Museums, Colonial Legacies, and Contemporary Art, Part 2: Primitivism and the Division of “Modern” and “Traditional”

October 12, 2020

By Saga Beus

An examination of the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial 1984 exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern helps put the relationship between Western art history and non-Western art into historical perspective. The exhibition centered on the Primitivist movement that emerged in Europe at the turn of the 20th century and was associated with artists—such as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso—who were inspired by anthropological artifacts from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. MoMA paired works by these artists with formally similar non-Western art pieces: Matisse’s bronze sculpture Jeannette V (1916) with a Bambara seated figure owned by the artist, and Picasso’s Guitar (1912) with two Grebo masks. Centering the conversation in European art history, this approach gave scant thought to the specific cultural contexts of the non-Western works. In a famously scathing review in Artforum, critic Thomas McEvilley ripped into this organizational schema for misleadingly displaying the non-Western works as fine-art objects and for omitting indigenous voices and contexts. McEvilley’s critique inspired one of the central questions tackled in my thesis: What does it mean to frame an object as “art” rather than as an anthropological artifact? And what do we miss by doing so?

Installation view (2020) of Henri Matisse, Jeannette V, 1916. Bronze, 22 7/8 x 8 3/8 x 10 5/8 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Author

To answer this question, we must first examine the origins of the categories “art” and “artifact,” a division that corresponds not only with the disciplines of art and anthropology, but also with the separation of the world’s cultures into “modern” and “traditional.” The roots of these definitions lie in the Age of Exploration and in Western colonization of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania (between the 15th and 19th centuries). This period of encounters with indigenous peoples, characterized by the violent acquisition of land, resources, and labor, also saw wholesale looting of indigenous material culture. Colonization was often justified through racist declarations of European intellectual, technological, and biological superiority. Thus, Europe came to be defined as the “modern” world, one associated with technology, reason, history, and civilization, while the rest of the world was seen as embodying the “traditional” or “tribal,” described in the West as underdeveloped, irrational, culturally static, and uncivilized. In this way, a hierarchical and evolutionary view of human culture and biology took root in Europe and the United States, bolstered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Social Darwinism, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, and racial biology.

Against this intellectual and scientific backdrop developed a Primitivist movement infused with nostalgia for the supposedly simpler and more classical styles that permeated art and literature from the Renaissance to the Romantic period. Of the Primitivist artists, Paul Gauguin perhaps best embodies this rejection of mechanized urban life in Europe for an exoticized, idyllic one in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Such romanticization of the pastoral and natural worlds is ultimately derived from the concept of the “noble savage” found in Romantic literature. Gauguin, in fact, proclaimed himself a “savage,” seeking freedom from European social restrictions in the Pacific, a freedom he exploited in his art.[1] Yet he never entirely freed his paintings from European perspectives, instead depicting Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands as lush paradises populated with beautiful and naïve natives, untouched by “civilization,” an image promoted by France to mask colonialism’s atrocities, including cultural destruction. Despite his apparent love for the Pacific as an anti-Europe, Gauguin actively supported the French colonial project, and his works were later displayed in the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris, which sought to increase interest in the country’s overseas possessions and instill a positive view of colonization.

Paul Gauguin, Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary), 1891. Oil on canvas, 44 3/4 x 34 1/2 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951
This painting was included in MoMA’s “Primitivism” exhibition and exemplifies Gauguin’s signature mix of European and Pacific Island imagery.

In the 20th century, as the art world gradually expanded, more works began moving from anthropological collections into the art sphere. Artists of the Primitivist movement are often credited with sparking European interest in non-Western works as art objects. Picasso, for example, was inspired by a visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1907, marveling at the evocative and formal qualities of the works, and later remarking that “primitive sculpture has never been surpassed.”[2] Eight decades later, MoMA’s “Primitivism” exhibition of 1984 intended to present Western and non-Western art on an equal footing by framing all of the works as artistic masterpieces. What soon became clear, however, was that moving works from an anthropological context into an art context was less a step forward than a step sideways. The “Primitivism” exhibition largely ignored the colonial underpinnings of European encounters with non-Western art, offering analyses of formal “affinities” instead of taking a complex look at the cultural exchanges that had set the stage for the Primitivist movement. Furthermore, the non-Western works lacked contextual labels, leaving visitors to interpret them solely through a Euro-American lens. Thus, “Primitivism” did not erase barriers so much as it obscured them. Western artworks were presented as “modern art” and non-Western artifacts as “tribal art.”


[1] Kirk Varnedoe, “Gauguin,” in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, ed. William Rubin (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984), 179–180.

[2] Jaime Sabartés, Picasso: An Intimate Portrait, trans. Angel Flores (New York: Prentice Hall, 1948), 213.


Part 1 | Part 3

Saga Beus is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She received an M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University in May 2020.