What is the meaning of “Primitivism” in Art?

When a person, who considers himself/herself as a lover of art, tries to describe a piece, he/she will probably use some common sentences like “This canvas has primitive features…”, “This sculpture reminds me of primitive masks…” or “The artist is interested in the primitive rituals of some cultures…” Maybe, the use of this adjective could be a little risky, but if we use it in a correct context, it becomes a good tool in order to illustrate particular characteristics.

In general, primitivism is considered as a technical and conceptual influence that consists of a standpoint which emphasizes some facets of far cultures. This description could have a lot of viewpoints

Paul Gauguin, 1892 "What, are you jealous?"

Paul Gauguin, 1892 “What, are you jealous?”

and it could be expanded to other phenomena like folklore or children’s art.

The origin of the term dates back to the late-nineteenth century and it is more or less important depending on the artistic field in which we are interested. Experts accentuate the important role that this phenomenon plays in the creations of many artists of the twentieth century.

The first of these artists was Paul Gauguin who, more than showed some aesthetic features in his pieces, represented a totally primitivist attitude . He sacrificed everything for what he believed in. He looked for an inspiration and he finally found it in Tahiti.

However, the total assimilation of primitive characteristics took place with Pablo Picasso.In 1907, Picasso painted his famous “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the first conceptual and figural spin in his artistic career. This big change happened in 1906 when Pablo Picasso started to be familiar with African sculpture. In his biographies it was described how he suffered an “authentic exorcism” when he saw

Pablo Picasso, 1907 "Demoiselles d'Avignon"

Pablo Picasso, 1907 “Demoiselles d’Avignon”

some African pieces in the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero in Paris. In fact, in Picasso’s art we can also find connections with Iberian sculpture and with Egyptian murals.

Throughout history, lots of artists have returned to the origins of their cultures in order to make their artistic pieces. Currently, primitivism is not just a phenomenon of artistic influences or an adoption of various and different esthetic forms, but also it is a choice, a  process of learning that today, it has become part of the contemporary art scene.




Source | GOMBRICH, E.H. The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art. London: Phaidon, 2011.

More information | What became authentic Primitive Art? 

Images | Paul Gauguin  Pablo Picasso

In QAH | ¿Qué es el Primitivismo en el arte?

Author Spotlight


Bachelor Degree in History of Art by University of Valencia (2009- 2013)

Team member of “Culture & Society” in the digital portal “We Learn Today” and also I write for “Cultura y Sociedad” in “Que Aprendemos Hoy” (spanish version).

Internship in BWA Awangarda Gallery of Wroclaw (Poland).

Personal Blog: http://artspresence.blogspot.com.es/ Read Full

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