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Myth Of The Other Essay, Research Paper




With European exploration and colonization of the “new world” nearing its end at the turn of the twentieth century, a collection and cataloguing of primitive objects became paramount, not only to researchers interested in other cultures but to governments wishing to strengthen public opinion regarding their colonial territories. To this end, museums displaying primitive objects became ubiquitous in western Europe, including exhibitions at the Exposition Universelle and the Mus?e Africain (Torgovnick 77). These expositions generally followed the ethnographic approach; items were displayed en masse and in no particular order and function was emphasized over form and beauty. The objects’ inherent aesthetic value, however, was always implied through its display (Torgovnick 77).

It was against this backdrop of European preoccupation with the “primitive” that modern artists began to look to primitive cultures for inspiration and ideas. The concept of “modern primitivism” emerged with Paul Gauguin and evolved throughout the twentieth century in an effort to achieve a purer and truer art form. Modern primitivism in and of itself, however, is not a movement; rather, it is a common theme that is present to varying degrees in certain artistic movements. In particular, the Fauvist, Die Br?cke German Expressionist and Surrealist interpretations of the “primitive” are important as they illustrate the differing manners in which primitivism can be manifested in modern art.

In their knowledge of primitive art, the Fauvists were unlike Gauguin in one major respect. While Gauguin was familiar with some Aztec sculpture and with the work in stone and wood of the South Seas, he knew of no other indigenous artistic tradition (Goldwater 80). The fauves added African sculpture, and, unaware of parallel findings of Die Br?cke in Dresden, prided themselves upon being the first to discover and appreciate its artistic values. Maurice de Vlaminck, commenting in 1905 on a trio of statues from the Ivory Coast, wrote that until he viewed these works he viewed African art as “barbaric fetishes” but that he was “profoundly moved … sensing the power possessed … by these three sculptures” (Goldwater 82). Soon afterwards, Andr? Derain, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso viewed the statues and were also incredibly impressed with African art. Although Vlaminck never collected primitive works, Derain and Matisse amassed extensive collections (Goldwater 86). Apollinaire, writing in 1909, said of Matisse:

He likes to surround himself with objects of old and modern art, precious metals, and those sculptures in which the Negroes of Guinea, Senegal or Gabun have demonstrated with unique purity their frightened emotions. (Goldwater 87)

The admiration for this new primitive tradition differed in some respects from any previous appreciation of exotic art. For the first time the products of native cultures were being considered as completely isolated objects, entirely separate from the context of their creation. Gauguin, at least, had to travel to encounter Polynesian art and its exotic content and association interested him as much as its form. For the fauves, however, the appeal of the primitive was its mystery and childishness and thus was primarily aesthetic in nature.

The appeal of fauve painting, however, does not rely on the mastery of a sophisticated craftsman’s skills but on the immediate effect of the canvas as a whole. It is for this reason that the Fauvists deeply admired primitive art. The simplification of form, the use of broad, unfinished line, the application of large areas of undifferentiated color, the use of pure color and the lack of clear perspective are the most salient characteristics of Fauvist works and are what make them so profoundly expressive (Goldwater 84). These traits are directly related to the influence of primitive artwork, as they exhibit many of the same aesthetic attributes and are still able depict human emotion in a raw and powerful manner.

In addition, the subject matter of the Fauvists was deeply influenced by primitive artwork. In this regard, Matisse is an outstanding example. The nude woman bathers in his Three Bathers (1907), Women by the Sea (1908) and Le Luxe II (1908) parallel the theme of the female bath evident in African and Oceanic art (Goldwater 90). In the three paintings, Matisse renders these figures in the traditional simplified form of the primitive, but, at the same time, updates and westernizes them. Modern elements, such as the sailboats in the background of Women by the Sea and the recognizable hairstyles of some of the women, work to further juxtapose the modern with the primitive. The subject of the dance is also dealt with in Matisse’s artwork. For centuries, the dance has been tied to ritualistic practices of primitive cultures (Goldwater 50). Matisse depicts the natural power of the dance in Dance (1908), where five nude women are joined hand in hand in a seemingly instinctual ritual. The fact that the figures are nude and devoid of any modern clothing or accoutrements further emphasizes the influence of the primitive. In all of these works, Matisse glorifies the union of the figure with nature and the contrast of its lack of action with its apparent emotional savagery, typical of primitive works (Goldwater 90).

The German Expressionist members of Die Br?cke also knew of primitive painting and sculpture. The creations of the indigenous people of Africa and Oceania were “discovered” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in the Dresden ethnological musuem in 1904, which he recounts in his history of the group, the Chronik der Br?cke (Lloyd 24). While Gauguin knew of the artwork of the Oceania and the Fauvists were familiar with the figures and masks from Africa, the Germans found both Africa and Oceania at once in their own musuem; thus, they immediately became acquainted with a range and variety of style which the French took many years to discover. Owing perhaps partly to this circumstance and partly to their artistic intentions, the members of Die Br?cke never regarded primitive art as merely a curiosity, as many of the Fauvists did (Lloyd 50). As Emil Nolde wrote, it was at once “raised up to the level of art ? pleasing, ripe, original art” (Harrison and Wood 101). What fascinated the German expressionists was the power and immediacy of primitive art, as Nolde said, “its absolute primitiveness, its intense, often grotesque expression of strength and life in the very simplest form” (Harrison and Wood 101).

It was this emotional intensity that the Die Br?cke artists tried to duplicate in their artwork. Although not as interested in the aesthetic technique of the primitive, the German expressionists realized the power and raw expressiveness of simplification and incorporated elements of it into their style. They accomplished this, however, with a darker, more saturated color scheme and a closer juxtaposition of opposing hues (Lloyd 56). Gone also are the graceful lines of the fauves’ figures; in their place are almost flipper-like hands and feet which seem to terminate in and become part of the surrounding foliage, reinforcing the human communion with nature that the Fauvists evoked in their primitivist works.

The viewer finds again and again the theme of the union of the nude figure with nature in Die Br?cke German expressionist artwork, particularly in the works of Kirchner. This is in part due to Kirchner’s search for the “natural in man and nature” (Goldwater 80). For example, in Girl Under Japanese Umbrella (1909) and Reclining Blue Nude with a Straw Hat (1909), a nude woman is depicted reclining in the grass. Her isolation from the figures in the background reinforces her solitary communion with the nature that surrounds her. In such works as Bathing Boy (1904), Bathers at Moritzburg (1909/20) and Five Bathers at the Lake (1911), the bathing theme once again emerges and reaffirms the primitivsm of bathing in a natural setting. Unlike the fauves, however, who depict their figures in unlocalized settings, Kirchner attempts to bring the tropical landscapes of the primitive to his northern home in an attempt to capture the emotion and expressiveness of his native country. The woodlands and beaches of the above paintings are strikingly reminiscent of his German homeland (Lloyd 152).

Paramount in all of Kirchner’s (and the German Expressionists’) artwork is eliciting a sense of human emotion. This may be one of the Die Br?cke’s purest and most conceptual interpretations of the primitive — their desire for the maximum of emotion and their effort to depict the essence of things. These artists had a tendency to call all the refined and complicated aspects of the world superficial and unimportant; they thus attempted to get behind these things to something basic and important (Goldwater 60). Their main interest lies in the basis (the primitivism) of human character and conduct, which at times can be unpleasant and violent, but is the most accurate representation of our society.

The Surrealist interpretation of the primitive is much more abstract and ideological than either the Fauvist or Die Br?cke view. The direct aesthetic influences of African and Oceanic artwork are not evident in most Surrealist pieces; rather, it is the theoretical conception of this movement that makes it essentially primitive. The Surrealists viewed themselves as continuing a tradition of exposing the subconscious that went back to the alchemists (Gale 15). They thought of themselves as pioneers, as well, in the new field of Freudian psychology. With its help, they would delve into the emotions of humans that had been repressed for social or moral reasons but nevertheless constituted an essential portion of every human being. Because of the universal character of their subject matter, they also saw their artwork as breaking free from the confines of the “conscious” and thus could be appreciated by a larger audience, immediately intuitive and comprehensible to all. All of this, according to Andr? Breton, was in an effort to “give back to man the force of his primitive instincts” (Harrison and Wood 440).

These primitivist aspects of Surrealism are exemplified in the works of Salvador Dal?. In The Persistence of Memory (1931), Dal? critiques the notion of time and rejects it as a modern construction that is utterly useless within the framework of the primitive human subconscious, evidenced by the warping and distortion of the clocks in the painting. The barren landscape pictured in the piece represents the great expanse of the subconscious while also evoking a primitive landscape, untouched by the hands of civilization. The Great Masturbator (1929) illustrates the profound effect that human sexuality has on the subconscious. The nightmarish images of ants and a grasshopper combined with the sex scene rising out of a human head create a dichotomy that at once asserts the primacy and primitivism of human sexuality while also reaffirming the social and moral restrictions placed on this area of human expression. The repeated images of the lions head in The Accomadations of Desire (1929) indicates the multiple permutations that a dream may go through. For the Surrealists, the dream is the ultimate manifestation of the subconscious because it is through the dream that the primitve human emerges. Through all of these works, Dal? attempts to evoke the most primitive aspects of the human condition through a reading of the subconscious.

The Fauvist, Die Br?cke and Surrealist manifestations of the exotic in their artwork illustrate that the primitive has numerous levels of interpretation and depiction between artistic movements. These manifestations run the aesthetic and theoretical gamut, from the Fauvists primarily aesthetic interpretation to the Surrealists primarily theoretical interpretation to the Die Br?cke synthesis of certain aesthetic and theoretical elements of primitive art. While these movements differ significantly in their treatment of the primitive, they all, however, were profoundly affected and influenced by primitive artwork.


Adams, Laurie Schneider. The Methodologies of Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Gale, Matthew. Dada and Surrealism. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.

Goldwater, Robert. Primitivism in Modern Art. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1986.

Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul. Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.

Lloyd, Jill. German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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