A term used to describe art that employs ‘primitive’ elements or forms. Today the term ‘primitive’ is often deemed as degrading when applied to non-Western cultures, so is frequently placed in quotation marks.

Paul Gauguin Three Tahitians 1899

Early Origins

At the end of the nineteenth century, many European artists and thinkers were jaded with the prevalent culture of naturalism, which they felt had been exhausted. European countries including France and the United Kingdom were colonial powers and the so-called ‘primitive’ art from non-Western, colonised countries was a source of great fascination.

European artists were attracted to the idea of ‘otherness’ that these places represented and saw their art forms as a raw, pure form of expression, in tune with the human spirit and the emotional inner world. However, such material was often interpreted by European artists in aesthetic, rather than anthropological terms, where artists attached their own meanings to the mysterious new patterns, shapes and designs they encountered. The French Post-Impressionists were among the first to explore the ways other cultures could infuse their artworks with a fresh new way of thinking and seeing, which led the way for an explosion of creativity at the turn of the century.

The Primitive Way of Life

French artist Paul Gauguin was part of a generation who were increasingly frustrated with the industrialisation of Paris in the late 1800s. As a reaction against modernity he was drawn to the Romanticist fascination with distant lands in less developed countries, searching for a paradise lost. He made several extended visits to Tahiti, where the vivid colours and lush plant life provided a well of inspiration; there he produced his most famous and elaborate paintings, rich in colour and symbolism. He was captivated by Tahitian women, who he often idealised in his paintings, such as Three Tahitians, 1899, although many have argued he took advantage of them. He also made a series of totemic sculptures in carved wood, which proved highly influential on the development of Primitivism in Paris.

Cubism and Fauvism

Pablo Picasso was particularly taken with Gauguin’s Tahitian artworks, having encountered them on display in Paris from 1903-6. Both artists were represented by the gallery Ambroise Vollard, where it is likely he would have seen his paintings and sculptures. Picasso also regularly made visits to the Paris ethnographic museum, where he came across African tribal masks and totemic carvings. He was particularly interested in the simplified stylisation of the human body, which fed through into some of his most famous artworks, including Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907, whose simplified, angular forms formed the basis of Cubism, exemplified in Tete (Head), 1913.

French artist Henri Matisse was also influenced by non-Western art traditions and is even thought to have collected African masks during several visits to North Africa. But he was particularly interested in the decorative pattern and design of Persian art which he integrated elements of into his own paintings. He became one of the leading members of the Fauvist style, along with Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, whose belief that art should invoke emotional, inner states rather than careful depictions of reality was descended from ethnographic art forms.

The German Expressionist group Die Brucke, founded by Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and, later joined by Emil Nolde, took these ideas further, fuelled by regular visits to Dresden’s Ethnographic Museum. There they encountered tribal carvings and masks which directly influenced the jagged, sculptural forms of their figurative paintings and sculptures, such as Nolde’s Kopf (Head) 1913, and Kirchner’s Japanisches Theater​ (Japanese Theatre), 1909, which aimed to capture the alienation and unease brought about by modernity.

Later Developments

Ideas lifted from ‘primitive’ art were highly influential in the development of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, including Cubism, Fauvism and Expressionism. These revolutionary movements shifted traditional pictorial methods, inviting a progressive, open-minded way of looking and seeing, with layered references, meanings and styles. They also opened up possibilities for ‘outsider’ elements within works of art, such as children’s drawings, folk art and the work of the ‘unformed’ artist, seen most prominently in Jean Dubuffet’s Art Informel and Jean Michel Basquiat’s Street Art paintings in the following decades.


1848 - 1903
1881 - 1973
1869 - 1954
1867 - 1956