Specters of the Primitive. A Review in Three Parts

Defective Affinities

Perhaps the true appeal of what was once called “primitive art” lay not in its exoticism but in its apparent lack of historicity. For many European artists, as Meyer Schapiro perceived in 1937, the art of indigenous peoples had accrued “the special prestige of the timeless and instinctive, on the level of spontaneous animal activity, self-contained, unreflective, private, without dates and signatures, without origins or consequences except in the emotions.”[1] The singular modernity of the avant-garde depended, in other words, on the correspondingly derelict nonmodernity of the primitive. 

This self-serving myth of a timeless “affinity of the tribal and the modern” has been astonishingly long-lived.[2] In recent decades, art historians like Zoe Strother and Enid Schildkrout have punctured that illusion by attending to the colonial contexts in which the indigenous art so prized by the avant-gardes was made, circulated and received.[3] Continuing that critical lineage, Jonathan Hay’s two-part essay “Primitivism Reconsidered” exemplifies newer efforts to weave Western “modernism into a more complex fabric of interacting modernities across the globe.”[4]

Fig. 1 Mask, southwest Côte d’Ivoire. Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris, 71.1900.44.103.
Fig. 2 Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1912. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Hay’s case study is an African mask (Fig. 1) of the type that inspired Picasso’s 1912 sculpture Guitar (Fig. 2). Crafted by the Krumen people in Sassandra, Côte d’Ivoire, this mask and others like it were quintessentially products of colonialism: not only had they been produced expressly for the European market, but they also show how Krumen artisans creatively assimilated the hybrid visual environment of colonial modernity. The bold cylindrical eyeholes vividly mimic the binoculars of the foreign surveyor, while the dramatic geometry of the nasal ridge alludes to the contours of the massive steam ships upon which the coast-dwelling Krumen often served as migrant laborers.[5] By focusing on what Picasso didn’t know about “his” mask (or preferred not to ask), Hay exposes the peculiar “para-modernity” of an artifact peremptorily forced by European primitivism into the category of the primitive.[6]

Inverted Mirror

Indigenous responses to colonial realities are also at the center of the exhibition Spectral-White: The Appearance of Colonial-Era Europeans at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (1.11.2019—6.1.2020). Co-curated by Anna Katharina Brus and Anselm Franke, Spectral-White takes as its point of departure an unusual book by the dissident German ethnologist Julius Lips: The Savage Hits Back, or the White Man Through Native Eyes.[7] Written from American exile in 1937, The Savage Hits Back draws prescient links between colonialism abroad and fascism at home, professing that the true savages were to be found in the heart of Europe. The ambiguous referent of the titular “savage” is most emblematically captured by the book’s cover (Fig. 3), which reproduces a Nicobarese “fright” figure of an English soldier (Fig. 4) at such an angle that its arm seems to extend in a Nazi salute.[8]

Fig. 3 Cover of Julius E. Lips, The Savage Hits Back or the White Man through Native Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937).
Fig. 4 Unknown artist, Kareau (Fright figure), Nicobar Islands, ca. 1900. Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum 23331. © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne. Photo: Wolfgang Meier. 

Lips’s text represents at once an incipient prophecy of later postcolonial perspectives, and a decidedly compromised product of its times.[9] This unavoidable ambivalence provides an appropriately unsentimental background against which to contemplate a truly “striking” collection of seldom-seen artworks hailing from Africa, Australia, the Indian subcontinent and the Northwest Coast of North America. Spectral-White is particularly successful in reactivating the “entangled gaze” of the colonial encounter as a site of resistance, critique and humor, stressing the agency of indigenous artists even where they perforce remain anonymous.[10] Though due care is given to provenance, in most cases it proved impossible to establish anything beyond point of purchase – the works of the Yoruba carver Thomas Obejeje Odilate (ca. 1900-1952) marking a notable exception. The majority of the works about which Lips wrote and which Spectral-White brings together were, like the Krumen mask, manufactured for trade on the European market: a further testament to their entangled para-modernity.[11]

Primitivism’s Afterlives

How might we rethink the histories of literary, artistic and anthropological primitivism today, in the wake of poststructuralism and decolonialization? According to literary scholar Victor Li, the now-referentless specter of the primitive continues to haunt Western conceptions of culture, modernity and alterity, even – if not especially – in their most postmodern and postcolonial iterations.[12] On 29 October, 2019, the workshop Primitivism Now at Goldsmiths University, London grappled with this difficult inheritance and its dormant theoretical underpinnings. I will here focus on just four contributions.

Erhard Schüttpelz (Siegen) began the discussion with some pointed reflections on the relationship between “Primitivism and the Category of the Primitive,” suggesting that the exclusionary logic of High Imperialism precipitated a “boomerang effect” that paradoxically made the Primitive the de facto “placeholder of the true majority and the true universality of mankind.” At the same time, Schüttpelz offered a means of reading primitivist anthropology against the grain, arguing that theories of the “primitive mentality” à la Lucien Lévy-Bruhl are actually concerned with “different and alien forms of aesthesis,” and “still inform contemporary aesthetic theories.”[13] In the early 20th century, the concept of the primitive encompassed not only non-European natives but also children and the mentally ill — among other Others. In her talk, Nicola Gess (Basel) probed how techniques associated with modernist literary primitivism were mediated by sciences like developmental psychology and psychopathology. Under the cover of the magicalmythical or prelogical, theories of “primitive thinking” from the human sciences allowed modernist writers to substitute universal cognitive laws for the black box of Romantic genius.[14]

During the second half of the day, Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths, London) took a closer look at the strange attraction of Nietzschean tragedy for the anti-colonial poetics of Aimé Césaire and Wole Soyinka. Césaire, for example, claimed the “Dionysian” element of Greek tragedy precisely as concept of the ‘primitive’ that was entirely decoupled from indigeneity or blackness, yet was unquestionably allochronic in its construction. Toscano contrasted this Nietzschean “vision of the tragic as a matter of buried origins” with a rival conception of tragedy as “art of transitions,” teasing out the vacillating political valences of Dionysian disindividuation between these two poles. Finally, Miri Davidson (Queen Mary, London) insightfully reappraised the political primitivism of the anarchist anthropologist Pierre Clastres. While willfully theorizing Amazonian tribes like the Guayaki as positive models of a decentralized, unalienated “society against the state,” Clastres also extolled said society as a “closed system” in which “all exits are blocked,” revealing a discomfiting totalitarian undercurrent to his left-libertarian utopianism. Davidson compellingly historicized Clastres’s neo-primitivism as a product of the crisis of 1950s French Communism and a wider struggle to formulate alternatives to both Western consumerist democracy and Soviet state bureaucracy.

Where does this leave “primitivism now”? To paraphrase Davidson: as long as we continue to frame the present in terms of civilization (and/or its imminent demise), we won’t be getting away from the concept of the primitive. Much remains to be done, however, in order to truly deprovincialize primitivism. I can only agree with Schüttpelz that “the Primitive is not an exclusively modern or Western concept,” and that “it had manifold counterparts all over the world, which only ‘reciprocal anthropologies’ may entangle.” We may still be only at the beginning of realizing such a reciprocal anthropology; yet if scholarly approaches like Hay’s “Primitivism Reconsidered” and museum exhibitions like Spectral-White are any indication, the critical appeal of primitivism for us today lies precisely in its inescapable historicity. 


[1] Meyer Schapiro, “Nature of Abstract Art,” first published in Marxist Quarterly 1, no. 1, January-March 1937: 77–98; cited here from p. 20 of http://abstractpossible.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Nature-of-Abstract-Art-Schapiro-i.pdf

[2] I am here invoking the subtitle to the infamous 1984 MoMA exhibition, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art; see Jonathan Hay, “Primitivism reconsidered (Part 1): A question of attitude,” Res: Anthropology and aesthetics 67-68 (2016/2017): 61–77, here 61f.

[3] See Z. S. Strother, Humor and Violence: Seeing Europeans in Central African Art (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), and her important article “Gambama a Gingungu and the Secret History of Twentieth-Century Art,” African Arts 32, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 19–31,  92–93; and Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim. African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire (Seattle: University of Washington Press; New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1990). Further examples are mentioned in Hay 2016/2017, 62.

[4] See Hay 2016/2017, and Jonathan Hay, “Primitivism Reconsidered (Part 2): Picasso and the Krumen,” Res: Anthropology and aesthetics 69-70 (Spring-Autumn 2018): 227–250, here 249.

[5] Hay 2018, 227.

[6] Hay’s concept of the para-modern denotes a fluctuating state of simultaneous modernity and nonmodernity. See Jonathan Hay, “Double Modernity, Para-Modernity,” in Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, ed. T. Smith, O. Enwezor, and N. Condee (Durham, NC, 2008), 113–32.

[7] Lips was a professor of anthropology at the University of Cologne and director of the (now Rautenstrauch-Joest) Museum für Völkerkunde until 1933, when he was summarily dismissed from his posts due to his social-democratic politics.

[8] See Anna Katharina Brus, “Art as a Weapon: The Inverted Gaze in Julius Lips The Savage Hits Back,” ab-Original: Journal of Indigenous Studies and First Nations and First Peoples’ Cultures, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2018): 185-206, here 191.

[9] The exhibition’s wall texts go so far as to juxtapose passages from The Savage Hits Back with quotations from Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1950) and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952).

[10]  On the “entangled gaze” in the anthropology of art, see the special issue of ab-Original cited above.

[11] See Strother 2016, 8; and more extensively, Brus 2018, 195ff.

[12] Victor Li, The Neo-Primitivist Turn : Critical Reflections on Alterity, Culture, and Modernity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 34 and passim.

[13] See Schüttpelz’s pioneering monograph Die Moderne im Spiegel des Primitiven: Weltliteratur und Ethnologie (1870-1960) (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2005).

[14] In a case study of Alfred Döblin’s Amazonas-Triologie (1935-1938), for instance, Gess read the anthropomorphization of the Amazon River as a practical realization of the primitivist poetics outlined in Alfred Biese’s Philosophie des Metaphorischen (1893. See Nicola Gess, Primitives Denken: Wilde, Kinder und Wahnsinnige in der literarischen Moderne (Müller, Musil, Benn, Benjamin) (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2013). It is not insignificant that Döblin’s turn to primitivism coincides with his time of exile from Nazi Germany. 


You may also like...