How Primitivism Affected Modern Sculpture

How Primitivism Affected The Direction of Modern Sculpture

How was the reaction of European people when the first artefacts from colonies came and found their place in the galleries? “Savage and primitive” people thought. Then the elite started to make a collection of them finding both primitive and authentic. For the artits… It was controversial. However, some well-known artists were so fascinated by these artefacts that something happened to change the direction of Western art history. And the tribal chieftain was Picasso! Then let’s discover the two-faced art market of the day and a reaction of artists to the norms!

Primitivism or primitive art emerged at the end of the 19th century and it was especially influential in modern art at the 20th century. Primitive art gave a new space for artists to lead a new way in sculpture such as more freedom in their forms, concept and shapes, freedom to creativity and use of different kind of media that were never used before in Western academic norms of sculpture. For modern artists, primitive art was the reaction to academic art that artists were not content with.

Primitive in Its Name: Aren’t They Primitive?

The worst failure of primitivism lies in its name. Primitive art included especially the art of Western and Central Africa, Madagascar, Indonesia, the Philippines that means Oceania, and the sculptures form North America. However, these areas were actually pretty good at agriculture, had a state or tribe organization, had a religion and their sculptures’ primary use for religious rituals basically. 

Therefore it was a great mistake to name their art as primitive. However, it was the time that colonialism went on harshly. For Western people, both their appearance and the art of these native people were primitive. So other names were given as the years go by such as Naive art, tribal art, Non-Western art or archaic art.

Moai Sculptures, 100-1600 A.D.
Moai Sculptures, 100-1600 A.D.

From Virgin Lands to Galleries of Europe

The 19th century was the period of expanded colonial conquests of Europen imperial countries all over South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. The artefacts of these lands were taken from their own lands to exhibit in Europe as a result of curiosity as well as taking economic advantages regarding these artefacts as the commodification of so-called primitive civilizations.

Batcham Mask, 19th century
Batcham Mask, 19th century

At the early 20th century, primitive art sculptures began to appear more in art fairs, magazines and collections. Then their appearance was also seen in the museums. The artists of the era were influenced by the forms and extraordinary depiction of indigenous people. The effect of Primitivism on modern sculpture began. The main conflict was in between academic, traditional, way of art and primitive art. Artists who were influenced primitive art defended these form would be equal to Greek and Renaissance classics. So primitive art would be a new language for sculptors to create a new sculpture language!

How Primitive Art Affected Modern Artists?

The influential artists of the day such as Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin and Derain started to buy African and Oceanian masks and gathered them in their collections. They were fascinated by the “primitive” forms and meanings of them as Picasso once stated:  “Everyone always talks about the influence of the Negroes on me. The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things… intercessors… against everything; against unknown threatening spirits… I understood what the purpose of the sculpture was for the Negroes.”

Derain, Femme aux Oreilles
Derain, Femme aux Oreilles
Gauguin, Oviri, 1894
Gauguin, Oviri, 1894

Apart from “magical” effect of these artefacts, with the effect of primitive art, the direction of Western art history changed. The influence and even worshipping of classical art, Greek sculptures, or Italian Renaissance or academic rules of art schools was decreased and artists found a new place to take a breath and discovered the art of the other civilizations that had been ignored and denigrated.

According to Gombrich for example, artists also embraced the primitive art just because it hadn’t been contaminated by the evil spirit of commercial intentions. The reason why actually brought Gauguin to Tahiti was this romantic idea of finding purity. Besides some of the artists thought that the museums were already filled to the brim with magnificent works of arts required mastership and huge labour. They defended that they would gain nothing by copying the same form of artworks.

Primitivism and Picasso: How He Became The Leading Figure?

One of the first name coming to the mind when said Primitivism was Picasso. He had so influenced the African and Oceanic art that the walls of his studio were full of indigenous masks. He was both criticized and loved with the use of forms and shapes reminder as primitive art. Was he the leader of primitive art lovers club? 

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

Actually both socially and academically reasons lied behind Picasso’s huge keen of primitive art. Even though it was true that he was fascinated by these primitive figures, he never used them directly into his paintings but the breeze of African savannas and Oceanic sands were felt by his long-faced figures. His one of the most famous artwork was Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was primarily a matter of debate both in form and content because he depicted women from a brothel in content but in form, five women looked like three dimensions of African sculptures.

Then Picasso started his concentraition on work gave the summary of the effect of Primitivism on his art: “Not at all because of the forms: but because it was my first canvas of exorcism…”

Explore Sculptures: Highly Influenced Artists from Primitive Art

Modigliani, Head, 1912
Modigliani, Head, 1912

Modern European sculptors were also influenced by archaic art so much. All of them found their own language to make their own art without the boundaries of rules and every artwork was a step for the change in the direction of modern and contemporary art.

 In the works of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) the effect of African and Egyptian art can be traced highly, especially in his heads. He formed his authentic style blended with the fascination of primitive art. 

Brancusi, La Muse Endormie, 1910
Brancusi, La Muse Endormie, 1910
Brancusi, Sculpture for The Blind, 1925
Brancusi, Sculpture for The Blind, 1925

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) got an academic education in art school. He was influenced by Rodin, Derain and Gauguin. However gradually his works transformed from non-Western style, archaic and simple formed sculptures to more abstract form that eventually it totally turns into an only egg shape as the metaphor of the beginning of everything. Therefore his works affected abstract art.

Henri Matisse, The Serpentine, 1909
Henri Matisse, The Serpentine, 1909

Fauvists painters were also influenced by primitive art. The artists such as Derain and Matisse were working on both painting and sculpture. Fauvists were regarded as the pioneers of contemporary art even if the movement was shortlived. Derain was famous for his mask collection and he was fond of making masks and primitive sculptures from different media while Matisse developed a new style that he used both classical rules and primitive art traces. His works also can be classified as figurative and abstract forms.

Primitivism had become very popular from the early 20th century to its end. However, as the years went by the movement melted in the new forms and it became mainstream especially after World War II and demise of colonialism. Anyhow, tribal patterns and native aesthetics was very well absorbed by Western art. It was such influential on young Surrealist artists like Miro and Ersnts that they gave another direction to Primitivism in a more psychoanalytical way!

Cover image: Amedeo Modigliani, Head, 1911-12

More Stories
Love of Bespoke: Hand-Crafted Industrial Table Companies
Love of Bespoke: Hand-Crafted Industrial Table Companies