Uni Archive: Notions of the 'Primitive' in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Europe

Originally written circa 2008 – a very early first year essay, simple but fine. I typed up from hard copy, references below – featured image Gauguin’s Te arii vahine (The King’s Wife) 1896

Discuss some of the notions of the ‘primitive’ in circulation in the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century in Europe. Select a number of art works and consider how the ‘primitive’ is visually articulated.

With the growth of ethnographic showcases and world expositions, testifying to the success of growing imperialism, during the late nineteenth century came a growth in awareness of ‘exotic’ colonial cultures, considered to be primitive in comparison with civilised European cultures. The ‘primitive’ is a term used to refer to “someone or something less complex, or less advanced than the person or thing to which it is being compared”. This essay will explore the idea of the primitive and how it is visually articulated in works of art.

The idea of the primitive became popular during the late nineteenth century, considered to be supported by Darwinism, an originally biological principle which was quickly transformed into philosophical justification of the “new versions of the medieval idea of a vertically oriented ‘Great Chain of Being'” which placed men above women, nobility above peasants, and animals above plants. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was further used as evidence for the idea of the primitive as it suggested that evolution proceeded from simple to complex – an idea used to describe a difference between European cultures and colonial cultures, and even the difference between children and adults. Europeans were the advanced cousins of savages and thus had to guide them to the enlightenment that they could not achieve without the help of the civilised. Eventually, Primitivism as an ideology grew during this period, and some began to question the traditional assumptions of the primitive and suggested that the primitive was in fact in some ways superior to the civilised as it was closer to nature, more instinctive, “a sensibility obliterated by an education”. Groups such as Die Brücke, The Cosmics, the Monist League and other groups inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, vegetarianism and nudism championed the idea of the Noble Savage and embraced their natural surroundings and basic instincts, creating art inspired by ‘primitive’ cultures, however, despite the good intentions of many of these groups, the belief that the savage was eternally childlike, or somehow closer to nature than the civilised in fact upheld the traditional beliefs as it maintained that there was a difference between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘primitive’.

Gauguin was an artist attracted by the ideas of the Primitivist, and was fascinated by “Polynesian mythology and ancestor-figures, although he imposed his own notions on the imagery he borrowed”. Maternity (1899) is an example of how Gauguin visually articulated his preconceived idea of the primitive, even if it was not necessarily an accurate depiction of his Tahitian surroundings. The three women in the foreground are dressed or half-dressed in bright cloths, while the seated figure breastfeeds unashamedly, not allowing western social codes or practices to deter her maternal instincts, she fulfills her natural role as mother and nurturer – this in itself sets her apart from her European counterparts. Next to her is a wild animal or dog, a symbol of the savage, another means of visually articulating the idea of the primitive. In the background, figures seem to be hunting or gathering food, necessary for their survival and the survival of their community, this practice considered barbaric when compared with sophisticated western agriculture (remembering that the primitive is an idea reliant upon comparisons).

Te arii vahine (The King’s Wife) (1896) is another work painted by Gauguin celebrating the primitive. The idealistic gratuitous nude lying on the forest floor contrasts significantly with the portraits of Queen Victoria (The Secret of England’s Greatness, 1863, Thomas Jones Barker) where royalty is raised above the instinctive bestial nature of barbarians whether they be the lower classes of Britain or the inhabitants of foreign lands ‘enlightened’ by imperialism. Also of significance is the title of the work, not “The Queen”, but “The King’s Wife”, perhaps an allusion to the preconceived ideas of the exotic polygamous lifestyles of savages. Again the painting features wild animals and birds, and this time also fruit, a symbol of the erotic or sexuality. In the background is another woman, her pose and colour helping her to almost blend in with the landscape, linking her to the idealistic notions of the primitive being in touch with nature. The central figure is portrayed in an exotic manner, she holds a fan, has a flower behind her hair, and lies in a similar pose to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) – who is “aware of her own beauty and invites appraisal from admiring eyes”. In this case the figure lies in her natural surroundings for the spectator’s viewing pleasure, just as in the World Fairs in Europe.

Mueller, a member of the group Die Brücke painted Maschka with a Mask in 1919. It features a woman wearing earthy yellow tones, staring suspiciously back at the viewer. Her shoulder is bare, perhaps exposed in reference to nudism and the Primitivist desire to return to nature. The shape of ehr figure is harsh and sharp, not painted realistically. This sharpness matches the background, painted with broad, flat brushstrokes in earthy tones, with the imprecise pattern representative of primitive patterns on cloth. Perhaps these rough marks are due to the artist’s interest in the “pre-rational or childlike”, which had passed into popular thought amongst the Primitivists. The mask resembles an African mask, and is placed on the same level as the woman’s face, linking them with one another, reiterating the link between the two, with women considered to be more primitive than men.

Imperialism led to an increase in interest in foreign, ‘exotic’ and ‘primitive’ cultures from the European cultures. World expositions in France, Britain, Germany and other world powers brought the villages of Africa and Tahiti to big European cities, and created an idealistic notion of how the ‘savages’ of these countries lived. This idea that European cultures were ‘civilised’ while others were ‘primitive’ or less complex or sophisticated remained popular for many decades. The Primitivists attempted to overthrow this dominant ideology amongst European societies, by stripping away the trappings of civilisation and returning to their natural, ‘savage’ roots. Despite their intentions to bring down traditional beliefs, their actions instead reinforced them, maintaining that there was in fact a difference between the minds of the ‘civilised’ and the minds of the ‘primitive’. The art they produced celebrated this perceived difference, and suggested that the primitive ability to live instinctively and be close to nature was far more liberating and empowering than the enlightenment of civilised countries. By using subject matter, colour, brushstrokes adn symbolism, they conveyed their support of the ‘primitive’ in their artworks.


Corbey, R., The Decolonisation of Imagination: culture, knowledge and power, Zed Books, London, 1995

Piper, D., The Illustrated History of Art, 4th ed., Chancellor Press (Bounty Books), London, 2000

Rhodes, C., Primitivism and Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1994

1 view