The Imperial Impulse: Primitivism in Modern Art

© Copyright 2018 Jessica Suljic, Ryerson University.

Intro: Imperialism and Primitivism

European colonialism and imperialism is a pervasive theme of world history. For over 500 years, European nations sought to colonize the globe, at the expense of its inhabitants. Exploiting land and people, European colonialists brought with them Eurocentric narcissism which deemed them the worthy inheritors of the earth and all its resources for their unwarranted quest to improve their own society, ultimately to fuel capitalism. This worthiness comes from the hierarchy of ‘civilized’, ‘rational’, and scientific’ European society above the societies are racialized and thus deemed ‘primitive’ and inferior. France is among many countries with a long history of colonialism, as well as the blossoming science of ethnography. The collection ethnographic artifacts in France necessarily influenced European thought, and soon reflected in French art (Berman 10). This paper will argue that primitivism in 20th century Parisian art, with the examples of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)  and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), reinforced a binary of ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ cultures in their attempts to subvert the hierarchy. Furthermore, artists of colour are able to react to colonial discourses within the famous modernist painters through art production, in order to subvert colonialist thought with a different method.

Primitivism is a term originating in the art world, but derives from ‘primitive’, a term today that is packed with its historical uses and is not politically correct. ‘Primitive’, when applied to a society or a culture, denotatively has many uses including “preliterate, non-industrial society”, “unsophisticated”, and “[a] pre-Renaissance painter, a painter who imitates the pre-Renaissance style; an artist who employs a primitive or naive style” (Oxford English Dictionary). Terms like ‘unsophisticated’ are subjective, but ultimately connoted by the historical uses of it to discount racialized societies. When applied to art, ‘primitivism’ could mean imitating the pre-Renaissance, pre-perspectivalist style of painting, but more commonly since the turn of the 20th century to apply to artists influenced by styles of ancient cultures of Africa and Oceania. Primitivism in art exists beyond painting, but painting is a prestigious art form historically controlled by institutions, once the clergy, then aristocracy, and then simply the higher classes within a capitalist economy. Painting services the higher class’ reinforcement of the art tradition and their ideologies which uphold wealth, class, and status. The wealth of France benefited from colonialism, and so many people including painters took on the ideology of wealth, class, and colonialism.  

Discovering Beauty Outside Europe: Romanticism, Exoticism, and Tourism

Romantic primitivism refers to a longing for an idealized preliterate life. The concept of the ‘noble savage’ reigned in Romantic literature and philosophy for over a century before it reached the art world. The ‘noble savage’ refers to an individual, reflecting human nature in a moral (or amoral), pre-corrupted state, wherein modern society corrupts individuals from childhood to be immoral (Varnedoe 376). Romantic primitivism in art began with Paul Gauguin, who today appears to be a French tourist instead of an assimilated individual to his chosen nation. He spent the last years of his life in the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, where he found a young bride and spent the last years of his life (Donald 6). The lifestyles of the Polynesian people such as their spirituality, work life, and scenery were more important to Gauguin than the formal features of their artworks (Rubin 7). He wished to integrate into their society rather than attempting to imitate their artistic styles, and his struggle through poverty to live this life visually appears in his paintings through brilliant colours. Today, amongst the Tahitian people, Gauguin’s fame is regarded as little more than an interest of tourists. There is a small museum for artefacts from his life (none for his paintings) and a cruise ship named for him (Doland 6). If the Tahitian people do not revere him for bringing fame and glory to their island, then Gauguin’s work may not have spread his romantic view of ‘simple’ life to the mainstream.

Paul Gauguin. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-98. Oil on canvas, 67.5″ x 160″. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Gauguin often used his wife as the subject of his paintings, such as his piece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?. This painting is philosophical and spiritual in nature, attempting to depict humanity’s greatest questions of origins and purpose. The painting is meant to be read from right to left, representing the life cycle of a person beginning with childbirth, then daily life of adulthood, and finally death is represented with an elderly woman. While Gauguin was painting from life, he clearly composed this painting with his stereotypical romantic view of Tahitian life. The representation of women is concerning here, since many are unclothed and either look away from the viewer or seductively look back. Despite the new, emerging modernist stylistic choices of flat planes of colour and simplified shapes to depict both human figures and scenery, the old, tired misogyny of the traditional female nude remains. Lynda Nead, in her book on the female nude in art history, writes, “The framed image of a female body, hung on the wall of an art gallery, is shorthand for art more generally; it is an icon of western culture, a symbol of civilization and accomplishment” (1). Nead explains that the female nude within the contexts of a framed painting, hung and illuminated in a gallery, needs no justification as a subject since its historical prevalence. More interestingly, she describes such subjects and contexts as ‘civilization and accomplishment’, which is partly the subtext of this piece, outlining the life cycle of humanity within their society.

Embracing Ugly: Subverting Beauty in the Art Tradition

Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas, 96″ x 92″. © Museum of Modern Art.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is a canonical painting which, since its creation, sparked discussion and exploration by art historians and art critics alike. This painting is an essential piece of primitivism in painting for its integration of African-style masks. It depicts five feminine figures, who are flat and distorted, with the basic shapes of their bodies appearing angular and geometric. Like the inclusion of a still life of fruit, the poses of the women allude to classical art of ancient Greece and Rome. Lemke, in her book on the black influences within modernism, writes, “The visual break within Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a break in art history. … Instead of displaying a reliable reproduction of the represented object, the image purposefully distorts, calling attention to its own production. Its formal devices become the subject matter of the painting” (32). The entire composition is flattened and abstracted, but the two figures on the right resemble human beings less so than the others, especially with the addition of mask-like faces. This piece, particularly the right side of the divide, is a break from the traditional female nude insofar as it desexualizes the female figures by giving them ambivalent stares to the viewer, with uncanny facial features. The reactions of artists and viewers to this piece at its original showing were of shock and disgust, a frightening arousal (Lemke 34). Some of the figures are posed to accentuate their bodily sexuality, but others are more stoic. While there is a mix of sexualization and desexualization, the formal qualities of the piece are the focus for critics and historians, for its characteristics of early cubism and abstraction. Picasso was less concerned with the cultures from which he borrowed stylistic choices than his earlier counterpart, Gauguin.

Picasso’s first encounter with African art left a lasting impression. His initial claims of “L’art negre? Connais pas!” (Picasso cited by Lemke 34), Negro art? I don’t know it!, were eventually discounted when he publicly revealed visiting the Trocadero exhibition of ethnographic artifacts from Africa in Paris prior to the creation of Les Demoiselles (and by other accounts prior to his statements claiming the influence of African masks on Picasso). His conversation with Andre Malraux reveals that he was taken by the spiritual significance and utility of the masks on display (Picasso 33), but his use of African styles appears otherwise. The expressive power of the art of Africa influenced many modernist artists of the time after Picasso, including German Expressionist Emil Nolde. In 1912, he wrote,

The ideals of our predecessors are no longer ours. … Not too long ago, the art of only a few periods was deemed worthy of representation in museums. Then others were added. Coptic and Early Christian art, Greek terra cotta vases, Persian and Islamic art swelled the ranks. Why then are Indian, Chinese, and Javanese art still considered the province of science and ethnology? And why does the art of primitive peoples [sic] as such receive no appreciation at all? … Their work expresses the pleasure of making. What we enjoy, probably, is the intense and often grotesque expression of energy, of life. (52-53)

This evaluation of primitive art intends to open the art tradition and recognize the artistic value of cultures dissimilar to European ones. This surely introduces new, progressive concepts, but the subversion of colonial concepts of primitive and uncivilized peoples presents an alternative colonial connotative experience which is reductive nonetheless. Leighten writes, “The modernists’ method was to critique civilization by embracing an imagined ‘primitiveness’ of Africans whose ‘authenticity’ they opposed to a ‘decadent” West’ (610). Since these modernists have no first-hand experience of life in a primitive culture nor first-hand references, in embracing the culture’s positive qualities they necessarily had to construct a stereotype of authenticity. Through distaste for the homogeneous, imitative, and inauthentic institutionalized art tradition of Paris’ Salon culture, they projected their desire for expressiveness, spirituality, abstraction, and authenticity onto the artifacts brought to Paris during imperialist scientific pursuits. This is not to say that there is not valuable artistic qualities of such artifacts, but the nuanced of history and cultural significance is lost on these Parisian modernists.

Postcolonial Art: Where Are We Going?

In the contemporary world, there are a variety of ways for artists to challenge colonial stereotypes of this early 20th century modernist period. The pervasiveness of colonialism is grand, wherein the individual is oppressed through colonialist and imperialist structures. Throughout the 20th century, art movements of painting, sculpture, and performance employed postcolonialist theories to encourage activism and awareness to the reality of devastation, trauma, and misappropriation of cultures during imperialism. For instance, a movement of artists of African American descent during the Harlem Renaissance which depicted a racialized experience and history (Lucie-Smith 18-19). One contemporary example is Unceded Voices, a convergence beginning in 2014 of indigenous women in Canada’s Mohawk and Algonquin territories to promote colonial resistance through “street art intervention” (Unceded Voices). Through a variety of street art media and workshops, Unceded Voices represents and supports women of colour and indigenous artists to build community relationships and encourage postcolonial dialogue. The expansion of fine art to include new media, such as performance, craft materials in sculpture, and stenciled street art, allows expression of cultural representation to be more accessible and confrontational to a variety of individuals. This expansion also deconstructs the European salon cultural art tradition which limited fine art to painting and sculpture. Street art, in particular, is a confrontation within public spaces so that passersby can be aware of postcolonial and indigenous artists without actively looking for them. Workshops can bring individuals of all backgrounds, artistic or otherwise, together to express themselves and their culture through art production.

Ultimately, artists like Gauguin and Picasso are part of the art canon for their influence on the art world and as significant pieces of art history. Their works are often beautiful, through expressions of colour, shape, line, and rhythm. Any student of either art history or imperialism are necessarily subject to learning about such figures, but a critical eye is essential to uncovering hidden meanings and subtle ideology within their paintings. This paper serves as a method to examine the modernist art movements of the 20th century within their historical context. Readers should take away a deserved appreciation for postcolonial and anticolonial artists and activists, because painting does not exist in isolation from conflict and oppression. These contemporary artists, and the artists of colour which paved the way, are subverting and reinventing the art tradition over again to reveal the inherent oppressive ideas of the great masters.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Works Cited

Berman, Nancy. Primitivism and the Parisian Avant -Garde, 1910–1925, McGill University , Ann Arbor, 2002, ProQuest.

Doland, Angela. “Gauguin’s Tahiti?: Famous for His Graceful Polynesian Paintings, Little Evidence of the Painter’s Time here Exists a Century After His Death.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), 2003, pp. T6.

Gauguin, Paul. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?. 1897-98, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Leigthen, Patricia. “The White Peril and “L’Art Nègre”: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 72, no. 4, 1990, pp. 609-630, ProQuest.

Lemke, Sieglinde. Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Race, Sex, and Gender in Contemporary Art, edited by Jane Havell, Art Books International, 1994.

Nead, Lynda. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality. Routledge, 1992.

Nolde, Emil. “The Artistic Expressions of Primitive Peoples.” Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art, edited by Jack Flam, University of California Press, 2003, pp. 51-53.

Picasso, Pablo. “Discovery of African Art. 1906-1907.” Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art, edited by Jack Flam, University of California Press, 2003, pp. 33-34.

Picasso, Pablo. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. 1907, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art.

“Primitive”. Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 29 Mar 2018,

“Unceded Voices: Anti-colonial street artist convergence – About.” Unceded Voices, 2017, accessed 29 Mar 2018,

Varnedoe, Kirk. “On the Claims and Critics of the ‘Primitivism’ Show. 1985.”  Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art, edited by Jack Flam, University of California Press, 2003, pp. 369-383.