The problem with Modernist Primitivism

Recently, events concerning the Black Lives Matter movement, the murders of George Floyd, Elijah McClain and many innocent black lives, have sparked a consensus amongst the younger generations that contrary to popular belief, we are still living in a racist society. For many, it has called the need for change. With change, comes education. And education starts with books, libraries, the curriculums we are taught. But what if those are inherently racist to start with? 

In January 2020, when I started to conduct a research project on the History of Modernist Primitivism, I came to realise how white and Eurocentric the curriculum was, and how ignorant I had been of this. After deciding to acknowledge these implicit biases that I had acquired over the years, I knew I had to learn more on racial inequalities in the Visual Arts, the main subject I was reading at Durham University. Primitivism, a branch of Modern Art where artists incorporated primitive artworks, idealizing rustique cultures, was my starting point. 

Without fitting into the aesthetic canons of Western beauty, how could one imagine their place in the Paris Salon where Academic art was exposed annually?

For example, take Gombrich’s Story of Art, one of the most popular Art History books to be sold, and one of the key texts for beginners like me. Most of the African artworks in this book are only found in the first chapters, the ‘Antique’ section. When they were discovered during colonization, they were seen as primitive, and backwards. Modern artists have attempted to ‘celebrate’ African artefacts to change this, but it always came from a position of white superiority. Analyzing Picasso’s most celebrated Cubist artwork Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, allows us to understand these complex issues. 

When we look at what inspired this artwork, masks from the old Israeli Liberian Dan Tribe, and the Iberian peninsula, there is no mention of the artists behind the masks, only the tribes which they belonged to. In other words, colonials stole these masks from their homeland and disrupted their original spiritual use. At the time, Picasso was trying to celebrate these peoples’ simple lives. However, the source was already problematic, as he only came to discover these masks in the Ethnographical Museum in Paris, many of its artefacts which had been stolen from France’s colonies. He felt the mystery behind these masks and idealized them. 

Annoyingly, this was the only way he could fit African art into his agenda, as contemporary art critics regarded these masks as crude and, you guessed it, primitive! Without fitting into the aesthetic canons of Western beauty, how could one imagine their place in the Paris Salon where Academic art was exposed annually? To become legitimate, they needed to be used as a means for Picasso to be subversive: after all, he was essentially an avant-garde artist who wanted to contest the artificial, suburban society he lived in. 

we are looking at it through the paintbrush of a white, privileged European modern artist

In my opinion, these types of paintings are just as racist as white people jokingly painting their faces black for a costume party. Why? Because we are kidding ourselves that we know of the Dan culture by looking at the masks. We aren’t, because we are looking at it through the paintbrush of a white, privileged European modern artist. We do not see the oppression the Dan Tribe’s descendants endured. 

So many other artists which I used to appreciate a lot more before I started university are guilty of this: Matisse, Gauguin, Rousseau, Klee, Seurat, Monet, the list goes on. Retrospective exhibitions were curated for them, but not for the ‘primitive’ artworks which they were inspired from, and knew little to nothing about. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with appreciating some of their paintings. You can still look at Matisse’s childish still lives and appreciate the vibrant colour palette he uses. It would be difficult to erase them from the History of Art. But we have to know where their inspirations come from, and that they will always be problematic. Other branches of primitivism such as Orientalism, that idealize ‘exotic’ cultures further perpetuate this problem. 

We have no other choice now but to learn, so we can start changing the racist curriculum which we have been taught. 

If you don’t believe this: listen. It took me solid, determined research, at an undergraduate level, to try and understand only a portion of this. These facts are not given to us easily in middle school. We have to willingly find out for ourselves. This makes change a lot harder, but it isn’t an excuse to not conduct your research. Enough is enough. What are you waiting for? 

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By Margot McDonald

Illustration: by Hannah Imafidon

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