Term 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

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  • Paul Gauguin, 'Faa Iheihe' 1898

    Paul Gauguin
    Faa Iheihe 1898
    Oil on canvas
    support: 540 x 1695 mm frame: 700 x 1855 x 95 mm
    Presented by Lord Duveen 1919

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  • Pablo Picasso, 'Bust of a Woman' 1909

    Pablo Picasso
    Bust of a Woman 1909
    Oil on canvas
    support: 727 x 600 mm frame: 911 x 799 x 81 mm
    Purchased 1949 Succession Picasso/DACS 2002

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  • Sir Jacob Epstein, 'Female Figure in Flenite' 1913

    Sir Jacob Epstein
    Female Figure in Flenite 1913
    Serpentine
    object: 457 x 95 x 121 mm Sculpture attached to (Paintable) plinth base 35 x410 x 330mm
    Purchased 1972 The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein

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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.