.

The blending of these primitive and contemporary styles is referred to as Modern Primitivism or Modernist Primitivism - a movement linking the potential of human creativity in modern and primitive societies. It honors contemporary artists of the 20th Century who subverted their received training and traditions and forged a bond that transcended language, beliefs and social structures.

Art historians and anthropologists began to study "primitive art" around the middle of the 19th Century. During the time the European powers colonized Africa, explorers, soldiers and missionaries brought home fetishes, masks, sculptures, bronzework and ivory carvings created by "noble savages" they'd come in contact with. Museums and galleries that opened in Paris, London and Brussels began to display the beauty and genius of the distant African people.

Picasso discovered African art via his friends and by exploring galleries. After visiting the Trocadéro museum, where he viewed nail-studded fetishes, ghostlike masks and scar-cheeked idols, Picasso remarked to André Malraux: "It was disgusting; a flea market. The smell...I wanted to leave. I didn't go. I stayed." The artist later admitted that "something happened to him, something important." He was suddenly realizing "why he was a painter." He repeatedly used the words: "shock," and "revelation."

Following the example of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, who'd eagerly embraced the inspiration of barbarian lands and were collecting African art, Picasso started purchasing what was called, in those days, "Negro Art," finding bargains at Sunday morning flea markets. Picasso's friend Appollinaire commented on April 16, 1911, that Picasso's studio was soon overwhelmed with "a confusion of Oceanian and African idols, anatomical specimens, musical instruments, fruit, bottles and a great deal of dust." The poet Andre Salmon indicated that Picasso had "the best examples of African and Polynesian sculpture. Long before he shows you his own work, Picasso will make you admire these primitive works."

William Rubin, a noted Picasso expert, wrote in Primitivism In The 20th Century: "In no other artist's career has primitivism played so pivotal and historically consequential a role as in Picasso's. It was critical (though in diminishing proportions) in three periods of redirection in his work: between his return from Gosol in 1906 and the resolution of his early Cubist style in winter 1908-09; during the formation - in the context of collage and construction sculpture - of Synthetic Cubism in 1912-13; and in the new directions of both his modeled and constructed sculpture in the early thirties. Over-arching these particular interventions were primitivist instincts that represented an abiding strain in Picasso's psychology. They could only have been reinforced by the continuous presence of tribal objects in his studios from 1907 until his death."

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, one of Picasso's most important paintings, displays the culmination of the artist's Iberian phase and the beginning of the tribal influences that followed it. It shows Picasso transitioning from a perceptual to a conceptual way of working, clearing a path for the development of Cubism. Originally intended as a bordello scene, the five women represent two polarized extremes. The three women on the left retain Picasso's Iberian style, while the two women on the right display twisted, scarified faces characterized in African masks. Picasso maintained the painting was finished before his pivotal, eye-opening visit to the Tocadéro museum. But a question remains: were the two faces on the right added afterwards?

Rubin thought it was possible. He wrote: "To the extent, therefore, that the right-hand demoiselles were inspired by ideas about tribal art prompted by Picasso's Trocadéro visit, their images open outward towards the collective implications of masking as elucidated by Lévi-Strauss. Insofar, however, as those visages were in fact arrived at by Picasso's search for plastic correlatives in exorcising his private psychological demons, they constitute a form of visual abrecation, and lead us inward to the Freudian sense of masking, in which an emotion is too painful to confront directly (here the artist's fear of death through disease) is dealt with by substituting a "cover" image."

Picasso characterized Demoiselles as his "first exorcism picture." He told Malraux: "For me the [tribal] masks were not just sculptures. They were magical objects...intercessors...against everything - against unknown, threatening spirits."

Picasso's complex psychology and prolific body of work have inspired many artists to explore the Modern Primitivism style. Two of the best places to visit to understand Picasso, African Art and Modern Primitivism are the Musée Picasso and the Musée du quai Branly. Both are located in Paris.

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