Primitivism 1890 – …

Term used with reference to art that celebrates certain values or forms regarded as primal, ancestral, fertile, and regenerative While the term ‘primitive’ was used at one time to include the arts of all of Africa, Asia, and Pre-Columbian America, it was later used mostly in relation to art from Africa and the Pacific Islands By the late 20th century it had lost most of its currency: this was in part due to the fact that the interest that Western artists had taken in ethnic arts, particularly from c 1905 to c 1935, had itself led to the beginning of a more formalized study of this subject by both anthropologists and art historians; scholars’ research in this field allowed non-Western arts to be seen and appreciated more easily within their own context, rather than in secondary relation to the arts of the West or as ‘primitive’

Primitivism is a Western art movement that borrows visual forms from non-Western or prehistoric peoples, such as Paul Gauguin’s inclusion of Tahitian motifs in paintings and ceramics Borrowings from primitive art has been important to the development of modern art

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The term “primitivism” is often applied to other professional painters working in the style of naïve or folk art like Henri Rousseau, Mikhail Larionov, Paul Klee and others

Whether and to what extent we should simplify our lives and get “back to basics” is a debate that has been going on since the invention of writing In antiquity the superiority of the simple life was expressed in the Myth of the Golden Age, depicted in the genre of European poetry and visual art known as the Pastoral The debate about the merits and demerits of a simple, versus a complex life, gained new urgency with the European encounter with hitherto unknown peoples after the exploration of the Americas and Pacific Islands by Columbus and others

During the Enlightenment, arguments about the supposed superiority of indigenous peoples were chiefly used as a rhetorical device to criticize aspects of European society In the realm of aesthetics, however, the eccentric Italian philosopher, historian and jurist Giambattista Vico (1688–1744) was the first to argue that primitive man was closer to the sources of poetry and artistic inspiration than “civilized” or modern man Vico was writing in the context of the celebrated contemporary debate, known as the great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, over which was better, the classic poetry of Homer and the Bible or modern vernacular literature

In the 18th century, the German scholar Friedrich August Wolf identified the distinctive character of oral literature and located Homer and the Bible as examples of folk or oral tradition (Prolegomena to Homer, 1795) Vico and Wolf’s ideas were developed further in the beginning of the 19th century by Herder Nevertheless, although influential in literature, such arguments were known to a relatively small number of educated people and their impact was limited or non-existent in the sphere of visual arts

The 19th century saw for the first time the emergence of historicism, or the ability to judge different eras by their own context and criteria A result of this new historicism, new schools of visual art arose that aspired to hitherto unprecedented levels of historical fidelity in setting and costumes Neoclassicism in visual art and architecture was one result Another such “historicist” movement in art was the Nazarene movement in Germany, which took inspiration from the so-called Italian “primitive” school of devotional paintings

Primitivism gained a new impetus from anxieties about technological innovation but above all from the “Age of Discovery”, which introduced the West to previously unknown peoples and simultaneously opened doors for colonialism and the direct scrutiny of radically different peoples As the European Enlightenment and the collapse of feudalism ensued, philosophers started questioning many fixed medieval assumptions about the nature of man, the position of man in society, and the dogmatic Catholic cosmology They began questioning the nature of humanity and its origins through a discussion of the natural man, which had intrigued theologians since the European encounter with the New World