The deliberate adoption by trained artist of the styles and techniques of those operating outside mainstream art practice.

Natalia Goncharova Rabbi with Cat About 1912 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

The term Neo-Primitive refers to a Russian painting trend from 1908-12, where aspects of ‘primitive’ Russian artistic heritage were combined with the styles of European avant-garde movements. The term was defined by Alexander Shevchenko in the 1913 book, Neo-Primitivism: Its Theory, its Possibilities, its Achievements.

The Emergence of the Neo-Primitive

Neo-Primitivism emerged in Russia in around 1908, spearheaded by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. The style evolved alongside Primitivism in Europe. Both movements were anti-capitalist at their core, viewing modernism as a decline in society and national identity, seeking instead a return to ‘primitive’ styles and techniques for producing art. Van Gogh’s The Head of a Peasant Woman 1885 and Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon, 1888 are early examples of a gradual shift in interest towards a simpler, more honest way of life. By the early 1900s European artists had been striving to harness the raw, tribal power of African Masks or Pacific woodcarvings for years, as seen in Pablo Picasso and Emil Nolde’s paintings. English art critic Roger Fry wrote that African woodcarving ‘possessed (a) power not only in a higher degree than we at this moment, but than we as a nation have ever possessed...’

In contrast with their European counterparts Neo-Primitivism was nationalistic at heart, seeking the production and promotion of a distinctly unique, Russian voice that was separate from Europe. Art historian Shevchenko wrote, ‘Russia and the Orient have been indissolubly linked since the Tartar invasions, and the spirit of the Tartars, the spirit of the Orient is embedded in our lives.'

Key Influences and Ideas

In searching for a truly authentic Russian art Larionov and Goncharova looked back to a wide range of ‘primitive’ art forms from their home country, including traditional Russian folk art and lubok prints, Byzantine icons and illuminated manuscripts. Such influences were reinvented in a crude and expressive form that resembled a number of avant-garde, Western trends, such as Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism. Typical subjects painted by the Neo-Primitives were people living or working beyond the confines of the new, urban city such as Russian peasants, ethnic minorities, economic migrants, soldiers and the poor urban proletariat, such as Larionov’s Soldier in a Wood, about 1911.

The Donkey’s Tail, Target and the Knave of Diamonds

In 1910 Goncharova and Larionov were among the founders of the Russian avant-garde artist group the Knave of Diamonds. Their exhibitions included paintings by French Cubists Albert Gleizes and Henri Le Fauconnier alongside works by Russian-German artists Wassily Kandinsky and Alexey von Jawlensky. Two years later, Goncharova and Larionov broke away and co-founded the smaller, more Russian centric collective Donkey’s Tail.

Religious Subjects

Goncharova was particularly attracted to Russian icon paintings, which she saw as an important embodiment of Russian tradition. She wished to revive their transcendental quality within her own painting, creating art for a new age, filled with spiritual energy.

Goncharova was drawn to Jewish life and executed over a dozen paintings on the subject; Russian society at this time was deeply anti-Semitic and Goncharova was angered by the marginalisation of Jews. Rabbi with Cat, 1912, is one of a number of paintings where a Jew is seen cradling an animal. This painting is indebted to Russian icons, with a clear analogy between the Rabbi with Cat and the Virgin and Child.

Further Developments

Artists living and working in Russia who were influenced by the Neo-Primitive style include David Burliuk, Marc Chagall, Filonov and Kasimir Malevich, who each developed their own versions of a Russian infused modernity. The movement is now also seen as part of a wider interest in primitivism and expressionism that emerged during the turn of the century, leading the way for subsequent movements including Art Informel and CoBrA.

Artists

Natalia Goncharova
1881 - 1962