What is primitivism? Lovejoy & Boas, Gauguin and the myth of Tahiti

It turns out the term ‘primitivism’ as we use it in our research project is pretty unknown, even to fellow cultural historians. High time to do some explaining, therefore! What do we mean by ‘primitivism’, how do we define it in our research?


Paul Gauguin, D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (1897)

Most art historians immediately associate the term with the early 20th century art movement that turned to non-western or prehistoric art forms and folklore for inspiration, admiring its simplicity and visual power. But it often went much further than just borrowing primitive art motifs: Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) in particular proved himself a child of the 18th century type of primitivism we study in our project. This form of primitivism was not merely concerned with art and aesthetics, but entailed a philosophy pervading many other aspects of life as well. The phenomenon was thoroughly explored by Arthur Lovejoy, initiator of the discipline of the History of Ideas, and George Boas, in their scholarly classic Primitivism and related ideas in Antiquity (1935).

In the first chapter, Lovejoy and Boas distinguish between two types of primitivism: cultural and chronological. The first kind is again divided into ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ primitivism, a distinction taken over in the third volume of the Dictionary of the History of Ideas (1968). Here, George Boas defines ‘Primitivism’ and the four slightly different manifestations of it as follows:

PRIMITIVISM is a name for a cluster of ideas arising from meditations on the course of human history and the value of human institutions and accomplishments. It is found in two forms, chronological and cultural, each of which may exist as ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ primitivism.

Chronological primitivism maintains that the earliest stage of human history was the best, that the earliest period of national, religious, artistic, or in fact any strand of history was better than the periods that have followed, that childhood is better than maturity. In short, it argues that to discover the best stage of any historical series one must return to its origins. Primitive man, for instance, was better than civilized man, primitive Christianity was better than later developments of Christianity, the arts of savages and children are better than those of educated men and adults.

Cultural primitivism maintains that whatever additions have been made to what is called the ‘natural’ condition of mankind have been deleterious. Unfortunately the meanings of the natural are so multiple that cultural primitivists vary widely in what they consider to be the state of nature […].

Hard primitivism is the doctrine that man is happiest when he is not burdened with arts and sciences, lives with the fewest possible needs, is satisfied with the simplest of lives. A cave suffices for a house, acorns for food, the skins of wild beasts for clothing, a heap of dried leaves for a bed. The hard primitivist is likely to hold up the animals as exemplars; for they ask, he will say, nothing more than Mother Nature has given them at birth. […] he may … believe that men are overburdened with unnecessary desires and that they should ‘return to Nature’ or to the ‘simple life’.

Soft primitivism maintains that the best life is the life without toil, the sort of life that was sometimes depicted as characteristic of the islands of the South Seas where the climate is gentle, the earth spontaneously productive, the animals friendly, the sea full of fish easily caught. Soft primitivism often accompanies chronological primitivism, as it did in the legend of the Golden Age or in one version of life before the Fall.

With this definition in hand, Gauguin’s biography reveals him to have been quite sensitive to primitivist ideas, especially of the soft, cultural variety. After having spent some time at Martinique in 1887, for instance, he started calling himself a ‘savage’ (which he demonstrated by drinking too much and assaulting friends), claimed to have Inca blood, and took an interest in ‘primitive’ subjects: Breton peasants, Caribbean blacks.[1] In 1891 he moved to the French colony of Tahiti, in the hope of escaping the complexities and artificiality of European civilization and technology, and finding moral innocence (not to mention sexual freedom) instead. The reality turned out to be somewhat disappointing, but that didn’t prevent Gauguin from serving his European audience ‘authentic’ images of Tahitian life, often with titles in the local dialect, in a new and influential style that was in fact the only truly authentic part of the myth he spun.[2]

Gauguin-DouVenonsNous detail bloemaert-1603-golden-age detail Joachim-Wtewael-1605-golden-age detail

His paintings appealed to a series of ideas and precepts that had been (re-)introduced into the Western European mind by the eighteenth century. Tahiti was presented in the familiar visual mould of Arcadia, pastoral paintings, and depictions of the classical legend of the Golden Age, as is especially visible in the panel above. Compare this painting to, for instance Joachim Wtewael’s interpretation of the Golden Age (1605), that of Abraham Bloemaert (1603), or that of Bernard Picart.

Even more revealing is its title, which consists of three questions that are central to primitivist thinking: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? To Gauguin and other primitivists these questions are intricately connected. After all, what things are can be known by examining where they come from; and this knowledge should inform where they are going. Gauguin’s paintings are a prime example of the riches that such a line of thought can yield, even if he essentially treated the first two questions in reverse. This is a circular reasoning often seen in 18th century thought as well. Like Gauguin, many authors of that era formulated conjectures on ‘where things come from’ via a preconceived notion of ‘what things are’, and tracing back its genealogy to its beginnings. Thus, Gauguin’s art in a sense becomes ‘more primitive than the primitives’, as it was based on a western expectation of what a primitive visual style looked like.


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