Just after the beginning of this century, painters and poets shook "primitive" art - the beautiful masks of Africa and Oceania - in the faces of their Parisian public.
"Negro" art (as it was also called) entered the art world like a pistol shot in church. It disturbed the order restructuring artists' intentions and their presentation of society.
At the 1906 Salon d'Automne, the Fauve painters electrified Paris. The following year, the great Cezanne retrospective was mounted. In those same years, Picasso, Matisse, Derain and other painters were staring at the collections of African and Oceanic art housed in the Musee Trocadero, where only a few specialists ventured. In 1907, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
Apollinaire, who coined the word cubism, was a close friend of Picasso and Braque; he and other young poets were searching at that time for an antidote to what they saw as symbolist mysticism and abstraction. They perceived themselves as caught in contradiction between the necessity of giving form - abstraction, as they defined it - to experience, and the concrete richness of that experience. What did "abstraction" mean?
In 1908, William Worringer, a German who was wandering through the Trocadero at about the same time as our artists, published an influential thesis which set out the new modernist terms. For decades, artists and writers had speculated on the "other tradition," abstraction, the "opposite pole" from spatial representations as these had been understood since the Renaissance. Worringer argued that there had been two basic responses to the world in Western art; the classical, mimetic way of seeing defined by Aristotle; and what Worringer named the primitive, the abstract. The former notion he characterized as "empathic," after Goethe, in which "self" is experienced as being at home in the world. Abstraction, the opposite pole, he saw as being a sort of alienation, as we use the word now: "man" does not know himself as being at home in the world, "he" senses disunity between person and the rest of creation, and is disturbed by the shifting nature of all phenomena. His solace lies in being able to liberate "abstract" forms from the conditioned reality, the finiteness, in which they are embedded.
Worringer found in African and Oceanic art the creation of "other" space, a vision of space which defied the relativistic appeal of Renaissance art. Abstract art, as it appeared in this non-Western form, was contained in itself; the viewer was given no other referent than the piece itself.
The very act of formulating such oppositions recalls the old European debate about "primitive" and "civilized." The way Renaissance "empathic" space is opposed to the "Other" of abstraction liberated artists from the constraints of their own civilization. This is a great 20th century theme, as vital in the work of Freud as of Gauguin. In that formulation we find expressed the desires of modernist art, science, anthropology…
Apollinaire, one of the earliest collectors of Oceanic and African art, writes
You are walking back to Auteuil, going home on foot,
Soon to be asleep among your fetishes from Guinea and the South Seas.
They are Christs in another shape, of another creed,
They are the inferior Christs of our own dark hopes.
A contemporary writer on "primitive art," anthropologist Claude Roy is a little embarrassed by this effusion; and in his response we can sense a change in attitude toward the art.
Already, in the condescending analogy between his fetishes and the "inferior" Christs, Apollinaire announces a point of view that no longer resembles that of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. The Good Savage is about to be supplanted by Naked Man.
But Roy becomes lyrical when he contemplates how beautifully "primitive" art has become assimilated into "our" lives.
If the words of art, the myths, the fables, and the ideals of peoples ignorant of the scientific spirit are part of our culture today; if we give the same respect and attention to a Fang ancestor figure as to a fresco by Masaccio, this does not mean that we are blase or in quest of stimulants or escape, searching for the exotic, or attempting to plunge into "another world" of the barbaric. In this era of planetization (in the phase of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin), this ever more finite world is moving into what Claude Levi-Strauss defines as a period of "democratic culture"...But from Dadaism through Surrealism and on to more recent intellectual movements, the destroyers of yesterday have turned into the builders of today's integral humanism. Probably today Andre Breton would not say, "Greece never existed," but rather: "Africa and Oceania have also existed." The arrival of primitive art and the non-classical cultures into the common domain of human culture was not like a move in a game of musical chairs...Rather, it has been an enrichment of the total fund.
So far, what we do not find, or not often, and not outside ethnographic literature, is any sense of this art for itself, we can get no sense of its makers, the lives they lead, the places they come from.
Let us look back at the work of Gauguin. The painter Pisarro went to see, in 1893, an exhibition of Gauguin's work and came back a little more reserved about the matter of "savages":
Right now Gauguin has an exhibit which men of letters admire. He found them real enthusiasts. The amateurs are upset and perplexed. Some painters, he told me, are unanimous in finding this exotic art too loaded with savagery. Only Degas admires it; Monet, Renoir find it completely awful. I saw Gauguin, who gave me his theories of art and assured me that in them would be health for our youth, who would find themselves in these distant and savage sources! I told him that this art does not pertain to him, that he is a civilized man and so should be showing us harmonic things. Gauguin, certainly does not lack talent, but how badly he succeeds with it. He is always poaching on the territories of yesteryear, now he pillages the savages of Oceania(*).
Gauguin understood the imagery of his art, and that his constant voyaging was in search of what was in his mind. He said of his Tahitian wife,
Now that I understand Tehura, in whom her ancestors sleep and sometimes dream, I strive to see and think through this child, and to find in her the traces of the faraway past which socially is dead indeed, but which still pertains in vague memories.
Gauguin genuinely saw things differently. "The world is so stupid," he said, that if one shows it canvases containing new and terrible elements, Tahiti will become comprehensible and charming. My Brittany pictures are now rose water because of Tahiti; Tahiti will become eau de cologne because of the Marquesas.,/P>
As "primitive" art objects entered public consciousness they repositioned other objects.
Inversely, the "primitive" objects were very powerful to have elicited such strong response. They were attributed with great power - magic, fetishism, "otherness" - because they did not fit into the old order. Pisarro's criticism of Gauguin shows how complicated this matter was, for Pisarro's dismay was (a) that Gauguin was not staying in this place, keeping to these/"our" civilized values, notably the value of harmony/equilibrium; (b) that Gauguin was turning youth away from (the old) values; (c) that he "pillaged" those other societies.
Since then, both "primitive" and the process of metaphor have achieved a place in conventional Western thinking. That is, both "primitive art" and the mental processes expressed as metaphor are becoming conventions. Roy states,
At the beginning of this century, the first reaction to the "savage" arts did take a somewhat devastating form; the early enthusiasts for African and South Seas sculpture were at the same time iconoclasts of Western art...masks and tapa cloths did not replace old masters and Greek athletes; nor were the latter confined to dead storage. The primitive arts have taken their own place in the artistic thought and feeling without driving out the great works that have formed that thought and study and feeling. If, after having excited our curiosity, these works now feed our thought and stimulate our imagination, it is because we no longer see them as foreign, it is because we now recognize them. It is no accident that among the disciplines and discoveries that marked the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of this one, there has been a good deal of attention given to the forgotten stages of man's development. Psychoanalysis has given us back our childhoods, while history and anthropology have led us to reconquer our past. They have helped us to recognize ourselves in those whom we considered least like ourselves: the child, the sick man, the primitive and the barbarian.
This is the convention which expresses the domestication of primitive art. It expresses a direct ratio between foreignness and danger. The corollary is: danger is perceived as foreign to "ourselves" - that, is, "we" are not dangerous because "we" are mankind.
When "primitive" objects came out of their own context and began entering "our" system, they increasingly became more dangerous to "our" values. They were powerful, they could move things and men; they were used as weapons of disorder. Now that that disordering is bounded by hindsight, the objects are art; the art is no longer dangerous; it may be consumed or contemplated by "us."
Although a few ethnographers recognized the objects as the products of rich and diverse peoples, in general, this was not so. They existed merely as a term in the discourse; they had no meaning because they had no context.
Among the surrealist artists, ordering became recognized as a process which could be simulated as dream, child logic, hysteria, hearkening to the old association of "primitive" and "prescientific" peoples (including the alchemists and astrologers and witches of the West) with the behaviors of European children. "Childlike" natives abound in 19th and 20th century travel literature. This is a classification, and a judgement of capacity. It allowed adult Europeans to behave in certain conventional ways to childlike "primitives," and it defined what behavior should exist and how it would occur. Only when Europeans could be convinced that, in the words of Marcel Mauss, there are no "uncivilized" peoples, there are only other civilizations, could they comprehend that those other civilizations were composed, by definition, of adults.
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