A term used to describe the work of untrained ‘Sunday painters’ whose naively produced works fall outside the canon of aesthetic principles.

This style is distinguished by extreme detail, overcrowded compositions, the use of brilliant and saturated color and little attention to correct perspective.

A popular movement in Eastern Europe, its style is also typified in the work of the American EDWARD HICKS (1780-1849) and the Frenchman HENRI ‘DOUANIER’ ROUSSEAU (1844-1910).

Primitivism is a mode of aesthetic idealization that either emulates or aspires to recreate “primitive” experience. It is also defined as a philosophical doctrine that considers “primitive” peoples as more noble than civilized peoples and was an offshoot of a nostalgia for a lost Eden or Golden Age.[1]

In Western art, primitivism typically has borrowed from non-Western or prehistoric people perceived to be “primitive”, such as Paul Gauguin’s inclusion of Tahitian motifs in paintings and ceramics. Borrowings from “primitive” or non-Western art has been important to the development of modern art.[2] Primitivism has often been critiqued for reproducing the racist stereotypes about non-European peoples used by Europeans to justify colonial conquest.[3]

The term “primitivism” is often applied to the painting styles that pervaded prior to the Avant-garde.[4] It also refers to the style of naïve or folk art produced by amateurs like Henri Rousseau without commercial intent and solely for the purpose of the artist’s satisfaction.[4]


Primitivism is a utopian idea that is distinctive for its reverse Teleology. The utopian end toward which primitivists aspire usually lies in a notional “state of nature” in which their ancestors existed (chronological primitivism), or in the supposed natural condition of the peoples that live beyond “civilization” (cultural primitivism).[5]

The desire of the “civilized” to be restored to a “state of nature” is as longstanding as civilization itself.[5] In antiquity the superiority of “primitive” life principally found expression in the so-called Myth of the Golden Age, depicted in the genre of European poetry and visual art known as the Pastoral.[6] Primitivist idealism gained new impetus with the onset of industrialization and the European encounter with hitherto unknown peoples after the colonization of the Americas, the Pacific and other parts of what would become the modern imperial system.[citation needed]

During the Enlightenment, the idealization of indigenous peoples were chiefly used as a rhetorical device to criticize aspects of European society.[7] In the realm of aesthetics, however, the eccentric Italian philosopher, historian and jurist Giambattista Vico (1688–1744) was the first to argue that primitive peoples were closer to the sources of poetry and artistic inspiration than “civilized” or modern man. Vico was writing in the context of the celebrated contemporary debate, known as the great Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. This included debates over the merits of the poetry of Homer and the Bible against modern vernacular literature. Vico stressed the concept of human diversity, which he said allows all humans to regard the same utilities or necessities of human life from different points of view. It challenged the Enlightenment’s notion that human nature is basically uniform and recognized the capacity of the primitive peoples – like the modern peoples – to gradually deepen their understanding of the world and themselves.[8]

In the 18th century, the German scholar Friedrich August Wolf identified the distinctive character of oral literature and located Homer and the Bible as examples of folk or oral tradition (Prolegomena to Homer, 1795). This was part of the literary appreciation of primitivism, along with the naturalness, passion, and the bardic tradition in poetry as well as in the history of language.[9] Vico and Wolf’s ideas were developed further in the beginning of the 19th century by Herder.[10] Nevertheless, although influential in literature, such arguments were known to a relatively small number of educated people and their impact was limited or non-existent in the sphere of visual arts.[11]

The 19th century saw for the first time the emergence of historicism, or the ability to judge different eras by their own context and criteria. A result of this, new schools of visual art arose that aspired to hitherto unprecedented levels of historical fidelity in setting and costumes. Neoclassicism in visual art and architecture was one result. Another such “historicist” movement in art was the Nazarene movement in Germany, which took inspiration from the so-called Italian “primitive” school of devotional paintings (i.e., before the age of Raphael and the discovery of oil painting).

Where conventional academic painting (after Raphael) used dark glazes, highly selective, idealized forms, and rigorous suppression of details, the Nazarenes used clear outlines, bright colors, and paid meticulous attention to detail. The school’s artistic styles were similar in nature to the Pre-Raphaelites, who were primarily inspired by the critical writings of John Ruskin, who admired the painters before Raphael (such as Botticelli) and who also recommended painting outdoors, hitherto unheard of.

Two developments shook the world of visual art in the mid-19th century. The first was the invention of the photographic camera, which arguably spurred the development of Realism in art. The second was a discovery in the world of mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry, which overthrew the 2000-year-old seeming absolutes of Euclidean geometry and threw into question conventional Renaissance perspective by suggesting the possible existence of multiple dimensional worlds and perspectives in which things might look very different.[12]

The discovery of possible new dimensions had the opposite effect of photography and worked to counteract realism. Artists, mathematicians, and intellectuals now realized that there were other ways of seeing things beyond what they had been taught in Beaux Arts Schools of Academic painting, which prescribed a rigid curriculum based on the copying of idealized classical forms and held up Renaissance perspective painting as the culmination of civilization and knowledge.[13] Beaux Arts academies held than non-Western peoples had had no art or only inferior art.

In rebellion against this dogmatic approach, Western artists began to try to depict realities that might exist in a world beyond the limitations of the three dimensional world of conventional representation mediated by classical sculpture. They looked to Japanese and Chinese art, which they regarded as learned and sophisticated and did not employ Renaissance one-point perspective. Non-euclidean perspective and tribal art fascinated Western artists who saw in them the still-enchanted portrayal of the spirit world. They also looked to the art of untrained painters and to children’s art, which they believed depicted interior emotional realities that had been ignored in conventional, cook-book-style academic painting.

Tribal and other non-European art also appealed to those who were unhappy with the repressive aspects of European culture, as pastoral art had done for millennia.[14] Imitations of tribal or archaic art also fall into the category of nineteenth-century “historicism”, as these imitations strive to reproduce this art in an authentic manner. Actual examples of tribal, archaic, and folk art were prized by both creative artists and collectors.

The painting of Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso and the music of Igor Stravinsky are frequently cited as the most prominent examples of primitivism in art. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, is “primitivist” in so far as its programmatic subject is a pagan rite: a human sacrifice in pre-Christian Russia. It employs harsh dissonance and loud, repetitive rhythms to depict “Dionysian” modernism, i.e., abandonment of inhibition (restraint standing for civilization). Nevertheless, Stravinsky was a master of learned classical tradition and worked within its bounds. According to Malcolm Cook, “with its folk-music motifs and the infamous 1913 Paris riot securing its avant-garde credentials, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, 1913) engaged in primitivism in both form and practice while remaining embedded within Western classical practices.”[15] In his later work he adopted a more “Apollonian” neoclassicism, to use Nietzsche’s terminology, although in his use of serialism he still rejects 19th-century convention. In modern visual art, Picasso’s work is also understood as rejecting Beaux Arts artistic expectations and expressing primal impulses, whether he worked in a cubist, neo-classical, or tribal-art-influenced vein.

Origins of modernist primitivism

African Fang mask similar in style to those Picasso saw in Paris just prior to painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Primitivism gained a new impetus from anxieties about technological innovation but above all from the “Age of Discovery”, which introduced the West to previously unknown peoples and opened the doors to colonialism.[16] As the European Enlightenment, with the decline of feudalism, philosophers started questioning many fixed medieval assumptions about human nature, the position of humans in society, and the strictures of Christianity, and especially Catholicism.[17] They began questioning the nature of humanity and its origins through a discussion of the natural man, which had intrigued theologians since the European encounter with the New World.

From the 18th century, Western thinkers and artists continued to engage in the retrospective tradition, that is “the conscious search in history for a more deeply expressive, permanent human nature and cultural structure in contrast to the nascent modern realities”.[18] Their search led them to parts of the world that they believed constituted alternatives to modern civilization.

The invention of the steamboat and other innovations in global transportation in the 19th century brought the indigenous cultures of the European colonies and their artifacts into metropolitan centres of empire. Many western-trained artists and connoisseurs were fascinated by these objects, attributing their features and styles to “primitive” forms of expression; especially the perceived absence of linear perspective, simple outlines, the presence of symbolic signs such as the hieroglyph, emotive distortions of the figure, and the perceived energetic rhythms resulting from the use of repetitive ornamental pattern.[19] According to recent cultural critics, it was primarily the cultures of Africa and the Oceanic islands that provided artists an answer to what these critics call their “white, Western, and preponderantly male quest” for the “elusive ideal” of the primitive, “whose very condition of desirability resides in some form of distance and difference.”[20] These energizing stylistic attributes, present in the visual arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Indians of the Americas, could also be found in the archaic and peasant art of Europe and Asia, as well.

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin. Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892. Oil on canvas. Albright Knox Art Gallery

Painter Paul Gauguin sought to escape European civilization and technology, taking up residence in the French colony of Tahiti and adopted a stripped-back lifestyle which he felt to be more natural than was possible in Europe.

Gauguin’s search for the primitive was manifestly a desire for sexual freedom, and this is reflected in such paintings as The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch (1892), Parau na te Varua ino (1892), Anna the Javanerin (1893), Te Tamari No Atua (1896), and Cruel Tales (1902), among others. Gauguin’s view of Tahiti as an earthly Arcadia of free love, gentle climate, and naked nymphs is quite similar, if not identical, to that of the classical pastoral of academic art, which has shaped Western perceptions of rural life for millennia. One of his Tahitian paintings is called “Tahitian Pastoral” and another “Where Do We Come From”.[21] In this way Gauguin extended the academic pastoral tradition of Beaux Arts schools which had hitherto been based solely on idealized European figures copied from Ancient Greek sculpture to include non-European models.

Gauguin also believed he was celebrating Tahitian society and defending the Tahitians against European colonialism. Feminist postcolonial critics, however, decry the fact that Gauguin took adolescent mistresses, one of them as young as thirteen.[22] They remind us that like many European men of his time and later, Gauguin saw freedom, especially sexual freedom, strictly from the male colonizer’s point of view. Using Gauguin as an example of what is “wrong” with primitivism, these critics conclude that, in their view, elements of primitivism include the “dense interweave of racial and sexual fantasies and power both colonial and patriarchal”.[23] To these critics, primitivism such as Gauguin’s demonstrates fantasies about racial and sexual difference in “an effort to essentialize notions of primitiveness” with “Otherness”. Thus, they contend, primitivism becomes a process analogous to Exoticism and Orientalism, as critiqued by Edward Said, in which European imperialism and monolithic and degrading views of the “East” by the “West” defined colonized peoples and their cultures.[24]

Fauves and Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The two figures on the right are the beginnings of Picasso’s African-inspired period.

In 1905–06, a small group of artists began to study art from Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania, in part because of the compelling works of Paul Gauguin that were gaining visibility in Paris. Gauguin’s powerful posthumous retrospective exhibitions at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1903 and an even larger one in 1906 exerted a strong influence. Artists including Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso grew increasingly intrigued and inspired by the select objects they encountered.

Pablo Picasso, in particular, explored Iberian sculpture, African sculpture, African traditional masks, and other historical works including the Mannerist paintings of El Greco, resulting in his masterpiece Les Demoiselles D’Avignon and, eventually, the invention of Cubism.[25]

The generalizing term “primitivism” tends to obscure the distinct contributions to modern art from these various visual traditions.[26]

Anticolonial primitivism

Although primitivism in art is usually regarded as a Western phenomenon, the structure of primitivist idealism can be found in the work of non-Western and especially anticolonial artists. The desire to recover a notional and idealized past in which humans had been at one with nature is here connected to a critique of the impact of Western modernity on colonized societies. These artists often critique Western stereotypes about “primitive” colonized peoples at the same time as they yearn to recover pre-colonial modes of experience. Anticolonialism fuses with primitivism’s reverse teleology to produce art that is distinct from the primitivism of Western artists which usually reinforces rather than critiques colonial stereotypes.[27]

The work of artists connected with the Négritude movement in particular demonstrates this tendency. Négritude was a movement of neo-African idealism and political agitation that was begun by francophone intellectuals and artists on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1930s, and which spread across Africa and the African diaspora in subsequent years. They self-consciously idealized pre-colonial Africa, something that took many forms. This typically consisted in rejecting overweening European rationalism and the associated ravages of colonialism while positing pre-colonial African societies as having had a more communal and organic basis. The work of the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam is particularly notable among the visual artists of negritude. Lam met Pablo Picasso and the European surrealists while living in Paris in the 1930s.[28] When he returned to Cuba in 1941, Lam was emboldened to create images in which humans, animals, and nature combined in lush and dynamic tableaux. In his iconic work of 1943, The Jungle, Lam’s characteristic polymorphism recreates a fantastical jungle scene with African motifs between stalks of cane. It vividly captures the way in which negritude’s neo-African idealism is connected to a history of plantation slavery centred on the production of sugar.


Neo-primitivism was a Russian art movement which took its name from the 31-page pamphlet Neo-primitivizm, by Aleksandr Shevchenko (1913). It is considered a type of avant-garde movement and is proposed as a new style of modern painting which fuses elements of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism with traditional Russian ‘folk art’ conventions and motifs, notably the Russian icon and the lubok.

Neo-primitivism replaced the symbolist art of the Blue Rose movement. The nascent movement was embraced due to its predecessor’s tendency to look backwards so that it passed its creative zenith.[29] A conceptualization of neo-primitivism describes it as an anti-primitivist Primitivism since it questions the primitivist’s Eurocentric universalism.[30] This view presents neo-primitivism as a contemporary version that repudiates previous primitivist discourses.[30] Some characteristics of neo-primitivist art include the use of bold colors, original designs, and expressiveness.[31] These are demonstrated in the works of Paul Gauguin, which feature vivid hues and flat forms instead of three-dimensional perspective.[32] Igor Stravinsky was another neo-primitivist known for his children’s pieces, which were based on Russian folklore.[33] Several neo-primitivist artists were also previous members of the Blue Rose group.[34]

Neo-primitive artists

Russian artists associated with Neo-primitivism include:

  • David Burlyuk
  • Marc Chagall
  • Pavel Filonov
  • Natalia Goncharova
  • Mikhail Larionov
  • Kasimir Malevich
  • Aleksandr Shevchenko
  • Igor Stravinsky

Museum exhibitions on primitivism in modern art

In November 1910, Roger Fry organized the exhibition titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists held at the Grafton Galleries in London. This exhibition showcased works by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and other artists. This exhibition was meant to showcase how French art had developed over the past three decades; however, art critics in London were shocked by what they saw. Some called Fry “mad” and “crazy” for publicly displaying such artwork in the exhibition.[35] Fry’s exhibition called attention to primitivism in modern art even if he did not intend for it to happen; leading to American scholar Marianna Torgovnick to term the exhibition as the “debut” of primitivism on the London art scene.[36]

In 1984, The Museum of Modern Art in New York had a new exhibition focusing on primitivism in modern art. Instead of pointing out the obvious issues, the exhibition celebrated the use of non-Western objects as inspiration for the modern artists. The director of the exhibition, William Rubin, took Roger Fry’s exhibition one step farther by displaying the modern works of art juxtaposed to the non-Western objects themselves. Rubin stated, “That he was not so much interested in the pieces of ‘tribal’ art in themselves but instead wanted to focus on the ways in which modern artists ‘discovered’ this art.”[37] He was trying to show there was an ‘affinity’ between the two types of art. Scholar Jean-Hubert Martin argued this attitude effectively meant that the ‘tribal’ art objects were “given the status of not much more than footnotes or addenda to the Modernist avant-garde.”[38] Rubin’s exhibition was divided into four different parts: Concepts, History, Affinities, and Contemporary Explorations. Each section meant to serve a different purpose in showing the connections between modern art and non-Western ‘art.’

In 2017, the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in collaboration with the Musée National Picasso-Paris, put on the exhibition Picasso Primitif. Yves Le Fur, the director, stated he wanted this exhibition to invite a dialogue between “the works of Picasso – not only the major works but also the experiments with aesthetic concepts – with those, no less rich, by non-Western artists.”[39] Picasso Primitif meant to offer a comparative view of the artist’s works with those of non-Western artists. The resulting confrontation was supposed to reveal the similar issues those artists have had to address such as nudity, sexuality, impulses and loss through parallel plastic solutions.

In 2018, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts had an exhibition titled “From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-Face Picasso, Past and Present”. The MMFA adapted and expanded on Picasso Primitif by bringing in 300 works and documents from the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and the Musée National Picasso-Paris. Nathalie Bondil saw the issues with the ways in which Yves Le Fur presented Picasso’s work juxtaposed to non-Western art and objects and found a way to respond to it. The headline of this exhibition was, “A major exhibition offering a new perspective and inspiring a rereading of art history.”[40] The exhibition looked at the transformation in our view of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas from the end of the 19th century to the present day. Bondil wanted to explore the question about how ethnographic objects come to be viewed as art. She also asked, “How can a Picasso and an anonymous mask be exhibited in the same plane?”

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