House Decoration in Nubia
Nuba Personal Art
Self-Decoration in Mount Hagen
Bangwa Funerary Sculpture
Since the days when Jean Jacques Rousseau shook the self-confidence of Western man, the mentality and the art of simpler societies have been a potential object of nostalgic admiration. We are just celebrating the second centenary of Goethe’s first publication, his passionate manifesto in favor of Strasbourg’s Gothic minster. The association of the term “Gothic” with the idea of barbarism made him exalt the art of a “noble savage” which he could never have seen:
And thus the savage may use weird lines, horrible shapes, strident colours for a coconut, feathers or his own body. However arbitrary these forms, they will harmonise without his knowing anything about the laws of proportion, for it was one single emotion that fused them into one significant whole. This significant art is the only true one.
Three generations later that eloquent reformer of Victorian design Owen Jones opened his sumptuous volume The Grammar of Ornament (1857) with an illustration of the tattooed head of a Maori woman.
In this very barbarous practice the principles of the very highest monumental art are manifest, every line upon the face is best adapted to develop the natural features…. the ornament of a savage tribe, being the result of a natural instinct, is necessarily. always true to its purpose….if we would return to healthy conditions, we must even be as little children or savages; we must get rid of the acquired and artificial….
These were the portents of an intellectual movement that was to convince Gauguin at the end of the century that sophistication suffocated creativity and made him leave for the Fortunate Isles for solace and inspiration. Soon even the stay-at-homes were falling under the spell of “primitive art,” prompting the aestheticians to pay increasing attention to these outlandish products. Most of them were steeped in the evolutionist theory which saw in tribal societies something like living fossils, preserving an earlier phase of human mentality. Like the art of the child, the art of the “primitives” thus offered the key to the understanding of “origins.”
We owe it to aesthetic primitivism and anthropological evolutionism that our collections are comparatively rich in products of tribal crafts and that picture books on the subject are plentiful. But both tendencies have also imposed a reading of these exotic styles that calls for revision in the light of more detailed knowledge. Briefly, they have tempted commentators to dwell on those features that distinguish all tribal images from those of the classical tradition—but however much this negative approach may be couched as a commendation of styles that are not naturalistic, not courting sensuous beauty or mathematical proportions, it still remains “ethnocentric.” We have heard too much of the contrast between our approach and that of “the” primitive artist and less than enough about individual tribal craftsmen and the conditions under which their works took shape. Took—for we all know that the sands are running out. The traditions of tribal crafts are rapidly disappearing, and even where they…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.