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The Last Humanist

What readers have before them now is therefore a recapitulation of earlier work, and the attempt to justify my starting-point with Cicero in a series of further chapters. It will be seen that the theme occupied me for more than forty years, a period during which other writers also took on the problem of primitivism. I can only hope that despite this competition I still have something to say.

The problem, perhaps, is that he has too much. The first thing he has to do, before getting entangled in so vastly defined a subject, is to sort out the forms that “primitivism”—everything that the “old masters” Raphael and Michelangelo, Dürer and Rembrandt, Velázquez, Constable, Picasso before Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, were not—can take. It is a category that has had as exemplars both the slick and saccharine, semipornographic works of Bouguereau and Bonnencontre, the “Turkish delight” travesties of Raphael and Botticelli, and the severe, masculinist simplicities of David or Cato, Mondrian or the Delphi Appolines, to say nothing of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Madonna of Lourdes, Saul Steinberg, and an Olmec head. Such a list obviously raises serious questions of differences and similarities, of just what it is that connects such original artists and works. “Primitive,” as he himself asks in his troubled and equivocal closing chapter, “Primitive—in what Sense?”

Again, the sense he gives is psychological. “Primitivism” is an attitude, a turn of mind, an inclination, a preference; an interior thing. It is not, or anyway not primarily, a matter of intention, artistic or otherwise. Neither Thucydides nor Fra Angelico, and certainly not the Olmec stone carver or whoever made the Delphi statues, saw himself as “primitive.” It is others, later or elsewhere, who have regarded them as such and, for reasons in need of exposure and explanation, praised or disparaged them for being so. Nor is it simply a matter of (the lack of) artistic skill, sophistication, polish. Neither David nor Picasso after Les Demoiselles, and certainly not Steinberg (“no artist alive…knows more about… representation”), or Manet, can be said to be inept, unknowing, or maladroit. They are reacting against what they take to be the received, the vacant, the timid, the solemn, or the meretricious—the worn vanities of style. It is, as we say, a matter of taste. Choosing acorns when grain is available.

Taste” may or may not be disputable, but, like Cicero, Gombrich is no relativist and thinks that it is, and that much of what passes for “art” these days (Duchamp’s urinal, “an exhibition of canned excrement displayed as ‘merde d’artiste,’” the bizarre productions of mental patients) is mere hoax or provocation. Anyone who prefers Disney’s elephant to Rembrandt’s,or the windows at Bourges to those at Chartres, a similar difference, actually, is simply mistaken. But unlike the making-and-matching evolution of artistic technique and expressive power, whether in the caveman’s glyphs or Caravaggio’s lighting, taste is essentially and inescapably a subjective phenomenon; personal, emotional, judgmental, as changeable as a mood or a political opinion. It inheres in the mind, not in the ob-ject. It is (part of) “the beholder’s share”:

In the terminology of modern market research, what I call the “preference for the primitive” would probably be described as a matter of consumer choice. It is the consumer of art, the art lover, who prefers one kind of style or of art over others. On a journey to Italy he will seek out the so-called “primitives,” and turn away from the products of later periods.
What then accounts for the directions this “preference for the primitive” takes? Why, in particular, again and again, the vogue for the hieratic, the exotic, the ingenuous, the wild, or the demotic? Why, having seen what Raphael, “The Prince of the Painters,” could do with modeling, grouping, and graded color, did Victorian taste turn back toward the flattened and fleshless Fra Angelico? How could Brancusi’s minimalist, blocked-in Kiss have emerged from the tangled, theatrical one of (his teacher) Rodin? Why Manet after Ingres? Picasso after Manet? Pollock after Picasso? Is Lichtenstein’s exaltation of kitsch and the comic strip the end of the line, or is there more to come?


It is these last, “contemporary,” “abstract,” “modern,” or now (though he doesn’t use the term) “postmodern” cases that most concern Gombrich, deepen his worries about the effects that “primitivism” is having on “civilization.” The long and lumbering history he traces from the craft mimeticism of Plato, Aristotle, and the ancients, through medieval rigidities, mannerist distortions, Napoleonic poses, and romantic sentimentalities (a page on the Gothic Revival, two on Vico, a half on the French Revolution), is all so much prelude to what really seems to threaten both the future of Kultur and the progress of Wissenschaft: “[The] movement of taste that came to its climax during my lifetime…[the reaction] of twentieth-century primitivism [against] those disciplines of self-control civilization demands.” Until the last century, his century, the “lure of regression,” the deliberate abandonment of skill and technique, was held reasonably well in check, and even put, on occasion, in satire or caricature, to limited and productive uses. Since then, however, it has come near, like a massive return of the repressed, to taking over the arts, whole and entire:

Get rid of your skill, of all you have learnt.”…Hogarth’s and Baudelaire’s message certainly appealed to the twentieth century, and to no one more than to Pablo Picasso, whose art may serve…as a paradigm…. Visiting an exhibition of children’s drawings he said to his companions…: “When I was a child I drew like Raphael. I have been trying to draw like these children ever since.”…I hope I am not over-interpreting if I suggest that Picasso tried to revert to primitive elementals [he is speaking of the gored horse in Guernica, “something a newspaper cartoonist might also have done”] precisely because he found his skill obtrusive.

Picasso is, indeed, the testing case: he bears all the earmarks, all the scorings. He is a great painter (the only modern, except, and with similar reservations, possibly van Gogh, whom Gombrich seems ready to admit into that narrowed category). “In the turbulent years before the First World War, [he] suddenly threw overboard all the skill and refinement which had informed his masterpieces of the ‘blue’ period” and turned to the nervous disorderings of avant-garde experiment, taking the whole age with him. And, most consequentially of all, he introduced the literally “primitive”—tribal masks and tribal idols—into Western high art. It was not, as William Rubin argued in the catalog to the famous 1984 “‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth Century Art” exhibition he curated as his curtain call at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “‘conceptualization’ [that] Picasso was after when he transformed the face of the prostitute [in the Demoiselles] into the semblance of a tribal mask.” What Rubin takes to be but a “shift,” if admittedly a “fundamental” one, was, for Gombrich, “not so much the result of an evolution as a radical revolt, [it was] a deep-going revolution destined to change the mental set with which art was intended to be perceived.” A long history of change in degree became, at length, a change in kind: “The idea of the ‘primitive’ in art or in civilization has become increasingly problematic to [the twentieth] century since we have lost the faith in the superiority of our own culture.”

Here, finally, we have the crux. “The preference for primitivism” is not a matter of a return to earlier, simpler “forms of mentality.” Following the example of the American anthropologist Franz Boas’s 1907 classic, Primitive Art, and just about every serious writer on tribal art since, Gombrich has no use for any attempt to arrange differently based cultural expressions in an ascending scale, or for any notion that tribal peoples think, see, or feel in ways radically other than the ways in which we do. “The primitive” is neither a rudimentary stage in universal history nor a juvenile one in individual development. There is no analogy to be drawn between the childish, the mad, the tribal, and “what we call ‘modern’ art.” They are altogether different sorts of “mental sets,” and however much the last may draw on the others for means or inspiration, its ways of being “primitive” are not theirs. “Makers of primitive images should not be characterized as primitive species of the human race…. [But] I cannot see any harm in calling [an] image ‘primitive’ as long as we do not call the artist so.”

Within the frame of Western Civilization, which, as for his fellow Warburgians, is the real object of his solicitude, love, and worry, “primitivism” is a sort of autoimmune response against that civilization’s own achievements. Hence, all the talk, vaguely disparaging, in A Preference for the Primitive, about “the lure of regression,” “the revolt against the disciplines of self-control that civilization demands,” “the obtrusiveness of his own skills,” “loss of faith in the superiority of our own culture,” “the deliberate abandonment of technique,” “the throwing overboard of refinement,” and “the revulsion from the perfection art is supposed to aim at.” Everywhere in our history, and increasingly to the point of crisis in modern times, there is a kind of natural backward-falling, a yielding to the simple and the schematic in the face of technical advance and elaboration, of sophistication, poise, and formal elegance.

There is, he says, in image-making as in physical space, a “law of gravity” that pulls against the active motion of things. In modern art, as in ancient or medieval, “the action of gravitational pull,” the reduction of the complex to the simple, “can never be left out of account”:

Given the fact that there are very few psychological laws of any validity, I think we must regard [the “law of gravitation” in image-making”] with some interest. It justifies, does it not, speaking of certain structural features in images which we are entitled to describe as “primitive”?

That all this effort, forty years of reflection on the topic, a determined, impeccably erudite search for the roots of our disorder, should come, in the end, to such a flaccid and unhelpful conclusion, a mock “law” drawn out of a homemade “psychology” (opium puts you to sleep because it has dormitive powers, entrepreneurial drive arises from the aggressive instinct), is, of course, more than a little sad. One feels quite let down by such an impoverished scientism built over a judgmental base. But it is instructive as well. At a time when the grand opposition of civilization and barbarism is becoming again a common coin of both cultural and political discussion, and all sorts of public figures are trying to tell us where the boundary between them lies and what it consists in, it will be well to keep in mind the dubiousness of the whole Ariel and Caliban procedure. We need to find in “primitivism,” whatever it may or may not be, something other than the image of our fears.

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