Primitivism Essay

10 October 2016

Paul Gauguin is said to have always felt like an ‘other’, a primitive and therefore in his later years set out in search of a pure society that was close to nature and free from the corruption of civilisation. ‘Gauguin is traditionally cast as the founding father of modernist primitivism. ’ (Solomon-Godeau, A. 1989. pp314) His many works explore and express his desire to find authenticity and to ‘become a savage’. Similar to Gauguin, Emil Nolde seeks to return to a oneness with nature, in an attempt to bridge German’s past with its future.

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Using traditional German forms of art such as folk art and craft and combining this with that of modern images, using loose brushstrokes to create an earthy and natural feel to his works. Nolde was a part of the German Expressionism movement which sought to unshackle their civilisation and return to nature and freedom. “Primitive peoples create their works with the material itself in the artist’s hand, held in his fingers. (Nolde, 1934) This statement by Nolde explores tactility and the idea of the power of expression in such simple forms, which is what Nolde explains to be a contributing factor as to why artists are so drawn to the works of the primitive peoples. These simple, natural works are intense in their expression of power and meaning thus providing artist such as Nolde and Gauguin with inspiration and direction for their works, showing them how to create simple yet expressive works of art that are moving and captivating to the viewer.

Emil Nolde, ‘In the paintings by which he is best known, ‘primitive’ figure types are used to evoke emotional and religious themes. ’ (Harrison, C & Wood, P. 1992. ) Emil Nolde’s works such as ‘Dance Around the Golden Calf’ (1910) and ‘St Mary of Egypt’ (1912) show this expressive form of painting, with loose brushstrokes and wide use of colour creating a very rhythmic and sensuous painting. These works are representative of Nolde’s move to a oneness with nature as it can be seen that the expression and movement within ‘Dance Around the Golden Calf‘ is very natural and flows. St Mary of Egypt’ uses a wide range of colour and loose brushstrokes to create an incredibly expressive and bold artwork. It is clear to see that Emil Nolde is influenced by the works of primitive peoples as his works are simple yet largely expressive and moving in their aesthetics. Emil Nolde was seen to be very political in his time and was very outspoken with his ideals of art. He ‘attacked the scientific approach to tribal art that ignores its aesthetic potential.

While “Coptic, Early Christian, Greek terracottas and vases, Persian and Islamic art” have been admitted to the canons of high art, he complains, “Chinese and Japanese art are still classified under ethnography and primitive art is ignored altogether”(Lloyd, J. 1985. pp. 46) This statement shows that the art of primitive people was yet to be considered ‘art’ by the society at that time, therefore by such well known artists as Emil Nolde and Paul Gauguin using non-European cultures as inspiration for their works would have lead to the change in attitudes towards the art of the primitive peoples.

Perhaps informing people of its true artistic qualities and lending society to the idea that primitive art should indeed be considered art. Nolde was very political in his manners and rejected any mixing of races, in art as well as in life. ‘The Roman Empire, he tells us, never produced art of real value since it was an amalgam of nations. To this remarkable statement he adds the following observation: ‘England – in many respects to be compared with the Roman Empire – like all Germanic people once had great art, poetry, and wonderful music.

But after the immigration of Spanish Jews the country became materialistic, concerned only with power and possessions. Its interests spanned the whole world and went all directions, and what remains now is a nation almost impotent in the arts. ’ (Ettlinger, L. 1968. pp. 200) Although these were his views and opinions, Nolde was still heavily influenced by non-European cultures weaving many references to these cultures throughout his works.

Paul Gauguin, like Emil Nolde, used a vast range of colours and wove a flowing feel throughout his works symbolic of the freedom and natural qualities found amongst these non-European cultures they so highly treasured. ‘The Polynesian titles he gave most of his Tahitian works were intended to represent himself to his European market, as well as his friends, as one who had wholly assimilated the native culture.

In fact, and despite his lengthy residence, Gauguin never learned to speak the language, and most of his titles were either colonial pidgin or grammatically incorrect. ’ (Godeau. pp. 325) This statement by Solomon-Godeau shows that although Paul Gauguin has set out to return to his primitive ways and ‘become a savage’, he was still programmed to thinking like that of someone from the bourgeois society, unable to fully comprehend the traditions and culture of these primitive people.

Gauguin’s works such as ‘Two Women on a Beach’ (1891) and ‘Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Ancestors)’ (1893) both explore this natural and pure lifestyle that Gauguin sort to find amongst the Tahitians, whilst also juxtaposing the French impression of their culture and their influence with the use of the European clothes that these women wear. Within the work ‘Two Women on a Beach’ Gauguin’s use of loose, free brushstrokes emphasises the fact that the women are close to nature, they look as though they are carved out of wood.

However, these women are also seen to be out of place in their environment as their stances seem somewhat awkward and uncomfortable and the image has been cropped making it feel as though they don’t fit in the image. Both are seen to be wearing missionary dresses/European clothes and are weaving, representing the French’s view of the Tahitian women, lazy, close to nature and savage. Gauguin’s work ‘Tehamana Has Many Ancestors’, similar to that of ‘Two Women on a Beach’, depicts a girl (Tehamana) seated wearing European clothes, holding a woven fan with flowers threaded throughout her hair.

Tehamana, like the women in ‘Two Women on a Beach’, also seems somewhat out of place and as though she does not fit within this image. The references to her savage lineage, through the use of the paintings on the wall behind her and the petrogliphs reinforces the fact that like many other Tahitians, Tehamana ‘had no relation to her former traditions. ’ (Godeau. pp. 326) The images of Tahitian women wearing European clothing emphasises and makes reference to the Catholic, Mormon and Calvinist missionaries that had been at work in

Tahiti for many years before Gauguin had travelled over to Tahiti. The authenticity that Gauguin had set out to discover had diminished, therefore ‘Gauguin did not paint Tahiti, but his Tahitian dream. ’ (Staszak, J. 2004. pp. 353) These images highlighted the fact that the Tahitian’s ‘pre-European culture had been effectively destroyed. ’ (Godeau. pp. 324) ‘Not only had the indigenous religion been eradicated, but the handicrafts, barkcloth production, art of tattoo and music had equally succumbed to the interdiction of the missionaries or the penetration of European Products.

The bright-coloured cloth used for clothing, bedding and curtains that Gauguin depicted was of European design and manufacture. ’ (Godeau. pp. 324) Paul Gauguin, Emil Nolde and many artists alike have been vastly influenced by the works of primitive peoples, borrowing certain aspects of their culture and art in order to gain inspiration for their own works and expand their expressive capabilities within their art works.

The fact that these artists are well known for their works relating to the primitive that have drawn inspiration from non-European, ‘savage’ cultures emphasises this notion that indeed art by primitive peoples should be considered a true art form. Reference List Ettlinger, L. D. “German Expressionism and Primitive Art,” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 110 No. 781 (1968): pp. 200, accessed May 8, 2012. http://www. jstor. org. wwwproxy0. library. unsw. edu. au/stable/pdfplus/875584. pdf? acceptTC=true Lloyd, J. “Emil Nolde’s Still Lifes, 1911-1912: Modernism, Myth, and Gesture,” Anthropology and Aesthetics No. (1985): pp. 46, accessed May 8, 2012. http://www. jstor. org. wwwproxy0. library. unsw. edu. au/stable/pdfplus/20166722. pdf Harrison, C. , Wood, P. Eds. , “Emil Nolde ‘On Primitive Art’,” Art in Theory 1900-1990, 1992. Solomon-Godeau, A. “Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism,” Art in America, July 1989. (pp. 314,325,326,342) Staszak, J. F. “Primitivism and the other. History of art and cultural geography,” GeoJournal Vol. 60 No. 4 (2004): pp. 353, accessed May 8, 2012. http://www. jstor. org. wwwproxy0. library. unsw. edu. au/stable/pdfplus/41147901. pd

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