Primitive Art


Primitive art describes art that follows a different concept rather than western art conventions. This kind of art was predisposed to originate from cultures that lagged in terms of technological development, thus considered to be of inferior quality. Throughout history, contemporary artists and scholars have refuted the idea about the superiority of cultures and the definition of art. It was deemed that other cultures’ artwork did not meet the requirements to be defined as art. Modern artists such as Picasso broke this notion when they integrated primitive art into western culture art hence quantifying it as an independent form of art. This led to the use of imaginary from primitive cultures being used in paintings from the 20th century until today, thus ending the superiority culture complex associated with art.

Primitive Art

Primitive art refers to underdeveloped art, and that lacks technical skills typically of non-European Cultures (Monroe, 2019). It was deemed to have been practiced by societies that had a relatively low standard of technological advancement as compared to western standards. The term itself is controversial as it is based on ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the judging of different cultures from the conscious of their own culture. They use their culture as a basis of their personified judgment as western cultures viewed art from other uncivilized cultures as primitive such as African, Aboriginal, Native American, and other indigenous art. The most popular form of primitive art was a sculpture, although painting was also used.

This type of art did not follow the standardized conventions of European art. Early anthropologists believed that indigenous people were at the bottom of the evolutionary track, and the Europeans were at the top hence deemed their art superior, thus disregarding the indigenous art not worthy of being preserved in a gallery or museum. African art was considered as humanmade material remains of a culture. Attitudes about primitive art were also predetermined by the perception of the ideas of race hence not classified as art according to the Euro American sense.

Comparison Between Western and Primitive Art

The critical distinction between western and primitive art is the status of the individual artist. Primitive artists are referred to as folk, self-taught, or outsider artists, while western artists are known as high artists. The artists’ status was used to classify the art with the high artist been hailed as a genius by society, while most of the folk artists’ works tend to be anonymous (Dutton, 2018). Comparisons between the two artistry ideas take into account what constitutes art according to the western system. Primitive art served specific purposes hence not considered as art. Western art was deemed to aesthetic where it served no social, economic, and political function.

Development of Primitivism

Primitivism is used to describe the development of contemporary western art influenced by the imagery and motifs associated with primitive art (Bell, 2017). During the 18th century, critics and philosophers had developed a definition of art in which the object was unique, complex, and inspired by the natural world. Nonwestern art was viewed as abstract, produced with no unique features. During the 19th century, the central notions of art were defined by the theories of evolution. Darwinism was used to influence the idea that the evolutionary ladder influenced art. The argument brought forth was that cultural evolutionism in western culture was advanced and more superior, an idea adopted in the art scene.

This development and integration of primitive art into western art started in the 20th century, where diverse modern artists began searching for cultures past and present with new artistic elements in the face of urbanization. Primitivism sought to connect to a pre-industrialized past, a time where there was close connection between people and nature. Anthropologists realized that nonwestern culture should not be judged based on ethnocentrism. This warranted the need for reevaluation of the description of art in the world. Contemporary western artists used primitive art and objects to make artwork that could be used for aesthetic consideration. Modern artists such as Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso were at the forefront of this cultural integration, which led to them developing art which influenced by nonwestern culture.

Influence of Primitive Art on Modern Painting

Looking for new ways to represent modernity, some artists turned to primitive art for motivation and insights. Paul Gauguin was a modern artist who included Tahitian motifs in his artistry work. Gauguin had previously ditched the urbanized life in Paris and shifted to a simpler life in Tahiti in the South Pacific in 1891, where he got his motivation for his paintings such as the Spirit of the Dead Watching.

The most influential modern artist to use primitive art was Pablo Picasso, whose painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon reshaped primitive art in the 20th century. The painting was inspired by African art he had observed in a museum. Picasso focused on the formal properties of African art, which focused on abstraction, a strategy he used to reflect on modernity (Cohen and Chirac, 2017). The paintings depicting other cultural forms of primitive nature helped African artifacts as art though the meaning of such objects remained opaque. This was due to the artist’s consideration of integrating the uniqueness of the paintings, not the idea behind primitive art. By the end of the 20th century, scholars had begun to seek the indigenous interpretations of such art to gain knowledge into their functions, thus broadening their cultural diversification perspectives.

Importance of Primitive Art in Western Art Scene

Primitive art was used to introduce other cultures to western audiences. Western culture was considered as the universal gaze in terms of art; hence the introduction changed this notion as it considered each cultural manifestation of art as unique to the specific society. The use of primitive art was also used to critique European imperialism and colonial regimes (Stanley, 2018). Colonialists considered such cultures as uncivilized and undeveloped, and scholars used the artwork as a way of degrading the social Darwinism theory that some cultures were superior to others. The integration of primitive art and western art has led to the creation of international art that comprised of various sources, thus acting as a unifying factor in terms of cultural dynamics.

Integration into Galleries and Museums

By the 19th century, primitive art had begun being exhibited in western art museums and galleries as art. This was due to the shift in attitude by the general public of what constituted artwork. However, this reception was not always cordial as such art was categorized as objects in the 18th century hence housed in cabinets to maintain their secrecy. In the 19th century, such objects were categorized as flora and fauna when exhibited in museums. By the 20th century, the artifacts were being exhibited in beautiful art galleries and museums and have been extensively collected over time, making them a popular art.




Bell, M. (2017). Primitivism (Vol. 19). Routledge.

Cohen, J. I., & Chirac, Q. B. J. (2017). Picasso and primitive art.

Dutton, D. (2018). But they don’t have our concept of art. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition, An Anthology, 30.

Monroe, J. W. (2019). Metropolitan fetish: African sculpture and the French imperial invention of primitive art. Cornell University Press.

Stanley, N. (2018). Robert Goldwater and the search for the primitive: The Asmat project at the Museum of Primitive Art. A companion to modern art, 91-107.

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