A Journey To Primitive Art

What is the value of the primitive? Why individuals seem unhappy in all these magnificent skyscrapers, vanity, and advanced technology? What did nature become like when the tall buildings spread like parasites all over our cities? Throughout the history, the notion of primitive has been used as a means of humiliation. Most of the time, the “modern” world described native people as primitive and even barbarians. Especially, after the Geographical Discoveries, a myriad of indigenous people were massacred and enslaved. Moreover, their arts were ignored and underestimated. The works of indigenous people were not even regarded as works of art. Fortunately, there arose artists who valued the art of these people and were influenced by the primitive. In 16th century, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne was one of the first people who implied that the people we call “primitive” had a value. As time passed, in the beginning of the 20th century, a Russian painter Alexander Shevchenko not only valued the primitive but also emphasized the return to the primitive in art.

First of all, Montaigne, in his essays, stresses the fact that indigenous people, whose religions and cultures different from ours, cannot be defined as barbarians: “Every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.” This means that indigenous people may look different from us, their beliefs may be different from us; even they may travel around without any clothes. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make them barbarians, and these cultural differences cannot be a reason to despise or slaughter them. Moreover, in his essay “On Cannibalism,” Montaigne says that with such a greed, we are more barbarian than the local people we call “barbarians”. For instance, Montaigne compares civilized people with the indigenous people through wars in his essay “On Cannibals”. After bloody wars, we -as civilized people- ruthlessly invade the land of enemies and seize their properties ruthlessly. However, these people, whom we call “primitive and barbarians”, do not touch the property of their enemies even after the war: “If their neighbours pass over the mountains to assault them, and obtain a victory, all the victors gain by it is glory only, and the advantage of having proved themselves the better in valour and virtue: for they never meddle with the goods of the conquered, but presently return into their own country, where they have no want of anything necessary, nor of this greatest of all goods, to know happily how to enjoy their condition and to be content. And those in turn do the same”. Thus, Montaigne has made a significant impact on history and Western World in terms of showing us that primitive is neither indecent nor inadequate. Who knew that the lives and works of these indigenous people would become important in the future.

In the early 1900s the primitive in art gained prominence. Previously, the works created by indigenous people were not even seen as a work of art. A number of artists emerged, especially in Germany and Russia, and began to create artworks with a primitive understanding of art. As individuals materially prospered, they became spiritually buried in sorrows. Even then many people had high flats and cars. Technology was progressing. However, the competition between the countries also increased with the development of technology and production. Bloody wars were inevitable. Why were we unhappy in all these magnificent skyscrapers, vanity, and advanced technology? What did nature become like when the tall buildings spread like parasites all over our cities? This led to the questioning of reality in art. The crucial Russian painter Alexander Shevchenko is an example of the artists who give primitive people the value they deserve. In 1912, Shevchenko wrote an article and brought a new perspective. In 1912, Alexander Shevchenko, who led the Russian primitive movement, wrote an article entitled “Neo-Primitivism: Its Theory, Its Potentials, Its Achievements”. In this article, Shevchenko focuses on the fact that there is no nature left due to the accelaration of industrialization and the increase in urbanization. How can we call an environment consisting of apartment buildings and asphalt roads as nature? “Robot-like, we have become habituated to life – getting up, going to bed, eating and working to set times; and this sense of rhythm and mechanical harmony is reflected in our entire life, cannot but be reflected in our mode of thought, in our spiritual life, in art.” Shevchenko says, in his article. In other words, this nature -which has ceased to be nature- could not be an inspiration for artworks. “A simple, physical copy of nature can no longer satisfy us.” and “Naturalistic painting does not exist for us, just as nature does not exist without cleared, sanded or asphalted roads, without water-mains and artificial light, without telephone or tramway.” Shevchenko, says. Perhaps for this reason, primitive painters did not completely reject the old forms, but they thought that the real art still lies in the primitive. Furthermore, the term, “flamboyant” is becoming more and more widespread today. The more glamorous and fancy something is, the more beautiful it is perceived. Shevchenko, on the other hand, reconciled the show with the degraded beauty of popular taste: “Beauty only resides in the harmony of simple combinations of forms and colours. Mannered beauty borders on the illusory sophistication of the market, a product of the corruption of popular taste.” For primitive painters, beauty lay in simplicity. Hence, it can make us think that beauty doesn’t lie in rich and flashy furniture or in our ornate gold jewelry.

What is more, it is possible to emphasize the importance of simple and understandable writing in the field of literature. There has been some debate throughout history that plain and understandable writing requires more labor than fancy and ostentatious writing. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer criticized his colleague Hegel for this reason. At that time, the classes Hegel taught were overflowing and his books were very popular. Nonetheless, Schopenhauer attributed Hegel’s success to his ambigious language that can hardly be understood. According to Schopenhauer, people were very impressed by Hegel’s books because they think that he must be a genius; that we can’t understand him. However, Schopenhauer defends the idea that being simple and understandable required greater intelligence. Thus, behind a painting made of simple brush strokes may be a great imagination.

In conclusion, it is understable that how defending the primitive, the simple, hurts our arrogance because we’ve been used to humiliating them for years. Instead of understanding the simple could have an elegance, we created our worlds consisting of gold and diamonds. Furthermore, we ignored their art and the fact that there were things we could learn from them. Returning to primitive art and accepting its value meant breaking down prejudices; maybe that’s why primtive art was hated. Maybe, that is why Hitler opened a museum to show the works of primitive painters as a symbol of shame. On July 9, 1937, the Nazi Party held two major art exhibitions in Munich: the Great Exhibition of German Art (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung) and the Degenerate Art Exhibition (Entartate Kunst). In the Dejenere Art Exhibition, the artworks of primitive painters were also mocked, even many of them were destructed by Nazis following years. Despite such humiliation and hatred, “primitive art” did not lose anything from its influence on art history. One, who made the native people the other and underestimated primitive art, lost. Below you will find the paintings drawn under the influence of primitivism art movement:

Emil Nolde, Still Life with Masks III, 1911
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), 1907
Emil Nolde, Dance Around the Golden Calf, 1910
Wassily Kandinsky, Lyre,1907
Franz Marc, Sleeping Shepherdess, 1912

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