The Presentation of the ‘Primitive’ in Early Twentieth Century Art
In the early Twentieth Century, the idea of the ‘primitive’ was one which was prevalent across the world of civilisation. This was, in part, due to the massively widespread British Empire which, as it loosened its grip on its colonies, began to leave a mass of different types of people all left to re-find their place in the world. In short, the term ‘primitive’ was one used to describe individuals who did not fit in with the western ethnocentric view of the world: white, Christian and adheres to the social expectations of upper class Britain. As all fashions and morbid interests so, the idea of ‘the primitive’ was quickly picked up and addressed by art and two such examples of this are Nevermore by Paul Gaugin and Henri Matisse’s The Blue Nude: souvenir of Biskra – both of which were painted in the end of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century period in which the subject was in mode: 1897 and 1907, respectively. In either painting, the artist presents the primitive in their natural form: both paintings depict nude women in somewhat natural surroundings – emphasising the idea of the primitive being less civilised but more ‘in touch’ with nature as a consequence. In some ways, the paintings fulfil two roles: the first being that either artist presents each figure as being beautiful in their own right – away from their status as civilised or otherwise, and secondly as fulfilling the stereotypical ideas behind the primitive as each is undressed and unconscious of their nakedness. In this sense, there is an awkwardness to each of the paintings that emulates the awkward relationship between the modern empire’s descendants and its reformed colonial members.
First, let us examine The Blue Nude: souvenir of Biskra by Henri Matisse. The painting shows a nude woman posing in an extremely awkward looking position and she is fundamentally ‘ugly’ (Erin & Samuel) in that she does not fulfil the socially contrived idea of beauty and because of this, the painting caused great offence because it is not beautiful. However, the painting’s flattened, simplistic background and the bright colours used are heavily indicative of the primitive; they are simpler and more ‘authentic’ of the primitive world (Erin & Samuel). This is an intrinsically racist view of the primitive as it plays up to stereotypes, rather than offering up its own interpretation of the more unknown portion of the world. The nude woman also has a figure which reflects the common misconception that was held of the primitive form: the statues and art that was found and made by traditional artists of that region, the primitives were all viewed as looking like that, rather than as a painting of an individual person – these statues and paintings were viewed as being representations of all the ‘primitive’ races as a whole. Matisse has encapsulated this view by presenting the woman has having exaggeratedly large buttocks and hips which became the view of how all primitive women looked (Erin & Samuel). Equally, however, the painting can be viewed as holding a sense of purity and innocence to it (Radhika) as the women is clearly unconfined, as civilisation is, by the idea of clothes and nakedness as being something to be ashamed of. As a result, the woman seems proud of her naked form – elegantly displaying herself albeit in an awkward position which looks uncomfortable.
Both of these paintings indicate a certain level of ethnocentric misunderstanding here as both portray their respective nude, primitive, female forms as fulfilling a certain expected stereotype of the primitive. However, Gaugin has tackled this idea with a higher degree of sensitivity than Matisse due to his additionally ‘three-dimensional’ background which indicates depth and involvement whereas Matisse has removed his figure from a realistic setting and awarded her with a simple, un-fussy backdrop which indicates a comment which has a degree of racism in its discussion of the simplistic nature of both the primitive person and his lifestyle. However, this appreciation for Gaugin’s attempt at rationally presenting the primitive is dismissed as upon his arrival in Tahiti, he found that the majority of the native people were no longer traditional as they had been colonialized and dressed in non-traditional clothing and encouraged to engage with Christianity. Finding that he had a problem, Gaugin dressed the people up in traditional clothes and added in some extra “European folk references” in an attempt to pass his interpretation off as the real thing (Erin & Samuel). So, in practice, whilst Gaugin may have appeared to be the more sensitive of the two, he still essentially blundered into his work and added his own sense of ethnocentrically stereotypical view of the primitive.
In conclusion, both Matisse’s Nude in Blue: souvenir of Biskra and Gaugin’s Nevermore are strong examples of the fascination held in the early Twentieth Century with the primitive. Born out of the colonial rule of the British Empire, the primitive was seen as being ‘different’ and therefore, interesting meaning that literature and the arts lapped up the idea. Gaugin is perhaps the more demonstrable of the two in this regard as he chose to move to Tahiti in order to paint interesting primitive nude women and upon finding that he’d missed the boat and that the western perception of these people was dramatically out-dated, he created his own ‘traditional’ scenes in a vain attempt to be in mode with the times. However, whilst neither of these artists manages to capture the true traditional view of the lives of ‘primitives’, they both reflect the ignorant hubris that the west exhibited over the colonial world at the time, demonstrating an excellent capture of the time and portraying how the role of the primitive featured in early Twentieth Century art.
“Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld’s alter ego? Part 2: Suggestion rather than description.” ArtandArchitecture.org. The Courtauld Institute of Art. N.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.
“Gauguin’s Nevermore voted Britain’s most romantic painting.” Roya Nikkhah. The Telegraph. 14 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.
Erin & Samuel [unknown]. “Re: Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra), Henri Matisse (French), 1907, oil on canvas, 92 × 140 cm, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore.” EffYeahArtHistory. Eff Yeah Art History!, April 2010. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.
Erin & Samuel [unknown]. “Re: Primitivism in Art.” EffYeahArtHistory. Eff Yeah Art History!, April 2010. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.
Radhika [unknown]. “Re: Matisse, Blue Nude.” Arth 340. Arth 340: Discussion. 23 Oct. 2010. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.