Turning the Gaze Toward the Primitive

Running parallel with the “scientific” findings published by Freud and Jung, the experimental visual artists of the first decade of the 20th century turned their gaze to the primitive forms of non-Western cultures for inspiration.  Within the avant-garde group Der Blau Reiter, The German Expressionist artist/critic August Macke proclaimed:  “Are not the savage artists, who have their own form, strong as the form of thunder?” (August Macke, quoted in Peter Selz, German Expressionist Painting, 1957).  Why do you suppose so many experimental artists in Western Europe chose to turn their gaze away from Western muses for inspiration in favor of non-Western sources such as the primitive masks of African tribes?

August_Macke Self Portrait 1906


August Macke, Self Portrait, 1906


28 thoughts on “Turning the Gaze Toward the Primitive

  1. Africa started being colonized by Western Europe in the late 1800s. Africa art would have started trickling into Europe as people traveled to the continent and brought items back with them. This was probably the first encounter many European artists had with African art. It was something new and very different from what they had been exposed to previously. It’s primitive look also corresponded with the work of Sigmund Freud and his exploration of primal urges and the subconscious. Artists were already rejecting classical Western art and African art seemed to attract those artists who were searching for a new visual language.

  2. I agree with Linda–in that colonization of Africa by the European countries may have changed the artists’ tastes. These were probably artists that were (generally speaking) making the same creations over and over again. They wanted something new and got it with the primitive African masks, among other things. Some artists could have made works that mixed both kinds of art together–the non-Western art and art they’re used to seeing. These mixtures of styles could have resulted in the making of the artists’ own forms. (Not just with these styles, but artists that mix any styles together to make their own.)

  3. I think what these artists were trying to do is remove themselves from constructed reality of modern civilization. So much of the developed, first world experience is comprised of man-made creations which we commonly accept to be reality, but are in actuality constructs. They were trying to explore that which is innate and natural, an essentialist approach, if you will. Jung’s explorations and theories of archetypes and the collective consciousness seem to be reaching for evidence of natural, inherent truths that exist in man. I think these artists were inspired by the “primitive” because they were looking for more pure forms of inspiration in order to make art that is less affected by the artifical, man-made world.

  4. I believe they turned away from the Western influence and methods because Western Civilization is completely material. Experimental artists are looking to create something that expresses a more deeper essentialism in a sense. Non western cultures do not have the means to create art in a way that those in Europe did, be it technology or exposure to specific galleries and methods, thus allowing ourselves to be influenced. Because there is this lack of influence the work produced is innate in a sense and would seem to be more pure.

  5. During that time was the beginning of the industrial revolution where many things are readily replicated through machinery. I believe the experimental artists saw the western becoming too mundane where everything is starting to look alike making it harder to get inspiration. The artists then probabley looked to Africa for more inspiration since they were not yet industrialized and more in tune with nature. I believe the artists wanted to be more connected with the natural world for their inspiration rather than creating something that looks materialistic.

  6. As we have discussed in class, Freud and Jung were interested in the primitive, dreams, and fantasies. Seeing as art serves to be a reflection of society’s psyche, it is no surprise that we would concurrently see artists following Freud and Jung’s lead. Looking at the progression of Picasso and Braque’s works, their artwork gradually becomes more dreamlike. In particular, looking at Picasso’s work, it seems as though his paintings of women are reflective of his fantasies. As he once said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” We then see the primitive coming into play, with other works such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with their inspiration being culled from the African ceremonial masks. Nevertheless, looking to the primitive was something new, somewhat uncharted, and rather unpretentious. All of this made for a new art form that was original and refreshing.

  7. Experimental artists in Western Europe had grown tired of looking at traditional art for inspiration. They wanted to expand their horizons and explore new art forms. When Europe began to colonize Africa, artists were introduced to the new muse they were searching for: the art of the natives. The primitive masks made by African tribes were unlike anything Western artists had seen before. They were raw and emotional, not influenced by any formal, constrained art of the past. Naturally, experimental artists would be drawn to them. In the masks, they saw primal passion. It was this newly discovered passion that galvanized Western artists, inspiring them to create their own unbound, expressive art.

  8. We know that westerners have always exploited the artworks of so–called third world countries. I’d like to know, did they consider the African artist/craftsmen to be intelligent in their interpretations of the art that they (the craftsman) envisioned?. Like Janco, the African artists in 19th Century and before were using masks, etc. to act out some type of ritual, story telling, and so on, or to make toys for children. It is still done. When we talk about the colonizing of Africa and Asia, I think about the words “stole from.” I don’t give any credence to any African-inspired art because it still looks African. It can only be copied. You can see in Picasso’s African-“inspired” pieces, the African art…no matter what color he painted it in.. Don’t get me wrong; I apply this sentiment to the “modern” African artist too. They’re copying a form that their ancestors developed. I don’t think any native African had visited the United States on a gallery walk in the 1800’s. Even the art of the American slave is different from the African art. So I believe that the 19th Century European artist needed something different to keep up the “being different” phase. When Chicago’s “The Picasso” was installed; the talk was it was “African”, and ‘not a representation of the city’, in so many words. Like the Cubist movement back then (19th Century); the general public didn’t like it. The Blacks felt it was somehow related to them and offensive; and the other people thought it was too “primitive” to be on display on Daley Plaza. However, everyone raced to see it in fear that it would be taken down.

  9. Artists romanticized the simple and primitive and continue to do so. Modern life can be disenchanting. People get their identity from the work they do and the social status they have, whereas pre-modern identity is simple and stable. However, the elevation of the art of Africa to some pure status, some inner gift of raw emotion or expression is really hypocritical given that the humans who created those arts were colonized and exploited.

  10. There are times where artist find a source of beauty that is not in the same place. Many sources of inspiration can come from any where in the world that people cannot sort of grasp why that specific style is interesting. The inspiration of the African masks for an example is something that is out of their comfort zone but still has a meaning behind and everyone of them. How if one wears a mask will changer their personality and their behavior based on the meaning and emotion from the mask. If artist needs to grow, they need to step back from what they are used to seeing and look at a different horizon. When August Macke proclaimed: ”Are not the savage artists, who have their own form, strong as the form of thunder?” makes me believe he is saying that “savage” artist as in the terms of a foreigner who people of the familiar land do not recognize will see that their artwork is “new meat”. A sort of saying that artists want to try to sort of “copy” their style but with their own individual style in it.

  11. I believe that these Western avant-garde artists were turning their gaze towards African art and other non-Western art forms for many reasons. In line with the studies and findings of Freud and Jung, these artists were focused on things such as origins, dreams and fantasies, the “primitive,” and sexuality. It is said that humans originated from Africa, so why wouldn’t these artists study African artists to gain more insight on our origins and the origins of life? Also, many tribes create art based on their dreams and fantasies, sometimes even inducing such visions with drugs and other intoxicating substances. So, perhaps these artists wanted to discover the dreams and fantasies of non-Western people and better ways to capture their own visions in the form of art. Also, in the industrial age, anyone without these new machines and advanced technology were seen as “primitive,” so that would have also intrigued these artists. And finally, these artists who focused on sexual themes would be curious to see how primitive tribes express their sexuality. With many of these tribes, little or no clothing would be worn, so maybe they were more open to their sexuality than us in the Western world. For all of these reasons, it is not surprising that they turned to non-Western cultures for inspiration.

  12. There are many interesting and equally valid replies swirling round the complicated history of western and non-western relations as it pertains to art. To me, modern artists turned their gaze away from western sources of inspiration towards that of “primitive” cultures because, first and foremost, it struck a chord within them. There was something deeply ancestral and primal in the soaring African headdress or stylized Polynesian mask that resonated with what the modern artist was trying to uncover within themselves and outwardly express in their art. The arts of Africa, Australia or Micronesia have existed for millennia though mostly unnoticed by western standards until the moderns turned their eyes to see it.

  13. I think artists chose to turn their gaze toward a path less traveled because they wanted to see how far they can push art. I believe they were tired of having the traditional style be the only style accepted. Artist wanted to have their own form and be unique, they wanted to experiment with things that have never been seen before. Such as the primitive masks of African tribes, I feel like artists in this time became interested in different cultures and they wanted to incorporate that within their art. Which in turn would change the art world forever because art and culture go hand in hand.

  14. At the time many of the experimental artists wanted to use non-western civilizations as a source of inspiration because they thought that primitive art evoked simplicity and purer forms. Avant-garde artists, wanted to go forward in the direction that released them from the grip hold of the conventions of the past. Picasso for instance, ignored the past and found a new way of using different planes of perspectives to create the Cubist aesthetic. The new concept towards art needed to be revolutionary especially since they were going through drastic changes caused by the World Wars.

  15. Experimental artists looked to non-western primitive cultures to explore the primal, untouched inspirations of their art. Western art almost seemed too standard and these artists wanted something fresh and new to inspire them, something that wasn’t influenced by western art . Just because a culture may be uneducated or lacking in practice doesn’t make their artwork any less valuable.

  16. I think that the decision to use non-western sources as a reference to their work because it would result in something unique compared to those who would use typical western sources as a reference. These artist may have been drawn to the simplicity of non-western art because it differed from typical western references. It is possible that they found inspiration from the simple reference of the human body from non-western sculptures and other works of art.

  17. I think that these artists turned towards non-western influence because it would have been like a breath of fresh air to them. The non-western styles were so far removed from what these painters were used to that it must have been shocking. Non-western art approaches things in a completely different way when compared to the western tradition and they must have found great inspiration in this.

  18. I think experimental artists were disillusioned by western art and the culture. They saw African and other primitive cultures as being “unpolluted” so to speak by most of what had shaped Western culture/art. As I read and understand more about Expressionism, the Germans held that an artist should be free to work and express their creativity apart from the established bourgeoisie of the contemporary culture. Looking back to the primitive may have been a way for them to be free. Woodcut as a medium for expressionism that combined primitiveness of process and expressed both simplicity and starkness of image.

  19. It is a given thought that these artists wanted to do something different in their art. By turning away from the Western influences, they could access another world which was waiting to be explored. Perhaps during that time it became a trend to experiment with the primitive. Why? Maybe because it simply was exotic and unknown to the Western world. Artists may have taken advantage of that to make their work be seen more profoundly and or as something alluring and unique.

  20. Primitive art had a certain purity that set it apart from the materialism and corruption of the time. I think that experimental artists were drawn to African sculpture in particular, because of its sophisticated approach to the abstraction of the human figure.

  21. I feel that many experimental artists from Western Europe turned their gaze away from Western muses because they may have been a form that they have already seen. So they turned their gaze to the primitive masks of African tribes, because they were something they have never seen before. It was a form of artwork that was new to them. It was something they could look at and form new ideas from.

  22. I think that the artists in Western Europe chose to turn towards non-Western sources for inspiration rather than Western muses because the non-Western creations gave them much more and better ideas to form their works of art by not using only their ideas of what they were used to with Western art. They wanted to expand their minds to create something more intriguing by using the influence of non-Western primitive forms infused with Western forms within their creations. I think that using ideas that came from non-Western’s prospective, like the primitive masks of African tribes, has maybe helped them make art become more alive and more cultural realistic.

  23. As an artist of color, this is often a subject of dissent whenever it arises, but– I feel that it is an important narrative to share, with or without a personal affinity or tie to the subject. First, I think it is important to break down the “how”, as opposed to the “why”; the 1800s threw the doors open to a frontier almost entirely alien to the white communities of the Western United States: Africa. Indeed, even without historical confirmation, one could easily infer that at least one Western artist made the pilgrimage to Africa in the colonization, and reaping of resources and slaves. While the quote does a great job of romanticizing and stripping the harsh reality of the slave trade of the time, it does acknowledge the “savages” as “artists”, or subjects.

    The concept is too sumptuous and captivating to consider: as an artist, I hunger for inspiration at every turn; so I could only imagine the beckoning of an entirely-new, primal and untapped source for my work. Ultimately, art is about producing material that is a reflection of the artist’s surroundings, and culture. I imagine Africa as being the most rapturous experience, in that regard.

    One thing that does need to be mentioned, though– is that while these Western, white artists might’ve felt an affinity with this “primal” culture, their language tells you (us) all that we might need to know. This isn’t a conversation about familiar vs. unfamiliar, but an entire narrative built around the exploitation and appropriation of cultural material, of a world that was deemed “savage”, and “primal” We should be asking the question of, “Who is it savage to? and why”– the material(s) and practices of the Africans probably weren’t “primal” or “savage” to them, just devices of everyday life. However, the choice of terms employed Macke lives as proof-positve forms that he himself was not an artist– he was not an innovator… He was another party-member of a larger, Western, White power. He did not see this world differently, his language proves an intention of ownership and subservience, not advancement.

  24. The decision to use non western sources resulted in unique pieces of work instead of the same boring western sources. Non western art approached art in a different way in comparison to western art. It is possible that the inspiration found even though how simple non western is it was exactly the refresher that those artists were looking for.

  25. I believe that they turned from Western influence, because it was to based in the world that they knew. In looking towards more non-Western influences, it would be easier to connect with more internal and emotional forces as what appeared on the surface would be so different from what Western works of art would allow. African masks and the like would present something so uncommon to the eye that to analyze the technique and form would come secondary to the initial “primitive” reaction from seeing something so different from the norm.

  26. I believe the reason many artists were beginning to turn away from Western canon and ideals for more non-Western culture sources is the same reason any art movement starts; because artists become bored of the then norm and want to branch out and grow. For centuries Western standards were seen as the ideal and would not have been strayed from whatsoever but this western art was just a piece of the art world. Non-western art is vastly different in art style and culture but there still is a common bonds in all art I think. Such as emotions, society, and religion. I think many of those artists were seeing the balance of the total foreign and unknown aspect of non western art but also the similarities which is captivating to delve in to and expand your own artwork.

  27. Certain European artists were looking for new inspiration. Throughout the twentieth century there seems to be this constant push away from traditions at what artists should look towards for their inspiration. This usually was the classical age, Greek and Roman antiquity, this was the standard for form and beauty for centuries. Through European imperialism, people were able to discover new types of arts. This seemed to encourage experimentation. These newly found pieces showed there are other ways to form images which coincided nicely with the growing dissatisfaction of artists with norms of European art and their pursuit to use different avenues.

  28. One of the struggles of being an Artist is finding way to keeps your work fresh and to provide something both relevant and interesting to the global dialog. with this in mind It is fairly easy to see why the western artist turned their gaze outside of their domestic location in order to find way of furthering the discourse. also with that it mind we live in a time of unmatched connectivity , information technology connects all side of the globe and with evolving technology such as high powered telescopes we can evan lay our eye upon images from the far flung depths of space. It will be fascinating to see where the gaze of new generations of artist will lay.

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