A western art movement popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Primitivism employed images and subject matter associated with non-western peoples and locations. As a major step on the path to Modern Art, Primitivism embodied the notion of “returning to nature.” The artistic movement is associated with artists like Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Klee, and, to some extent, Pablo Picasso among other notable artists. In many ways, the movement was a retaliation against seventeenth-century beliefs in the superiority of Western civilization to other peoples encountered during the period of colonialism.
To a large extent, Primitivism might be said to glorify the ‘noble savage.’ While its subject matter, like Orientalism, tended to revere the lifestyle and imagery of non-European cultures (largely informal societies–not Chinese or Islamic, for example), its works also showed a marked departure from technique based on centuries of Western-style art. Artists employed tribal techniques and experimented with new shapes and lines. Cubism is associated with the movement and, of course, Picasso is especially noted for its works in the Cubist style.
Nature is important to the concept of Primitivism. Since many of the tribal societies featured in works of Primitivism lived closely within the context of their natural world, art works of the movement typically feature elements of the natural work–the sea, jungle, and natural materials used in the construction of home–thatched roofs, for example. Simplicity of subject and technique was also a cornerstone of the Primitivism movement. Artists often strove to abandon formality and embrace, instead, a more human sincerity. Getting back to basics was an underlying theme for artists aligned with the movement.
Artists working in the Primitivism were very influenced by primitive works of art form Oceania, Africa, and even Native America to a large extent. Objects like African tribal masks and ancient Iberian sculptures (Bronze-Age era), influenced the development of modern primitivism. Many celebrated works of Primitivism are quite bold and captivating like Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy.” Others celebrate the free and more open lifestyles of Oceanic peoples like Gauguin’s “Two Women of Tahiti.” Both of these paintings and many others in the Primitivism style celebrate the costume of native cultures which greatly served to contrast the more rigid and formal garments of Western culture. Some of the best known works of Primitivism include works like “The Dance” by Henri Matisse, “Young Men from Papua” by Emil Nolde, and “The Moon and the Earth” by Paul Gauguin.