Unreal Nature

June 23, 2015

Conceptual Affinity

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… Primitive objects had less to do with redirecting the history of modern painting than with reinforcing and sanctioning developments already under way.

This is from 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):

… It should come as no surprise … that much of what historians of twentieth-century art have said about the intervention of tribal art in the unfolding of modernism is wrong. Not familiar with the chronology of the arrival and diffusion of Primitive objects in the West, they have characteristically made unwarranted assumptions of influence. As an example, I cite the fact that none of the four types of masks proposed by eminent scholars as possible sources for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon could have been seen by Picasso in Paris as early as 1907 when he painted the picture. On the other hand, few experts in the arts of the Primitive peoples have more than a glancing knowledge of modern art and their occasional allusions to it sometimes betray a startling naivetĂ©.

… Prior to the 1920s, … at which time some Surrealists became amateurs of ethnology, artists did not generally know — nor evidently much care — about such matters. This is not to imply that they were uninterested in “meanings,” but rather that the meanings which concerned them were the ones that could be apprehended through the objects themselves.

(Goddess Kawe), Nukuoro, Caroline Islands

… The progressive change in the meaning of the word [Primitive] after 1906 was a function of a change in taste. Consistent with it, pre-Columbian court art enjoyed — except for Moore, the Mexican muralists, and, to a lesser extent, Giacometti — a relatively limited interest among early twentieth-century vanguard artists. Picasso was not unique in finding it too monumental, hieratic, and seemingly repetitious. The perceived inventiveness and variety of tribal art was much more in the spirit of the modernists’ enterprise.

The inventiveness just mentioned, which led in some African and Oceanic societies to an often astonishing artistic multiformity, constitutes one of the most important common denominators of tribal and modern art. Few remaining sculptures of the Dan people, to take perhaps the most startling example, are much more than a century old, yet the range of invention found in their work far outdistances that of court arts produced over much longer periods — even millennia of Ancient Egypt after the Old Kingdom. And unlike Egyptian society, which placed a positive value upon the static as regards its imagery, the Dan not only explicitly appreciated diversity but recognized the value of a certain originality.

… That many today consider tribal sculpture to represent a major aspect of world art, that Fine Arts museums are increasingly devoting galleries, even entire wings to it, is a function of the triumph of vanguard art itself. We owe to the voyagers, colonials, and ethnologists the arrival of these objects in the West. But we owe primarily to the convictions of the pioneer modern artists their promotion from the rank of curiosities and artifacts to that of major art, indeed, to the status of art at all.

… The kind of twentieth-century primitivism that relates to individual works of tribal art began to wane after World War II. Artists did not entirely stop collecting tribal sculpture or looking to it for ideas. But this object-to-object relationship has been largely displaced, especially in the last fifteen years, by a more tenuous, more elliptical, and above all, more intellectualized primitivism, which takes its inspiration primarily from ideas about the way tribal objects functioned and about the societies from which they came. Prepared to some extent by Surrealist attitudes toward the Primitive, this “Conceptual primitivism” — which includes certain hybrid objects, Earthworks, Environments, Happenings (varieties of ‘shamanistic’ theater) and other activities — draws its inspiration more from texts than works of art …

… if, on the one hand, we accept that tribal art was the most important non-Western influence on the history of twentieth-century art, we must certainly, on the other hand, dismiss the often heard claims that “Negro art engendered Cubism,” or that “Primitive art changed the whole course of modern art.” As we shall see, the changes in modern art at issue were already under way when vanguard artists first became aware of tribal art. In fact, they became interested in and began to collect Primitive objects only because their own explorations had suddenly made such objects relevant to their work. At the outset, then, the interest in tribal sculpture constituted an elective affinity.

… This still leaves open, of course, the question of precisely what happened, within the evolution of modern art, that suddenly in 1906-07 led artists to be receptive to tribal art. No doubt there is more than one right answer, but the most important reason, I am convinced, had to do with a fundamental shift in the nature of most vanguard art from styles rooted in visual perception to others based on conceptualism.

… most … modernists were not collectors at all, in the usual sense. Picasso is a case in point.

… On average, Picasso’s masks and figure sculptures were mediocre or worse; among the hundred-odd examples, there are only about half a dozen truly fine objects. These are offset not only by poor-quality carvings, but by some inauthentic “tourist” works (made by tribal artists for sale rather than for ritual purposes).

… Picasso could not have cared less. As he observed to me in regard to one mediocre example, “You don’t need the masterpiece to get the idea.” This is, of course the point. A concept or component of style is entirely accessible in second-rate examples and even, as Picasso himself observed on that occasion, in fakes.

… Picasso’s mass of Primitive sculptures, far from constituting a private museum of tribal art, was distributed around the studio more or less on a par with other objects he found visually interesting, ranging from paintings, sculptures, and textiles to musical instruments (both tribal and modern), bibelots, souvenirs, and toys. Picasso held on to this material with fetishistic devotion throughout his life.

… That tribal art influenced Picasso and many of his colleagues in significant ways is beyond question. But that it caused no fundamental change in the direction of modern art is equally true. Picasso himself put it succinctly when he said “The African sculptures that hang around my studios are more witness than models.” That is, they more bore witness to his enterprise than served as starting points for his imagery. Like the Japanese prints that fascinated Manet and Degas, Primitive objects had less to do with redirecting the history of modern painting than with reinforcing and sanctioning developments already under way. Nevertheless, Picasso — who had an instinct for the mot juste — chose his words carefully, and his “more … than” construction must be looked at with care. Though more “witnesses” than “models,” the sculptures were admittedly thus models to some extent. Hence, while first elected for their affinity to the artist’s aims, once in the studio, the tribal objects took on a dual role, and exerted some influence.




Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: