Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary), Paul Gauguin (French), 1891, oil on canvas, 113.7 x 87.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
One more stop before we hit the 20th century and their take on the ‘Primitive’. Gauguin. Gauguin, the
Symbolist Painter opportunist, who, broke, decided he’d go to Tahiti and paint naked ladies (it’s what you did if you were a modern artist, how else could you show how manly you were if there weren’t Gaze-tastic naked ladies all over that canvas?). But not just that, he’d paint ‘Primitive’ naked ladies to criticize the rationalism of European civilization. Or thought he’d do that. But when he got to Tahiti, there was a problem. The Tahitian culture he thought he’d be able to use in his art was pretty much gone due to colonialism (which he was absolutely egregiously completely complicit in). No one dressed traditionally. A lot of the Tahitians spoke French and had been to French schools in Tahiti. They were pretty much all converted to Christianity. But this didn’t stop Gauguin. Lacking a stereotypically ‘Primitive’ culture to use to make his totes original criticisms of the West, he just dressed the natives up however he saw fit, posed them like figures from Buddhist friezes from Java and stuck some European folk references all together to create his own made up Tahitian culture, and painted that. Then sent it back to France as the real McCoy. Oh, and if it wasn’t clear enough that this was Gauguin forcing his values onto people who really could have done without, you should know he took a 13 year old girl as a wife, and would write home to his French wife about how liberated his child wife made him feel.
Basically, what you should be getting out of Gauguin’s conception of the ‘Primitive’ is that it was an incredibly reductive concept. Disparate cultures, without regard to individual production, time, or place are just flattened into a monolithic ‘Primitive’ in Gauguin’s work, and pretty much all of the early 20th century Avant-Gardes followed in exactly the same way.
Also, the ‘Primitive’ figures into this work’s (as with Gauguin’s entire oeuvre) formal aspects. Contemporaneous with Gauguin were some interesting colour theories (only partially bonkers). There was this idea that colours can express emotion (sane), and that flat unmediated bands of colour were more effective at expressing emotion because such colour composition undermines the illusionistic pictorial planes of of the Classical European tradition, and were therefor closer to the sincere emotional expression of ‘Primitive’ cultures (bonkers AND racist). Basically to Gauguin, bright colours meant ‘Primitive’ meant sincerely emotional. Then the Expressionists took that idea and ran with it, so somewhere between 1912 and 1914, the ‘Primitive’ gave them an excuse to make the first completely abstract paintings in the Western Canon. But bare in mind, in so doing they were absolutely complicit in the colonialism and oppression they sought to challenge by appropriating ‘Primitive’ sources.