Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism

By David Pan | Go to book overview

1
THE PRIMITIVE
AND THE CIVILIZED IN
FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE'S
BIRTH OF TRAGEDY

GENEALOGY OF THE PRIMITIVE

The first three decades of the twentieth century saw an intense interest in African and Oceanic art on the part of a number of artists. This interest arose during a period in which ethnologists were virtually unanimous in rejecting the objects arriving from Africa and the South Pacific as being art at all.1 What characteristics of African and Oceanic art attracted the interest of earlytwentieth-century artists and writers? The issue here is not so much the ability of Europeans to recognize the validity of the art of a foreign culture; a consciousness of the qualities of the art of the Near and Far East had already existed for centuries.2 Rather than simply the encounter with the “Other,” the issue here is the fascination with the “primitive.”

Problems arise as soon as the word primitive appears. Like other art historical terms such as gothic or baroque, primitive began as a term of denigration. It was used not just to denigrate an artistic style but to justify the colonization and extermination of whole peoples. This raising of the stakes makes any attempt at a rehabilitation of the term primitive nearly unthinkable, yet at the same time all the more crucial. As destructive as the derogatory use has been, the fascination with the primitive has been just as essential to the term's history—to the point that the word primitivism is used exclusively to designate an imitation of the primitive rather than a contempt for it. Coupled with these contradictory uses is the ambiguous evaluation of the primal and the fundamental embedded in the

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