The desire of the "civilized" to be restored to a "state of nature" is as old as civilization itself   

The idea of Primitivism is a utopian thought that is distinct for its reverse Teleology. The artists following primitivism aspire to lie in a national "state of nature" in which their ancestors existed (chronological primitivism), or in the supposed natural condition of the peoples that live beyond "civilization" (cultural primitivism).  

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What is Primitivism?  

Primitivism is a mode of aesthetic idealization that tries to emulate or recreate "primitive" experience. In Western art, primitivism has been borrowed from non-Western or pre-historic people perceived to be "primitive", such as Paul Gauguin's inclusion of Tahitian motifs in paintings and ceramics. This is very important to the development of modern art. Primitivism has often been critiqued for reproducing the racist stereotypes about non-European peoples used by Europeans to justify colonial conquest.   

The idea of Primitivism gained momentum with the onset of industrialization and the European encounter with hitherto unknown peoples after the colonization of the Americas, the Pacific and other parts of what would become the modern imperial system.  

History of Primitivism:  

Started in the 19th century, Primitivism is an aesthetic movement that borrowed visual forms from non-western or pre-historic art. Several European artists started painting flat bright colours, which were used in a typical rough manner. This raw and unfinished way was inspired by African tribal art. They believed that society was moving away from the roots of its traditions and losing touch with its roots. Thus, primitive art was born when paintings started containing basic elements from foreign distant lands.  

The two phenomena which helped a great deal in the growth of Primitivism were:  

  1. The so-called Age of Discovery brought the Europeans into close contact with a wide array of previously unknown cultures from other regions like Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The military and technological advantages of the West resulted in new social and economic relations within these cultures.   
  2. The primitivist attitudes were fostered by the aftermaths of the scientific and Industrial Revolutions and the various social, economic, and political changes that accompanied these revolutions during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Its effects were seen within a few hundred years. The traditional patterns based on religion and agriculture were updated. The age-old faiths were getting displaced by science, and the manual work was getting replaced by machines. Many people started migrating from villages to cities and started working in factories rather than on farms.   

Impact of Primitivism:  

The work of Primitivism had a profound impact on modern Western art. When Picasso discovered the tribal art from Africa, it was lauded as an important influence on his painting in general and was a major factor which led his art to Cubism.  

One of the major aims of Primitivism was a search for a simple and more basic way of life something similar to life led by primitive man. This was a clear movement away from restrictions of modern society and urban sophistication of the West. It is only due to the interest and appreciation of these artists that once seem as primitive art, primitivism is now seen at par with western art forms.   


The term Primitivism is used to describe the fascination of early modern European artists with what was then called primitive art – including tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art.