There is a myth which has been part of Western Civilization since its birth: the myth of an earthly Paradise in which man lived in a state of nature. It has surfaced in several guises down the centuries, most notably, perhaps, in the sentimental but very persistent concept put forward by the eighteenth century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of the Noble Savage. However, towards the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century other influences began to work on it and reinvent it in ways that would make it attractive to artists and elevate the best of them to a status akin to High Priests of a new religion.
Sigmund Freud was one of those influences. His emphases on the subconscious and on the importance of understanding the instinctive side of human nature, together with the belief that our emotions, sensations and unconscious urges are the primary influences driving human behaviour, far more potent in that regard than mere rational thought, helped prepare the way for a sea-change in the thinking of artists who were already breathless from the blasts of a totally new kind of mountain air coming to them from the experiments of artists like Van Gogh and Gauguin. (Gauguin, of course, had already gone the extra mile and left the comforts of Western Civilization to live as a native on the island of Tahiti.) They were, if you like, the advance guard of those who would further the growth of the myth of the primitive.
In its maturity this myth would proclaim that each of the various indigenous races of the world received from its special ethos, a spirit superior in its spontaneity and an energy and a sincerity that none of the more civilized races, with their dilettantism and cultivated ways, could hope to match. Artists, most notably perhaps, Picasso, would in future look towards Africa and Oceania for inspiration - though not only there, for their interest would not be confined to "Negro" sculpture, but would branch out to encompass folk art and child art, seeing in them a directness and the immediacy of genuine feeling. But Picasso et al were doing more than just looking for inspiration, they were not only embracing the new, they were consciously and deliberately rejecting the cultivated, over-refined gentility of the old. The old art had sought to divert or instruct, but they were looking for one which sang with genuine, strong emotions. They were looking for, and finding, a new barbarianism.
It was probably no coincidence that there was at this time a painter at the height of his powers who was to achieve recognition throughout our Western Civilization as the only really great artist, coming from that civilization, ever to be blessed with a true genius for Primitivism. His was a genius unrecognized initially except by the other artistic geniuses of the day. Picasso, indeed,owned paintings by Henri Rousseau (called le Douanier and not to be confused with Jean-Jacques) at a time when almost no one else did.
Rousseau's paintings serve as exemplars of one particular form of Primitivism. He was exactly the kind of amateur or Sunday painter the Surrealists would later extol and whose work they would sponsor: a self-taught artist uncorrupted by formal training, one of Nature's geniuses whose eye could see further than the eyes of the trained artist. But this was in an earlier age and Rousseau was to die long before the Surrealist painters began to champion his art. He had been a regimental bandsman, who painted, in great detail, some unusually large and complex canvases of fabulous landscapes and animals from a vision which was simple, direct and completely naive. Not only that, but he painted them in strong, vibrant, unsubtle colours, using a technique that was plodding and unimaginative in the extreme, one very much on a par with a child filling in the colours in a painting book. He claimed that his life as a bandsman furnished him with his fantastic settings, which, he alleged, were of the forests of Mexico. It is now pretty generally accepted, however, that he didn't go to Mexico, and it is thought the animals were taken from books. These then are the characteristics, I would maintain, that distinguish this one form of Primitive painting: a) a simple, strong and individual, perhaps idiosyncratic, vision which is usually unvarying; b) a lack of formal training; c) strong, unsubtle colours; d) a lack of interest in visual authenticity; e) genuine feeling; and f) a piecemeal approach to "filling in" the canvas; g) much intricate detail or patterning. Of course, not all examples of this kind of Primitivism will comply with every one of my criteria. Whether there could be said to be a minimum standard for qualification for this category must be open to debate. How much and in which direction Rousseau influenced the new barbarianism cannot be calculated or clearly demonstrated, but it seems certain that his influence must have been enormous.
Most people, I imagine, understand the term Primitivism as applying to the art and artifacts of primitive - i.e. prehistoric or non-Western - races. This is a form of Primitivism quite separate from the one discussed above in that neither derives from the other. There may be on occasions a fortuitous similarity of appearance, but that is all. Perhaps here it would be worthwhile to mention that there is always an inaccuracy of some form in the attribution of the word Primitivism to an art form, an inaccuracy which in this instance is an ethnocentric one, often acknowledged by the insertion of quotes. In the sense in which we are using it here, the term was coined at the beginning of the Twentieth Century to refer to art forms which the West had not previously regarded as works of art. They were the products of the Near East, India, China and Japan, and were the subjects of Europe-wide Exhibitions and "Ethnographical Museums", which had appeared, bringing the works of these lands before the good citizens of Europe, but the motive had been part of the cult of progress, it had been to give to all and sundry a glimpse of the ground base from which our art had ascended, and to emphasize how far we had travelled. It was all in accord with the sentiments unleashed by Darwin's "The Origin of the Species", the sub-title of which was "The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". These curiosities (as they were termed), these objects of alien strangeness were seized upon by artists looking to break out of the prison of visual truth and away from the rest of the sterile conformities which they considered had engulfed the art of the day. Into this category we must place, then the works coming from Oceana, Polynesia, Africa, Australia, The Noth West American Continent. We are talking of such artifacts as the monolithic heads of Easter Island, God-images from Hawaii, India and elsewhere, Maori carved and painted objects.
But there is another form to which the term Primitivism is applied: it is used to denote the work of an artist who is to all intents and purposes Western, and works in a basically Western tradition, but borrows from the art of indigenous peoples to a significant extent. Gauguin's paintings, with their extensive use of Tahitian motifs would fall into this category, which is probably the one most central to the development of modern art.
There are other examples which you might or might not think would be more appropriately included under headings already given. The Pre-Raphaelites, for example, breaking away from the West's obsession with visual appearance by looking back to the Middle Ages and re-introducing the use of the woodblock. Or the NeoPrimitives drawing from folk art and popular art in exactly the ways that others were drawing from indiginous art, and Paul Klee and Joan Miro doing the same from child art.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to remind ourselves that what they were all taking from these various sources was the one thing those sources always had in common: each its own individual grammar of motifs capable of the direct expression of pure emotion untainted by the need to consider visual appearances.
I personally have a predilection for those artists who fall into my first category, a fine example from nearer the present day, would be Stanley Spencer. He is often likened to William Blake, a comparison which I do not find convincing. Both he and Blake were very individualistic, not to say unique, but Blake had more philosophy driving his work. There is, I would argue, an obvious naivety about Spencer's work which is not so apparent in Blake's. Spencer's naivety was of a religious (and to some extent a sexual) nature. He lived most of his life in the small village of Cookham on the River Thames (where he knew absolutely everyone), and hardly ever left it, except to serve in Macedonia during W.W.I. and to work as a war artist in the Glasgow shipyards during W.W.II. He had the distinguishing vision of the genuine Primitive. In his case the vision was of Christ living in Cookham, joining in the life of the village and ministering to the villagers, Spencer's friends and neighbours, the characters who populated his canvases. He does not comply with all my criteria, having had four years art training at the Slade School, but I have no doubt that he was a genuine Primitive. I must own up to a long-standing passion for Stanley Spencer's work, but I have also included him for a somewhat more practical reason: you can see in the unfinished painting (in the black and white image)being worked upon by Spencer, something of his manner of working.There is a famous unfinished painting, the one he was working on when he died (and for which he left sixty working drawings), called "Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta" which shows it very dramatically, but even in this small monochrome you can see that some characters have not yet had a drop of paint applied to them, whilst all around them the painting is nearly finished. It is a process not unlike fitting jig-saw pieces together.
Some might be surprised to learn that they are not quite an extinct breed, our Primitives. I learnt of one, previously unknown to me, a short time ago. He was featured in a magazine (I think "Country Life", to which magazine I am indebted for most of what follows) which I picked up to leaf through in a doctor's waiting room. His name is John Caple and he is from Sidcot, in Somerset, he was born in 1966, but has only been painting for ten years. His family has farmed in the Mendip Hills for generations and he is steeped in the mythology of that part of the world. It, and his ancestors and family members such as "Granfer Flinders", and local and family tales and legends, form the subject matter of much of his art which draws on the folk art of the area and the work of Alfred Wallis, a Primitive painter of Mystical subjects. Caple is totally self-taught. The titles of his paintings are suggestive: “Luvvy Garnet, Full Moon” (Luvvy Garnet was a lady in the village who walked through the narrow streets whenever there was a full moon while still fast asleep.) “Congregation, Somerset/Mother Prayer, Plymouth Brethren” (John’s maternal grandparents were part of the Plymouth Brethren, a religious sect based in the south of England.) and "Cheddar Quarry" are typical. He has designed numerous book covers for Penguin Books, including jackets to a recent edition of Roald Dahl's novels.
I do not doubt that he is a genuine Primitive as defined by my criteria, even though he does not comply with all of them. It is necessary to exert a little care here, though, for there are more pseudo-Primitives around than there are of the genuine article. Not just where the Rousseau-type, as I have called it, is concerned, but, for example, in the matter of fake and pseudo Aborigine works flooding the market as a result of the endeavours of disreputable agents.
You may think that I have over-emphasised he Rousseau-like individual at the expense of other types of Primitivism. Which would be correct: I have. I have been indulging what I admitted earlier on was a personal passion.
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