Primitivism and Modernism

In the present essay I am going to discuss and show how modernism as an artistic visual language, in order to reach its goal of renewal, shared a colonialist path of exploiting primitivism to renew itself. This renewal was none the less a search for a new artistic visual language. I have selected three artists of which I shall discuss three artworks of in order to illustrat e that that modernism shared a path in colonialist discourse by exploiting the primitive through the incorporation of primitive/African/the ‘other’s’ artistic features in the oeuvre of artworks produced towards and after the twentieth century. The inclusion of short biographical details of the artists are meant to give the backdrop or context within which the artists practiced. This approach renders the backdrop within which the work was produced explicit for our understanding of the conditions that nourished the development of modern art.


What is modernism? As a preparation for arguments raised below we must start with this question. Charles Harrison (1982: 55) exclaims that before the sixties the term modernism was generally used in a vague way to refer to what it was that made works of art seem ‘contemporary’. Harrison points out that the rise or the beginning of Modernism saw:

A taste for the so called ‘primitive’ people and art of the ancient cultures gained at the expense of enthusiasm for the more ‘sophisticated’ art of classical periods  of the Renaissance and much of the period after (1982: 56).

This means that although Modernism was recent, it characterized the stylistic principles of both the primitive arts and the ancient cultures. Here the word we need to take into account and define is the word Primitive.


Compared to Modernism, which is said to be dynamic, as both an Ideology and artistic approach bound or subjected to change, Primitivism is define as [sic] at an early stage of civilization; crude; simple1. Through Colonialism of the other continents (countries), the West (Europe) gained access to the artifacts of the colonized cultures.

This is true of Africa, the Americas, the East and Oceania which were charted and colonized by Europe. Thus the word Primitive means any cultural groups whose culture, measured against European culture standard, is seen as not civilized. The added ideal of colonizing these parts outside of Europe was to expand European territory beyond its shore, imperialism.

The Visual Arts, the Western Arts

When is the deployment and the incorporation of the primitive art influences become evident throughout the years within the history of western art? Fleming draws up Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) as the first major artists to employ the exotic patterns and motifs in his woodcuts and painting.

We will come back to Gauguin, for the moment we need to find our footing. Lynton points out that at the turn of the twentieth century who ever saw and made his fellow artist see the power of these strange, remote and in a sense timeless arts (primitive art) opened up a rich rain in the world’s gold mine of creative art (1980: 29).

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) first saw African sculptures in Andre Derain’s (1880 – 1954) studio. Derain had bought the sculptures from Maurice de Vlammick (1876 – 1958) Whereas Vlammick started having interest in primitive artifacts after he had been to the Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology Gallery – Musee de L’ Homme (Lynton: 1980: 29).

From the above paragraph it is clear that the exchange of ideas and interests brought and spread the knowledge of primitive artifacts which have been taken form their original context to the attention of Modern artists.

What interested the Modern artist about these artifacts was that the primitive artists was uninitiated by the material values, the false and fragile glamour of western society. There was no need to borrow characteristic from ‘material orientated object’. What mattered was that one should seek to be as unworldly and as unliterary as the primitive artist and to use the expressive means of art directly and fully (See Lynton 1980: 48).

Here I must stress that Modern artists, while seeking a new artistic visual language or renewal, rejected the classical idea of what art should be or was expected to be by the society at large. This attitude can be seen as a catalyst that propelled western artists to look beyond their shores in pushing tradition out of the expected bounds through new innovation2.  The western artist saw an opportunity in incorporating primitivism or non European art in his work, it can be supposed that the western artist was tired of the established ideals in terms of what was permissible in the visual arts, thus he looked elsewhere for new technical approaches, inspiration and self expression – he looked beyond the shores of his own world.

Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903)

Paul Gauguin grew up in a family environment that was dominated by writers. His father was a journalist and his maternal grand mother had been a feminist lecture and writer (See Chipp 1968: 51).

Lynton points out that Gauguin [sic] was the most openly primitivists of the post impressionists. He had given up a career as the stock exchanger to become a painter and then [he gave up] his wife and family when he could no longer support them, he had gone to Brittany because life was cheaper there but also because there he could re-orientate himself with the simple life and ancient superstitions of the peasants. He later moved on to the South Seas to live among the natives, using them and their setting in his art as well as exotic material gathered elsewhere (Lynton 1980: 22)  

Please see figure 1. Paul Gauguin. Faa Iheihe (Pastorale) 1898. Oil on canvas, 21¼ X 66¾.


figure 1 (Image Source:

In this artwork the natives (the Tahitian) are represented without decorum or dignity. The middle figure is half naked as her left hand snake within her loins. Her right hand is elegantly half raise reminding us of some of the Virgin Mary depictions of the Renaissance period. These gestures of her two hands contradict each other.

Presently while engaged in this visual analysis we need to be aware of a triad nature of the gaze of the artist, Gauguin, his depiction of the Tahitian is from a male point of view firstly, secondly from a patriarchal point of view as well as from a Western perspective of who the Tahitians are.

The woman’s head bow towards three figures and a dog. The figures, one of them a man, seem to be on a fruit and flower foraging expedition. Towards the left of the central figure a naked woman turns her back to the viewer. This woman seem to be gazing at a distant light with a naked man on horseback riding into the picture plane, hunched and seeming to be whispering into the ears of the dark horse, completes the composition.

As a narrative this work informs the viewer of the Tahitians as a carefree and of a simple social organization when pitted against the culture of Western civilization. Gauguin once wrote to J.F. Willumsen before leaving France for the Island of Tahiti that Europe is under the grip of material preoccupation with devastating effects on the psyche of Europeans whereas, where he was headed, the Tahitian were the inhabitants of an unknown paradise in Oceania3.

How does Faa Iheihe (Pastorale) 1898 illustrate or demonstrate Gauguin’s participation in the colonialist’s path to exploit the art of the ‘other’ or even culture? From a documentary perspective the artwork construct a narrative perspective document of the Tahitian lifestyle. Viewed from the documentary context we can conclude that this work is a visual recording of the Tahitians and their indigenous environment. Whether this representation is accurate it is a different matter that begs an exclusive study.

With the regard to the year of its execution and also from a visual art context Faa Iheihe is an excellent example of the result of an artist exploring a new theme. However it explores this new theme at the expense of the Tahitian. The Tahitian as the subject matter of this artwork and by being the represented Gauguin speaks on their behalf through situating them in an exotic setting. Gauguin is their voice, he is in a powerful position in that he chooses what his audience will see back home or to be specific what the West/Europe expects to see of non Europeans or the ‘other’. It should be bared in mind that Gauguin, as an artist, had an art market in mind when he executed the work4.

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

In 1878 and 1879 oars, arrows and harpoons of Polynesian craftsmanship were collected and shown in Paris expositions the viewers were struck by the approach of the ‘non western’ craftsmanship in working with both wood and stone, a new approach to visual art practice was heralded by these artifacts5.

See figure 2. Henri Matisse Bathers by the river 1916 – 17. Oil on canvas, 103 X 154.


figure 2

In this work the forms of the figures reminds us of the sharpness of African sculptures. Please compare the roundness of the heads of figures with that of the mask in figure 3.


figure 3

Earlier on I have pointed out that André Derain had several African sculptures in his studio and that Henri Matisse together with Pablo Picasso saw African art there.

In Bathers by the River Henri Matisse abandons altogether form as it has been accorded the human figure by simplifying the bathers into sculptural forms reminiscent of African sculpture. The composition is simple in comparison to Faa Ihaihe by Gauguin, however it is not innocent to the European Modernist notion of renewal, by breaking down with tradition, through borrowing from ‘primitivism’, the art of the ‘other’ – in this instance from African art. Knowledge of African sculpture helped Matisse, the modern artist, to simplify the depiction of his subject matter, especially the human figure, Bathers by the river illustrates this point.

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

Picasso was a Spaniard, born in Malaga in 1881. He had established himself among the younger generation of artists at Barcelona between 1895 – 1904 before migrating to France in 1904.

See figure 4. Pablo Picasso.Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907. Oil on canvas, 96 X 92.


figure 4

Prior to painting Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907, Picasso turned to Iberian sculptures, El Greco and sculptures of Paul Gauguin (Fry 1966: 13). Habasque points out that Picasso denied the influence of African Art to in his work6. However Chipp claims that Picasso had a passion for art of the Negro (African) which he ranked far above that of the Egyptians (Chipp 1968: 200). Here we have contradictory statements opposing one another as to the culture that influenced Picasso’s art practice. What one can infer, with colonialism in mind and the western thought assertion of itself, in terms of civilization, as being above that of the colonised worlds, is that at some point Picasso might not have properly attributed influences in his work based on biases of the ‘other’.

Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon sharply displays influences of African Art. Please refer to the illustration. The faces of the two right hand positioned women recalls African masks; even the features of the faces of the women distinctly mimics the features of African Art Sculptures.

The sculptures he had seen at André Derain’s studio years ago and also at the Ethonological Museum Trucadero while looking for a new visual art language. Like the Matisse Bathers by the River, discussed above, Picasso’s figures all in all recall African Art Sculpture with regard to form.

Steinberg suggests that in their original composition the women were intended to be in a brothel (see Steinberg, L 1978: 115 – 133). The women’s nakedness and their rather cavernous background echo the literary meaning of the word primitive. I venture to say that Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon whether experimental in intention, as it has been suggested in art history, or not – as a visual artwork it contains influences of African Art in its formal language.

As a Modern artist Picasso apropos Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon played a role in the colonialist path of exploiting, primitivism; the art of the other to renew his art making process thus removing it from earlier conventions adhered to by European artists.


This essay showed how Modern artisst played a role in the Colonialist path through exploitation of non European art, the primitive or the ‘other’ in order to renew their approach to their art production.

The artworks discussed shed light to the influence as well of the context within which primitive art was deployed to renew western art. Modern art’s renewal through the influence of the art of the ‘other’ is then a sharp rejection of established tradition in setting out a new way of rendering the immediate world by responding to borrowed foreign forms; with this factor in mind we may perhaps agree with Lynton when he states that [sic] a work of art is an answer to another work of art (1980: 343 – 344)

Western art, in order to reach its renewal at the dawn of the modern period, had to look beyond its shores for new approaches to art making. By deploying the art of the ‘other’, the primitive – the colonised – Modernism played a role in the colonialist path of exploiting primitivism in order to reach its goal of renewal.

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009

JULY AUGUST 2021| Continue with content below


1. See The little Oxford Dictionary (1995) for the definition of Primitivism.

2. Chipp points out that the years 1885 – 1900 marks the years in which artists participating in the subjectivist movements can be grouped together. He maintains that these artists rejected the realist conceptions of art that had prevailed for the preceding generation. The movement was a result of new freedoms made possible by throwing the obligation to ‘represent’ the tangible world, and of new stimuli gained from an exploration of the subjective world. The new freedom and stimuli also allowed the range of ideas on what constituted proper subject matter for painting to be greatly expanded  (Chipp, HB 1968: 48).

3. As for me, my mind is made up. I am going soon to the Tahiti…there the material necessities of life can be had without money…a terrible epoch is brewing in Europe for the coming generation: the kingdom of gold. When in Europe men and women survive only after unceasing labour during which they struggle in convulsions of cold and hunger, a prey to misery, the Tahitians on the contrary, happy inhabitant of unknown paradise of Oceania, know only sweetness of life (an excerpt from a letter to J.F. Willunsen, Pont-Even, autumn, 1890 (Chipp 1968: 79).

4. Lynton informs us that while in the islands of Tahiti, having left France in 1891, Gauguin send his work through Daniel de Monfreid his best friend in France (Lynton 1980: 20).

5. Fleming confirms that Primitive arts complete negation of the notion of progress, seemed to be a promise of a new beginning. What was especially appealing was the animistic attitude of the primitive (non western) carvers who divined the spirit of wood and stone and expressed it in the grains, textures and shapes of the materials (Fleming 1974: 365)

6. Habasque differs on account that Picasso had on several occasions denied that he learnt anything from African carvings, pointing out that if any influence was to be found in his work, it was that of Medivial Spanish Art (Habasque, G 1959: 16)


 List of Illustrations


1. Paul Gauguin. Faa Iheihe (Pastoral) 1898. Oil on canvas, 21 ¼ X 66 ¾ in London, Tate Gallery (see Lynton, N 1980:20). Image source:

2. Henri Matisse. Bathers by the river. 1916 – 17. Oil on canvas, 103 X 154 in Art Institute of Chicago (see Lynton, N 1980:73). Image source:

3. Unknown Artists. Fang Mask, not dated. Wood carve in France, Collection of Geneviere Taillade. Formerly owned by Andre Derain (see Lynton, N 1980: 29, another example).

Image uploaded from

4. Pablo Picasso.Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907. Oil on canvas, 96 X 92 in New York, Museum of Modern Art. Lille P. Bliss bequest (see Lynton, N 1980: 53).

Image uploaded from


Chipp, HB 1968 (Comp). 1968. Theories of Modern Art: a sourcebook by artists and critics. Los Angels: UC Press.

Fleming, W 1974. Art and Ideology. New York: Capital City Press.

Fry, EJ 1966. Cubis. Paris: Oxford Press

Harris, G 1959. Cubism. Paris: Oxford Press

Harrison, C 1982. Introduction: Modernism, problems and methods. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Lynton, N 1980. The Story of Modern Art. Great Britain Phaidon Press Limited.

To cite this article:

Kgokong, M.A. 2009. Primitivism and Modernism.


3 thoughts on “Primitivism and Modernism

  1. Hi

    I am not responding to the article you wrote – I am just
    introduicing myself. I am highly impressed that there is
    someone of your nature and talent – who paints in words.
    I would be highly pleased that in the coming year –
    God willing we can meet so that you can pen a few words
    on my work.

    I produce my art through the use of the computer – as hence I callcall myself a graphic digital artist (I use Photoshop CS and
    Freehand software) I am based in Soweto.

    So broer I am hoping to hear from soon in 2010
    Best Regrads


    1. Greetings Muziwakhe; thank you for your comment! i am on leave and will fully reply to your email as soon as i am active on the keyboard as of 18 January 2010. regards,



    2. Greetings

      it is a pleasure to meet someone who is embracing new media (especially software based) as it is South Africa is entirely traditional in terms of accepting this new way of representing our world (the world made up of ideas). it will be a delight to have the oppertunity to familiarise my self with your work. When you are ready to meet, do not hesitate to inform me. unfortunately i am based in Pretoria and most of the time office bound.

      nut perhaps we may find a way arround this.

      kind regards


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