… The New Guinea artist, on the other hand, tends to find his monsters more nearly “ready-made” in the very substance of nature.
Continuing through the essay ‘Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction’ by the book’s editor in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern edited by William Rubin (1984):
… We experience the entire history of past art in varying degrees fragmentarily and largely shorn of context. Few artists who appreciated Egyptian or Japanese art knew any more about its purpose or its cultural context than they did about that of Africa or Oceania. This ethnocentrism is a function nevertheless of one of modernism’s greatest virtues: its unique approbation of the arts of other cultures. Ours is the only society that has prized a whole spectrum of arts of distant and alien cultures. Its consequent appropriation of these arts has invested modernism with a particular vitality that is a product of cultural cross-fertilization.
[ … ]
… Picasso associated the return to fundamentals with the rediscovery of that direct magical affectiveness he knew to be the inherent power of the visual arts, an affectiveness with which the Western tradition [i.e. the increasingly complex and recondite modernism] had somehow lost contact. The “revelation” of this magic had come to him on his first visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro.
… As all tribal art — given its tendency to frontality and symmetry — is more “iconic” than “narrative,” it is probably hazardous to distinguish between African and Oceanic art on the score of storytelling. Nevertheless, most Oceanic and all Northwest Coast sculpture (a special favorite of the Surrealists) seems to me to have a more visible if symbolic relation to narrative statement than African art. To this extent, we can understand why Cubism, which is an “iconic art,” would lead its makers to Africa, while Surrealism, which is a symbolically “storytelling” art, would lead its practitioners to Melanesia, Micronesia, and the Americas.
To put this in another form, I would hazard the generalization that, relatively speaking, Oceanic and Northwest Coast art leans toward the expression of myth, while that of Africa leans toward that of ritual. Whether ritual is abstracted from myth or, as some anthropologists feel, mythology is elaborated from ritual, need not concern us here, for simply in terms of the nature of the modes, we can say that ritual is more inherently “abstract” than myth. Thus, the more ritually oriented African work would again appeal to the Cubist, while the more mythic content of the Oceanic/American works would engage the Surrealist. This does not mean, to be sure, that mythical personages are wholly absent from African art; on the contrary, there are some examples of them. Rather, they appear in that art more in the spirit of the way they are called forth in liturgy than in the sequential storytelling manner of the myth, which — to the extent it can be accommodated in sculpture — leads to composite or totem-pole-like agglomerations such as are more common in Oceania and on the Northwest Coast than in Africa.
… While there are numerous hybrids of men and animals among African masks and figure sculptures, they tend conceptually to be further removed, further abstracted from nature than the more ubiquitous monsters of the Melanesian peoples. Relative to many Oceanic arts, African sculpture could almost be characterized in terms of a prevailing anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, both qualities of the Classic. The New Guinea artist, on the other hand, tends to find his monsters more nearly “ready-made” in the very substance of nature. Nowhere in African art, for example, do we find anything comparable to the malevolent hybrid Imunus of the Papuan Gulf region, which are largely made up of branches or roots of trees. The result of this “natural selection” is an accident-accommodating, meandering, linear object, the near formlessness of whose contours is antipodal to African aesthetic ideals.
But not to modern taste — especially that of the Surrealists, who particularly liked such objects.
To be continued.
My previous post from this book is here.