Aesthetic Primitivism Revisited: The Global Diaspora of 'Primitive Art' and the Rise of Indigenous Modernisms

By Phillips, Ruth B. | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Aesthetic Primitivism Revisited: The Global Diaspora of 'Primitive Art' and the Rise of Indigenous Modernisms


Phillips, Ruth B., Journal of Art Historiography


From the perspective of the colonised, the very ambiguities of primitivism provided a powerful tool for challenging the values and assumptions of modern urban industrial civilisation, that is, the West.

Partha Mitter1

Introduction: New York, African art, and the primitivism of the avant-garde

During the early twentieth century, artists, critics, and scholars in Paris and other continental cities accomplished a radical revaluation of a wide array of non-Western objects, re-defining as 'primitive art' things which had largely been relegated to the lesser status of ethnographic specimens.2 Even as the taste for primitive art was growing and becoming an integral component of European modernist 'taste cultures' - to use sociologist Herbert Gans's useful concept - artists from Africa, India, the Pacific and the Americas were producing modern arts of their own, some of which engaged directly with the modernisms of the European avant-gardes.3 Yet as Johannes Fabian has shown, the criteria by which the authenticity of primitive peoples and their arts were judged located both in a pre-modern time which was past or passing.4 Admiration for the construct Shelly Errington has described as 'authentic primitive art' thus dis-located and rendered anomalous the twentieth- century arts of the descendants of their makers.5 As the emerging literature on multiple modernisms makes clear, the development of modern art and its integral engagement with primitive art was a project shared by numerous artists and intellectuals from India, Egypt, Mexico and many other parts of the world who travelled back and forth between their homes and the European centres of modernism during the second and third decades of the century.6

A second and, arguably, even more dynamic phase of the global dissemination of modernism occurred during the middle decades of the twentieth century, set in motion during the 1930s and 40s by the diaspora of artists, dealers, curators, collectors and intellectuals forced to flee Nazi-occupied Europe. As these men and women re-established themselves in settler societies and European colonies in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, they came to engage with new and distinctive matrices of art and politics. I argue in this essay that the engagements of Indigenous, settler and displaced European modernists forced into the open certain key contradictions embedded in European aesthetic primitivism, and ultimately led both to the recognition of the co-modernity of the world's peoples and to the emergence of modernist Indigenous arts. I will illustrate this process through case studies of two diasporic figures, the German ethnologist Leonhard Adam, who found refuge in Australia, and the Austrian artist and teacher George Swinton, who fled to Canada. In the written, curatorial and promotional work of both, key aspects of European aesthetic primitivism were transformed, complicating the totalizing thrust of the deconstructive critiques of primitivism undertaken by cultural theorists during the 1980s and 90s. Their activities need to be assessed in relation to the early twentieth-century settler colonial art worlds which they encountered as émigrés in the late 1930s, and the ways in which the impact of European aesthetic primitivism had been absorbed to that point.

Importing aesthetic primitivism: early twentieth-century New York

Two works featured in 'African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde,' a small exhibition shown in 2012 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Rockefeller wing, provide a useful point of departure. The first is a portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe made by Alfred Stieglitz in 1918-19, only a few years after the French vogue for African art had taken hold in New York. In the photograph, O'Keeffe holds aloft a carved spoon from the Côte d'Ivoire. (Fig. 1) The extended fingers of her right hand and the tilt of her head direct our gaze toward the African carving, whose rhythmic ovoids and concavities turn our eyes back again to the full curving volumes of O'Keeffe's nude body. …

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