“There is, however, in art another kind of external similarity which is founded as a fundamental truth. When there is similarity of inner tendency in the whole moral and spiritual atmosphere, a similarity of ideals, at first closely pursued but later lost to sight, a similarity in the inner feeling of any one period to that of another, the logical result will be a revival of the external forms which served to express those inner feelings in an earlier age. An example of this today is our sympathy, our spiritual relationship, with the Primitives. Like ourselves, these artists sought to express in their work only internal truths, renouncing in consequence all consideration of external form.”
“Of course, with the passing of time these sweeping operations got a little harder to perform. As the 1960s began to lengthen into the 1970s and “sculpture” began to be piled of thread waste on the floor, sawed redwood timbers rolled into the gallery, or tons of earth excavated from the desert, or stockades of logs surrounded by fire pits, the word sculpture became harder to pronounce—but not really that much harder. The historian/critic simply performed a more extended sleight-of-hand and began to construct his genealogies out of the data of millennia rather than decades. Stonehenge, the Nazca lines, the Toltec ball courts, Indian burial mounds—anything at all could be hauled into court to bear witness to this work’s connection to history and thereby to legitimize the status as sculpture. Of course Stonehenge and the Toltec ballcourts were just exactly not sculpture, and so their role as historicist precedent becomes somewhat suspect in this particular demonstration. But never mind. The trick can still be done by calling upon a variety of primitivizing work from the earlier part of the century—Brancusi’s Endless Column will do—to mediate between extreme past and present.”
““Primitive,” “Sunday,” “naive” painting, begins with the Industrial Age. Amid the decay of folk art, picture-making—more exactly, easel painting—provided a new outlet for plebeian “artistic energy.” A German scholar—or at least one who writes in German—Nicola Michailow, offers this idea in an article that is a landmark in the field. The practitioners of Laienmalerei (layman’s painting), as Dr. Michailow calls it, belong mostly to the petty bourgeoisie, that much maligned class which more than any other has inherited the “primeval creative urge of the Volk.” (Dr. Michailow is writing in Nazi Germany, but the smell of these terms is typically German before it is typically Nazi.) The layman painter is usually too poor or too isolated, or both, to acquire sophistication in his art. That one of the first “primitives” on record was a king of Prussia, Frederick William I (father of another nonprofessional artist, Frederick the Great, flautist and composer), does not conflict with this.”
“Representation of animal form is one of the oldest arts known going back to remote Stone Age with its characteristic animal conceptions. The insight and close observation of animal life shown in those early attempts are matters of significant interest.”
“When we speak of the primitive condition of mankind, we all too easily confound it with the latter’s ideal condition, and again and again dream, like Rousseau, of a lost Paradise of humanity in which all created things dwelt together in happy innocence and harmony. Yet this ideal condition has nothing to do with the primitive condition.”
“The burial chambers of Neanderthal man hold this fundamental significance for us: they testify to the consciousness of death, the awareness of the tragic fact that man can, that he must, founder in death. But we can only be sure of this passage from instinctual sexual activity to eroticism with respect to the period when our fellow creature appeared, this man of the late Paleolithic, the first who was in no way inferior physically and who was perhaps, and we must indeed assume so, possessed of mental resources similar to our own. There is even nothing to prove that this very early man suffered from the (in fact very superficial) inferiority which we attribute to those we sometimes call “savages” or “primitives.” Are not the paintings of his era, which are the first known painting, comparable at times to the works of art in our museums?
Neanderthal man manifested one more inferiority which distinguished him from us. Without doubt, like us (and like his ancestors) he stood in an upright position. But he still kept his legs a little bent and furthermore he did not walk “like a human;” he stepped on the ground with the edge of his foot and not the sole. He had a low forehead, a protuberant jaw, and his neck was not, like ours, long and slender. It is even logical to imagine him as being covered with hair as are apes and mammals in general.
We really do not know anything about the disappearance of this archaic man, except that our fellow creature occupied unchanged the regions that Neanderthal man had peopled. For example, he fourished in the Valley of Vézère and in other regions (in the southwest of France and the north of Spain) where numerous traces of his admirable talents have been discovered. The birth of art, in fact, followed upon the physical completion of the human being.”
“Paleolithic narrative art? Perhaps the most perplexing painting in all the Paleolithic caves is the one deep in the well shaft at Lascaux, where man (as opposed to woman) makes one of his earliest appearances in prehistoric painting. At the left is a rhinoceros, rendered with all the skilled attention to animal detail customarily seen in cave art. Beneath its tail are two rows of three dots of uncertain significance. At the right is a bison, more crudely painted, but the artist quite successfully suggested the bristling rage of the animal, whose bowels are hanging from it in a heavy coil. Between the two beasts is a bird-faced (masked?) man (compare the feline-headed human from Hohlenstein-Stadel) with outstretched arms and hands with only four fingers. The artist depicted the man with far less care and detail than the animals, but made his gender explicit by the prominent penis. Perhaps the painter did not have to strive for a realistic portrayal because the community had no need to create humans for magical or other purposes. The position of the man is also ambiguous. Is he wounded or dead or merely tilted back and unharmed? Do the staff(?) with the bird on top and the spear belong to him? Is it he or the rhinoceros who has gravely wounded the bison—or neither? Which animal, if either, has knocked the man down, in indeed he is on the ground? Are these three images related at all? Art historians can be sure of nothing, but if the painter placed these figures beside each other to tell a story, then this is evidence for the creation of complex narrative compositions involving humans and animals at a much earlier date than anyone had imagined only a few generations ago. Yet it is important to remember that even if a story was intended, very few people would have been able to “read” it. The painting, in a deep shaft, is very difficult to reach and could have been viewed only in the flickering light of a primitive lamp.”
“All that remains to us of the great civilization of ancient American is their ‘art’. I have put the word in quotation marks not because these mysterious buildings and images lack beauty—some of. Them are quite fascinating—but because we should not approach them with the idea that they were made for the sake of pleasure or ‘decoration’. The terrifying carving od a death head from an altar of the ruins of Copan in present-day Honduras, figure 27, reminds us of the gruesome human sacrifices which were demanded by the religions of these peoples. However little may be known about the exact meaning of such carvings, the thrilling efforts of the scholars who have discovered these works and have trued to get at their secrets have taught us enough to compare them with other works of primitive cultures. Of course, these people were not primitive in the usual sense of the word. When the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors of the sixteenth century arrived, the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru ruled over mighty empires. We also know that in earlier centuries the Mayas of Central American had built the big cities and developed a system of writing and of calculating calendars which is anything but primitive. Like the Negroes of Nigeria, the Pre-Columbian Americans were perfectly capable of representing the human face in a lifelike manner. The ancient Peruvians liked to shape certain vessels in the form of human heads which are strikingly true to nature, figure 29. If most works of these civilizations look remote and unnatural to us, the reason lies in the ideas they are meant to convey.”
“First is the problem of the projection of this outsider-other. In Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (1983) Johannes Fabian argues that anthropology was founded on a mythical mapping of time onto space based on two presumptions: “1. Time is immanent to, hence coextensive with, the world (or nature, or the universe, depending on the argument); 2. Relationships between parts of the world (in the widest sense of both natural and sociocultural entities) can be understood as temporal relations. Dispersal in space reflects directly, which is not to say simply or in obvious ways, sequence in Time.” With space and time thus mapped onto one another, “over there” became “back then,” and the most remote (as measured from some Greenwich Mean of European Civilization) became the most primitive. This mapping of the primitive was manifestly racist: in the Western white imaginary its site was always dark.””
“(2) The development from plan to recession. Classic art reduces the parts of a total form to a sequence of planes, the baroque emphasizes depth. Plane is the element of line, extension in one plane the form of the greatest explicitness: with the discounting of the contour comes the discounting of the plane, and the eue relates objects exsentially in the direction of forwards and backwards. This is no qualitative difference: with a greater power of representing spatial depths, the innovation has nothing directly to do: it signifies rather a radically different mode of representation, just as ‘plane style’ in our sense is not the style of primitive art, but makes its appearance only at the moment in which foreshortening and spatial illusion are completely mastered.”
‘The Primitives’ Revenge’ pairs reproductions of ancient pictographs from Hueco Tanks in West Texas with hand-transcribed passages from art historical texts where the term “primitive” appears.
December 2018 - February 2019
December 2018 - February 2019
‘The Primitives’ Revenge’ was shown alongside ‘WORK AS ART,’ installations of class notes from undergraduate art history and philosophy courses. Additionally, the exhibition included a handwritten transcription of Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s “Tlilli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink.”