Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art

This is a work in progress, the current draft of a lecture I will deliver in the spring or summer at the Seligmann Center’s Robert Fagan Library which includes a substantial share of books describing non-European art. Kurt Seligmann himself not only traveled around the world in 1936 but made a further trip to the American Pacific Northwest in 1938 where he purchased a magnificent totem pole now on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.


The visitor to my home will see West African carvings from Benin and Urhobo artists, masks from the Tarahumara of the Mexican Sierra Madre Occidental, weavings from the Maghreb, a Cambodian wooden Buddha, set among dozens of other artifacts collected during a lifetime of travel. Doubtless these are simple souvenirs like the decals of Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon people used to place in their car windows, yet to my mind they also provide a potent reminder of the nature of art, displayed as they are among contemporary drawings and paintings, many by my wife or by friends and acquaintances. Thus I am no scholar claiming a fictitious objectivity; rather I am myself a participant in the fetishization I mean to discuss. Far from casting doubt on my conclusion, this involvement seems to me to provide life and blood to my inquiry.

The articulation of connections between the twentieth century artistic avant-garde and the idea of the primitive is hardly a simple pattern of influence or inspiration. The revaluation of so-called “primitive art” [1] as well as folk art, outsider art, and children’s art by sophisticated European artists, critics, and intellectuals has been a significant influence in poetry and music as well as visual art. In many cases the use of “the primitive” requires little or no specific reference to indigenous art but signifies primarily either a rebellious inversion of received ideas or a more general claim to artistic freedom. In fact, the primitive has been used as a fetish, very much in the historical and anthropological use of the word which originally, like poem, meant simply an artificially constructed object, which is to say, a work of art, but which was used by Portuguese mariners to describe West African objects charged with power by human imagination. Just as the Africans infused their masks and charms with juju, and Polynesians with mana, so, in turn, the European artists gave those same objects a new sort of force, replacing the contempt with which their white ancestors had viewed the “superstition” of what seemed lower races, with respect and even awe. The art was cut free from the world-view of its creators and made to serve instead the purposes of its modern discoverers.

Though many in the nineteenth century subscribed to an evolutionary view of human development in which the most recent developments were considered the “highest,” a significant faction of artists dissented, finding value in what was generally rejected or ignored. Especially since the Romantic era, the mythic projection of the “primitive” as Other meant that such art was seen by a counter-culture as having greater access to emotion, truth, and the divine than that produced by etiolated Europeans throttled by self-consciousness and decadence. In this polemical reaction against prevailing values, artists conflated all “primitives” into a single category and sometimes also included children, mental patients, peasants, and women as fundamentally similar.

Such symbolic use of primitive as Other charging it with significance it would not otherwise bear is in fact an ancient and universal topos, far too vast a topic to treat here. It was sophisticated urban Greeks that invented the poetic pastoral, presenting poetry with shepherds as personae, sometimes for comic effect, but often as ideal lovers. Theocritus was an Alexandrian but wrote in the voice of a Sicilian shepherd, and one of the themes of Classical pastoralism is the superiority of rural life to that of the corrupt cities. For Ovid the primal age was Golden without armies, judges, or even labor. [2] It was to this mythic era that Rousseau refers in The Social Contract which opens “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” His Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men maintains, as Engels was to do a century later, that originally men lived in a utopian communist state and that private property is the source of classes and inequality.

During the Romantic Era the polarity received renewed attention. The Romantics privileged emotion and intuition over rationality, spontaneity over craft, originality over tradition, and the primitive over the civilized. Thus in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth says he has decided to “chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men [that is to say, not in literary or learned language].” He goes on, “Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated.” [3]

The celebration of the “primitive” was evident as well in the new-found attention and respect oral literature received from Percy in England, Burns in Scotland, Herder, von Arnim, Brentano, and the Grimm brothers in Germany. The nationalist impetus during the nineteenth century led to the recognition and use of folk motifs in music by composers such as Lvov, Chopin, Sibelius, and Dvořák the last of whom declared that "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music." [4] Meanwhile on the level of popular culture minstrel shows were the leading form of musical entertainment in nineteenth century America. [5]

With the growth of colonialism, knowledge about the actual circumstances of other societies became more widespread and the curious could view non-European artifacts, not in art museums but in new institutions whose galleries were entirely devoted to ethnographic displays. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaigns led to the popularity of “oriental” scenes which increased in popularity throughout the century in both France and Britain, particularly as an avenue of presenting “harem” scenes or other female nudes. [6] By the end of the nineteenth century not only had European museum collections of colonial art swollen; in addition, the general public was exposed to such work at expositions such as the 1889 Paris World’s Fair and the 1908 Franco-British show in London which included “indigenous villages.” [7]

Scholars had, for the first time, sufficient fairly accurate information about oral cultures to generalize in such works as Primitive Culture (1871) by E. B. Tylor, the “father of cultural anthropology,” James Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890), and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910). As the title of Lévy-Bruhl’s work reveals, these authors generally took an evolutionary approach, regarding the thought processes of the societies they studied as quite different from those of the moderns studying them. [8]

A significant number of artists and intellectuals accepted this sort of conventional judgment, but reversed the values, preferring the primitive. For this reason artists in France left the metropolis for Pont-Aven in Brittany, thinking it more backward and thus Edenic. Long before setting out for the South Seas, Gauguin wrote “I love Brittany. I find something savage, primitive here.” [9] He was joined by Émile Bernard, Paul Sérusier, and others, while German artists were forming similar colonies for the same reasons in Worpswede and Neu Dachau. These artists were in general not seeking to imitate folk art styles; they sought instead the inspiration of what seemed a more elemental lifestyle. Thus Gauguin, speaking of his “Vision after the Sermon,” said, ““I believe I have achieved a great rustic superstitious simplicity in these figures.” [10] Gauguin proudly declared his satisfaction with a village where, as he said, “I live like a peasant and am known as a savage.” [11]

But the fact was that Brittany had already become a favored spot for British and American second homes as well as for the occasional artist, and it soon seemed too civilized for Gauguin. He traveled to Tahiti and then to the Marquesas. Among the artists who sought in their travels a first-hand look at “the primitive” were Matisse, who spent time in Algeria and Morocco, Kokoschka in Tunisia, Pechstein who followed Gauguin to Tahiti, and Nolde who visited the Far East and New Guinea. Meanwhile they and others looked with a new eye during their visits to museum collections such as those at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro which attracted the attention of Picasso and others. [12] Further, by 1905 Matisse, Vlaminck, and Derain had all purchased African art for their own collections. [13]

Artists of the Blaue Reiter group protested “the contemptuous gesture with which connoisseurs and artists have to this day banished all artistic forms of primitive cultures to the fields of ethnology or applied art is amazing at the very least” [14] Marc, Burliuk, and others labeled themselves “savages,” (just as slightly earlier artists had been called les fauves) [15] while in Russia Shevchenko called Neoprimitivism “a profoundly national phenomenon.” [16]

For the Surrealists Freud’s concept of the unconscious placed a sort of primitive realm within every person’s psyche, reachable by dreams, by art, and by chance operations, but which are as well immediately available in the primitive. There they thought they might find “manifestations of uninhibited desire” and techniques to further “the integration of the sacred in their everyday world.” [17] Breton even operated a shop Gradiva which sold non-European art as did Éluard on a smaller scale. Michel Leiris participated in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti that brought thousands of objects from Africa to France. Max Ernst created a myth of his own shamanic rebirth as “a magician” “seeking to find the myth of his time.” [18] Their attitude was reflected in a map of “the world in the time of the Surrealists” in which Europe is insignificant and Oceania both central and immense. [19] Many classic Surrealist techniques such as invention of automatic writing, trance, and the invention of myth and ritual were considered to mirror practices of primitive cultures.

In spite of this profound and consistent interest in primitive art among generations of moderns, actual stylistic borrowing is rare indeed. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century artists rebelled against the illusionist realism of academic painting by stressing the flat and decorative surfaces they perceived in Japanese woodcuts and Oceanic ornamentation in what Dujardin called Cloisonnism. The schematic planes of some African masks clearly encouraged Cubist portraiture. Yet even these cases cause and effect is very difficult to demonstrate convincingly. According to Robert Goldwater’s pioneering study Primitivism in Modern Art (1938), artists used the primitive precedent to ratify or reinforce what they were already doing. [20] The groundbreaking Negro Art Exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery curated by Marius de Zayas was designed to open viewers to modern art rather than to educate them about Africa. In the pamphlet he wrote for the exhibit de Zayas says, “Negro art has reawakened in us a sensibility weakened by education.” Though itself a “product of the ‘Land of Fright,’ created by a mentality full of fear and completely devoid of the faculties of observation and analysis,” African art resembles the most modern in that it is “intensely expressive” rather than “natural.” [21]

Primitivism in poetry proves an instructive parallel to that in visual art. Occurring later, due doubtless to the lag in the availability of oral texts in comparison with sculpture from the same regions, the valorization of the primitive by writers once begun went hand in hand with that by painters. After a vogue for the archaic in the Romantic era that produced such faux semi-primitives as Macpherson’s Ossian and Chatterton’s Rowley, [22] the interest in foundational national epics led to Lönnrot stitching together the Kalevala and Longfellow’s composition of Hiawatha. In Une Saison en Enfer Rimbaud had declared as a battle-cry, “The pagan blood returns!” [23] shortly before he departed for the African bush. D. H. Lawrence’s infatuation with Mexico and ancient Etruria and his fierce critique of modern society was informed by his familiarity with Tylor and Frazer.

The Dadaists celebrated the primitive as part of their drive to overturn all received ideas. Weimar Dadaist Hannah Höch showed her own work, including African-style masks, under the title “From an Ethnographic Museum.” Huelsenbeck invented his own “Negro words” (“’Umba, umba,’ which I roared and spouted over and over again to the audience” [24] is a fair example) and Tzara collected African and Oceanic art and wrote what he called Negro Poems. [25] They performed “les chants nègres” with music, sounds, and dancing of their own invention. Tzara said “My other brother is naïve and good, and laughs. He eats in Africa or along the South Sea Islands . . . Art, in the infancy of time, was prayer. Wood or stone were truth.” [26]

In the early twentieth century translations of Far Eastern poetry by Pound, Waley, and others had an impact on Imagism comparable to that of African sculpture on Cubism. The best-known Asian poetic traditions are, of course, highly sophisticated. After such individual adventures as Artaud’s visit to the Tarahumara peyotists in Mexico and Paul Bowles’ transcription of the stories of illiterate Moroccans, the quest for primitive poetry led to Jerome Rothenburg’s best-selling Technicians of the Sacred in 1968 to be followed by other anthologies, and then his founding of the journal Alcheringa with Dennis Tedlock two years later.

Though Tedlock is an academic anthropologist, he is also an initiated shaman among Highland Mayan people (as is his wife Barbara) in Guatemala. Alcheringa published translations of oral texts as well as new poetry by poets such as Gary Snyder and Robert Kelly. Its first issue identified itself as “the first magazine of the world’s tribal poetries,” yet disclaimed scholarly goals, noting that “while its sources will be different from other poetry magazines, it will be aiming at the startling & revelatory presentation that has been common to our avant gardes.” In other words, the “primitives” are to read as though they were contemporary experimentalists despite the fact that the social role of all oral poets guarantees that they be highly conventional traditionalists.

Rothenburg claimed for the primitive a mystical “sense-of-unity” he believes to have been “shattered” by modern minds. “Revolutionary & limit-smashing” poets are to him “forerunners” in the recovery of such a wholesome unified vision. [27] He lists six areas of common ground between the primitives and his own circle, including orality, “intermedia,” and the poet’s role as shaman. This bias leads to the presentation of texts and events first recorded by anthropologists in such a way to make them resemble happenings or performance art. With this refracting lens, a simple conversation in William R. Geddes’ Nine Dayak Nights in which the tribal people explain quite sensibly that they discard food waste from their stilt houses without carrying it to a dump area because their pigs eat it becomes a “Garbage Event” in which “the participants defend the ‘abandoned beauty’ and ‘town-quality’ of their environment” [28] though in fact the quoted terms are those of the European observer and not those of the natives at all. The primitives again provide an excuse for deviation from the norm and criticism of existing values. Other American poets participating in similar shamanistic ambitions include Michael McClure (whose growlings differ little from the pseudo-African cries of the Dadaists) or the feminist myth-making of Diane di Prima in Loba and Anne Waldman in The Iovis Trilogy.

In the eighteenth century Schiller had regarded “naïve” poetry expressing a “primal unity of vision,” which the civilized, entangled in “artificial relations and situations” could only recall as an ideal. [29] The early twentieth century considered primitive art a model in that it was somehow absolute art, “non-referential,” or “self-contained,” in the words of Carl Einstein “oriented not toward the viewer, but in terms of themselves” [30] though in fact, anthropologists would say that in traditional societies art is far more closely integrated with other realms of people’s lives. According to Wilhelm Worringer all art had been at first abstract, though European art had deviated in its gradually tendency toward mimesis and illusionism. [31] Françoise Gilot recalled Picasso’s saying that what impressed him about African sculpture was that it was made for “a sacred purpose, a magic purpose.” [32] Surely it is no coincidence that the attempt to recover the artist’s vatic role, the search for the divine, for a truth truer than science arose in the wake of the nineteenth century death of god and the rejection of modern capitalist society went hand in hand with the rejection of rationality itself. Nietzsche’s deeply non-logical but creative will passed into the Freudian subconscious. Those who sought truth and beauty in the primitive often were little concerning with actual “primitives”; instead they were expressing a sort of faith in the metaphysical itself, imperiled by science, and asserting the central role of artists in accessing a deeper truth than that of everyday consciousness.

Looking at the Huichol yarn painting on the wall of my study, or the Haitian wax figures from a Brooklyn botanica behind the glass in a barrister’s bookcase, or, indeed, the works my wife Patricia has brought home from schizophrenic patients and the paintings of my small grandchildren provides me not so much with information about the specific vision of the artists who created these objects as a constant reminder that an accurate concept of art cannot be constructed without the inclusion of such evidence. Art for most people in most times seems in many ways far closer to these “anthropological” artifacts than it is to the work of Raphael or to Marina Abramović, but art is universal because it is at its root an essential need of humanity. We require fetishes to make life livable just as the masked tribal dancer possessed by deity does. Often investigators have sought to recover the “artistic” value of what once was labeled primitive art; it is time to admit the “magical” value of work by contemporary and cosmopolitan minds. The biologists have long known that, since the appearance of our singular species and in every part of the world to which we have spread, our minds are all the same.



1. Of course, the term (as well as others like “savage,” and “barbaric”) is now considered impossibly ethnocentric and outmoded. In the first half of the twentieth century “primitive” was used unselfconsciously, including by Robert Goldwater for his seminal study Primitivism and Modern Art. I employ it here since my focus (like his) is the idea of the primitive; it is for anthropologists to analyze the actual cultures that were once given that label.

2. Metamorphoses, 1, 89 ff.

3. Among other significant pre-Romantics who revalued the primitive is Montaigne whose marvelous essay “On the Cannibals” declares “there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.” Schiller’s On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, Diderot’s Supplement au voyage de Bougainville and most particularly Vico’s New Science were particularly influential in the 18th century.

4. Often quoted, the remark first appeared in an interview in the New York Herald Tribune for May 21, 1893.

5. The trend continued as first ragtime and then jazz enjoyed enormous vogues in the early twentieth century. In the past fifty years that connoisseurs have discovered blues and other folk music including that from India and other parts of the world. Most would agree that West African music is, by way of American jazz, blues, and rock and roll, the most important component of popular music throughout the world today. Compare the prominent place of the music of the socially despised and poverty-stricken Roma in Europe.

6. Many commercially produced postcards of the era and indeed well into the twentieth century featured putatively North African or Arab models in partial or complete undress.

7. Such shows had been part of the Jardin d'acclimatation amusement park in the Bois de Boulogne since 1877. They became de rigeur thereafter in virtually all such exhibitions including Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931). “Natives” were often caged and appeared nude or semi-nude. Since the 1874 introduction of Sami herdsmen to accompany a reindeer exhibit in Hamburg, indigenous people were increasingly featured in zoos. Such attractions were offered in fifteen European zoos by 1900 as well as in America. The trend lasted until 1936 when the last such exhibit was closed in Turin. Artists such as Kirchner and Heckel visited such shows. See Gill Perry, “Primitivism and the Modern,” in Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993), 63.

8. Lévy-Bruhl’s book was translated into English as How Natives Think (1926). To Tylor all religion was a vestigial survival of primitive modes of thinking.

9. Quoted in Perry 8.

10. Quoted in Perry 18.

11. Quoted in Colin Rhodes, Primitivism and Modern Art, (London: Thames on Hudson, 1994), 26.

12. Picasso’s visit in 1907 occurred 83 after he had painted Demoiselles d’Avignon. In 1928 Georges-Henri Rivière who had ties to the Surrealists became the director of the museum.

13. Perry 55.

14. August Macke, “Masks,” in The Blaue Reiter Almanac The Documents of 20th-Century Art, edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc documentary edition by Klaus Lankheit (NY: Viking Press, 1974), 88.

15. The Blaue Reiter Almanac, 61, 72, and elsewhere.

16. See Aleksandr Shevchenko’s Neo-primitivizm (1913). Shevchenko envisioned an art in which influences of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism would mix with traditional Russian 'folk art' conventions.

17. Louise Tythacott, Surrealism and the Exotic (Routledge: London and New York, 2003), 59. It is telling that, while providing a wealth of historical and biographical data, Tythacott’s detailed study offers little in the way of specific borrowing.

18. Rhodes 174.

19. Published in a special issue of Varietés in 1929 along with writing by René Crevel, Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, André Breton, and others. Africa is small. Alaska is huge as is Russia, though perhaps this fact owes more to Communism as to primitivism.

20. Joyce Henri Robinson in a review of Frances S. Connelly’s The Sleep of Reason: Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics 1725-1907 in Studies in the Decorative Arts, Vol. 4, No. 1, fall/winter 1999, p. 130 supports Goldwater’s contention that it is more a matter of an “attitude conducive to art” than specific borrowings.

21. Reprinted in Primitivism and Twentieth-century Art: A Documentary History, edited by Jack D. Flam and Miriam Deutch (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2003).

22. Compare with Armand Schwerner’s imitation of Sumero-Akkadian texts in his Tablets (1974).

23. He had originally considered titling the book Livre païen or Livre nègre.

24. Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer (Berkeley: University of California, 1991),9. Huelsenbeck says then that Mynheer Ephraim, the landlord of the Cabaret Voltaire, an old sailor, objected that these were not Negro at all and taught Huelsenbeck what he said were authentic African and Oceanic chants.

25. Reprinted in a translation by Piette Joris, Alcheringa II,1 (Boston: 1976), pp. 76-114.

26. Reprinted in Vassiliki Kolotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidou’s Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 281.

27. Jerome Rothenberg, Technicians of the Sacred (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1969), xxii.

28. Rothenberg 108. Cf. W. R. Geddes, Nine Dayak Nights (London: Oxford UP, 1967), 19-20.

29. See Schiller’s On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.
30. See Carl Einstein, African Sculpture (1915).
31. Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy (1908).
32. Francoise Gilot and Carleton Lake, Life with Picasso (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 266.

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