Art Term

Primitivism

The term Primitivism is used to describe the fascination of early modern European artists with what was then called primitive art – including tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art

Paul Gauguin, ‘Faa Iheihe’ 1898
Paul Gauguin
Faa Iheihe 1898
Tate
Pablo Picasso, ‘Bust of a Woman’ 1909
Pablo Picasso
Bust of a Woman 1909
Tate
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2017
Sir Jacob Epstein, ‘Female Figure in Flenite’ 1913
Sir Jacob Epstein
Female Figure in Flenite 1913
Tate
© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein

Such work has had a profound impact on modern Western art. The discovery of African tribal art by Picasso around 1906 was an important influence on his painting in general, and was a major factor in leading him to cubism.

Primitivism also means the search for a simpler more basic way of life away from Western urban sophistication and social restrictions. The classic example of this is artist Paul Gauguin’s move from Paris to Tahiti in the South Pacific in 1891. Primitivism was also important for expressionism, including Brücke.

As a result of these artists’ interest and appreciation, what was once called primitive art is now seen as having equal value to Western forms and the term primitive is avoided or used in quotation marks.