Primitivism (1890s)

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Spirit of the Dead Watching, Gauguin
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso

In a Tropical Forest, Matisse

Primitivism was not so much an artistic movement but a trend among diverse modern artists in many countries who were looking to the past and to distant cultures for new artistic sources in the face of increasing industrialization and urbanization.

Beginning at the end of the 19th century, the influx of tribal arts of Africa, Oceania, and Native Americans into Europe offered artists a new visual vocabulary to explore. In many ways, Primitivism provided artists a way to critique the stagnant traditions of European painting.

Primitive art’s use of simpler shapes and more abstract figures differed significantly from traditional European styles of representation, and modern artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse used these forms to revolutionize painting and sculpture.


Image source: Wikimedia commons
 Aside from color, the composition is itself unsettling, particularly the relationship between the girl and the old woman behind her whose simplified form and disproportionate scale suggest Tahitian statuary or tiki. If she is a carved statue of wood, though, what or who does it signify? If not, then is she real or otherworldly? Is this the spirit of the dead watching that the title refers to? And if she is imagined, then by whom? Is all that surrounds the girl the conjurings of her own haunted imagination?

Or is it what she looks out at—the space we ourselves inhabit—that is the source of her terror? Could it be, then, that we are the spirit of the dead watching?

The Tahitian language certainly allows for such ambiguities. The expression, manoa tupapau means either watching the spirit of the dead or the spirit of the dead watching.
[Source: khanacademy.org]
Spirit of the Dead Watching1892Oil/BurlapGenre painting
Gaugin, Paul1848-1903, aged 54French painterPrimitivism
LOCATION:SIZE (cms): [1542-11]

Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo NY116 x 135  
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon marks a radical break from traditional composition and perspective in painting. It depicts five naked women composed of flat, splintered planes whose faces were inspired by Iberian sculpture and African masks.

The compressed space they inhabit appears to project forward in jagged shards, while a slice of melon in the still life at the bottom of the composition teeters on an upturned tabletop.

Picasso unveiled the monumental painting in his Paris studio after months of revision. The Avignon of the work’s title is a reference to a street in Barcelona famed for its brothels.
[Source: moma.org]

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon1907Oil/CanvasGenre painting
Picasso, Pablo1881 – 1973, aged 91Spanish painterPrimitivism/Cubism
LOCATION:SIZE (cms): [1542-12]

MOMA, Museum of Modern Art, NY244 x 234  
Image source: Wikimedia commons Matisse produced a number of jungle-themed paintings. This one variously reported as a Buffalo or a Bull is at the State Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia.
[Source: hermitagemuseum.org]
In a Tropical Forest Combat of a Tiger and a Buffalo1908-9Oil/CanvasAbstract
Matisse, Henri1844-1910, aged 66French painterPrimitivism
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg46 x 55  

Forward to Picasso’s Early Periods (1890s-1909)
Forward to Fauvism – Forward to Cubism
Back to Modernisme, Catalan Movement (1888-1911) – Back to 1.5.3 Pointillism Index – Forward to 1.5.5 Expressionism Index (1905-1936)

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