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Primitivism: A Study of Cultural Appropriation

Primitivism was a breath of fresh air for the modern art movement. German and Russian artists such as Max Pechstein, Otto Müller, and Alexej Jawlensky admired the simplified sculptural forms of African and Oceanic scultptures, apparently mysterious religious rituals, and ostensible freedom from modern amenities of non-Western cultures. They saw these so-called exotic forms as the solution for the stagnation of modern European culture and academic art tradition. They applied elements from Oceanic and African cultures — as well as rural European folk traditions —  to Arcadian scenes of humans harmonious with nature to suggest a connection between the simplicity of rural life and the authenticity of their emotions. However, this idealized notion that non-Western cultures were closer to nature was just a projection of the superiority complex of European artists. Artists who incorporated these so-called primitive elements did not attempt to learn their historical or cultural contexts; rather, they appropriated the aesthetic qualities of religious and cultural objects to fit their own ideologies of a so-called primitive utopia.

The three artists in this exhibition appropriated elements from a variety of cultures. Otto Müller’s studio painting Three Girls in a Wood, c. 1920 (Fig. 1) depicts a scene of nude women amongst a lush forest. However, this space is clearly an artificial place constructed in the studio, where these perfectly arranged women coexist with nature on single plane of burlap. These figures, whose faces are a pastiche of non-Western visual elements, exist in absolute harmony in their clearly artificial triangular formation. Müller appropriates the geometricized, outlined forms from Egyptian and Indian friezes — the most simple, “primitive” way a figure can be rendered. In Spring, 1912 (Fig. 2), Alexej Jawlensky incorporates both African and Byzantine visual elements to create a female allegorical figure. The geometrized facial features of an African mask are applied to the iconic format of a Byzantine Madonna, which suggest that non-Western and Russian peasant women share an inherent affinity for nature. He uses bright, Fauve-like colors to connect the woman — the allegorical figure of spring — to a season of rebirth and fertility. The last work, Pechstein’s Sunset (1921 (Fig. 3) depicts Oceanic women dancing and facing the sun overcome with euphoria. However, Pechstein strips them of their individualistic features and costumes them in European dress. Like Spring, the title of this work references these cultures supposed connection with nature.

In search of an escape from the confines of art academies and the urbanity of modern Germany, all three artists turned to either “primitive” art or folk wart to invigorate a sense of originality into their works. However, this notion that the “crude” forms of non-Western or folk art were more authentic was only an extension of the stereotypes already existing of cultures outside of urban Germany. While Müller imagined an artificial space where women were as “natural” as the burlap they were painted on, Jawlensky and Pechstein combined elements from non-Western and folk art to imply that they shared a sense of simplicity and intrinsic emotional connection to nature. 


Jenica Wang