Irrefutable Presence: Picasso and the Primordial

Some ideas come in tangles, the kind that don’t disengage by applying analysis and logic. One of those is ethnocentrism in art.

Brewing under the surface for some time, that particular net of knotted issues came into high definition in 1984 when Thomas McEvilley mounted his vociferous attack at the MOMA for its show, “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” Going after William Rubin as well as the art world equivalent of Eisenhower‘s “military-industrial complex”—the infrastructure of museums, art critics, history writing and tastemakers—McEvilley exposed how European/American-centric art treated everything else as a footnote, unable to truly acknowledge the primacy of other cultures and approaches. The very use of the word “primitive” was highly problematic.

Ethnocentrism is less prevalent since 1984, and yet these issues are still hot and unresolved. A recent editorial in the New York Times, In Defense of Cultural Appropriation, written by Kenan Malik, highlighted the fierce disagreements that have emerged recently (Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennial for one.) Yes, McEvilley’s campaign did affect Western art programming in favor of more multiculturalism. But the issue of who can use what and how disparate cultures bump up against one another and still respect the sovereignty of their own cultural domain is an ongoing consideration.

So to encounter a major exhibit at Paris’ Quai Branley Museum entitled Picasso Primitif seemed, what, brave or brazen? After all, both terms come fully loaded. (Picasso has vociferous detractors in spite of his virtuosity of talent.) So hats off to the Branly for putting together an extremely thoughtful and respectful exhibit, the first to present Picasso’s work alongside indigenous, non-Western work.

And who else could do it as well? The Branly now houses a world class collection of non-Western art that inspired Picasso and his colleagues when it was part of the old Musee de L’Homme. (I went to that museum frequently when I lived down the street from the Trocadero in 1970.) The Branly is also in close proximity to the extraordinary collection of the Musée Picasso across the river in the Marais. Perfect.

Here is an example of how carefully the curation steers clear of problematic terminology:

In these non-Western works, we find resonances with Picasso’s search for another construction of reality. He found them particularly stimulating in terms of their inventiveness and freedom as regards form, unlike the conventions of the painting and sculpture of the time, whether academic or impressionist. “Primitive” can thus be understood as “primordial”; beyond convention and able to be understood by all, even if the creations themselves are skillful.

Instead of a symbolic image to decipher, the work imposes itself upon the viewer by means of its irrefutable presence…Sometimes an anonymous African artist could have created a work by Picasso, and vice versa, but most often it is a case of examining how these problems of artistry and materials, of universal and millenia-old procedures, have been resolved by artists from elsewhere and by Picasso.

This redefinition of “primitive” as “primordial” isn’t just a semantic sidestep. While many of the non-Western works are by anonymous artists, they are treated with a mutual respect. The themes are not Picasso-centric, but global, human ones: Archetypes. Metamorphoses. The Id. Appropriately the Id is defined well beyond the narrowcasting of a Freudian technical term:

The Id is understood in the Freudian sense as the unconscious psychic energy originating in the libido and the death drive. More than ordinary people, artists have a close relationship with these drives, which provides inspiration and which the artist transposes in their work.

Picasso seems to have been a bold explorer of these depths where the struggle between these instinctive forces takes place, at the frontiers of the formless and of indistinct entities, in the manner of sorcerers with amorphous magic spells.

Maria Brito puts this in persepctive in her review of the show:

Picasso was so intrigued, moved and fascinated by these objects, that he told Françoise Gilot, his partner for more than ten years..: “the African masks were not simply sculptures like any other. Not at all. They were magic objects…They were weapons. To help people stop being ruled by spirits, to free themselves. Tools. If we give a form to these spirits, we become free…I understood why I became a painter…Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, when I visited the museum and saw the African masks, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting”. What Picasso was saying is that art changes people, it transforms the artist, it has power over the viewer, it is no longer about depicting nature or the human body—it is a point in art history that begins a new era and a reinvented way of making art.

With a theme and object-centric approach, the exhibit does not favor any one point of view. Yes, Picasso is the primary narrative and entry point. But once that context is set with an orienting timeline, the show becomes a celebration of art, art making and art viewing. Often it is impossible to know which objects are Western and which ones are not. The objects are given the space to claim their irrefutable presence.

The curators also include a few quotes by Picasso that sound almost self-abnegating (so rare for Picasso!) and seem to be far from the usual cult of personality that surrounds Picasso’s superstardom. Here are a few.

From a conversation with Christian Zervos:

A picture comes to me from far off, who knows how far…How can one penetrate my dreams, my instincts, my desires, my thoughts, which have taken a long time to elaborate themselves and bring themselves to light, above all seize in them what I brought about, perhaps, against my will?

And this, from a letter by Picasso to the poet Apollinaire:

I have felt my purest emotions at the age of 16, in a huge forest in Spain where I had gone to paint.

I have felt my strongest artistic emotions, when suddently confronted with the sublime beauty of sculptures executed by the anonymous artists of Africa. These works of a religious, passionate, and rigorously logical art are the most powerful and the most beautiful things the human imagination has ever produced.


I hasten to add that, nevertheless, I detest exoticism.

That last line is an essential one. Alden Jones , author of an insightful memoir, The Blind Masseuse, defines exoticism as the representation of one culture for consumption by another. Walking the line between exploitation and genuine curiosity, respect for the unfamiliar without understanding the full cultural context—this is the obligation of a conscious postmodern observer. This show walks that fine line well.

I’ve included some photos from the exhibit as well as other examples from the Branly itself. And the theme of the mask continued to play out in other venues as well, at the Art/Afrique exhibit at Fondation Louis Vuitton as well as on the streets of Belleville.

In the exhibit:

In the Branly:

At the Fondation Louis Vuitton:

Seen on the street in Belleville:

6 Replies to “Irrefutable Presence: Picasso and the Primordial”

  1. Thank you, Deborah. The primitive/primordial distinction is wonderful — a distinction, new to me, that I know I’ll be using frequently in the future.

  2. deborahbarlow says:

    I found that very useful too. I’m glad it resonates for you as well.

  3. Jeffree Stewart says:

    Wonderful post, Deborah…your words are thoughtful as ever; well-woven with those fine paragraphs you quote. Thanks as well for the delightful array of photographs. I’m reminded of how deeply affecting was my first visit to Musee Picasso in Paris, now so long ago, because of these same juxtapositions of his works and what he loved to surround himself with.

    1. Jeffree, Thank you for your collaborative sensibilities. So much to see and consider…

  4. I like Picasso’s idea of the “exorcism painting.” Yes–magical objects are more powerful than “mere” forms. And the two can intersect.

    My husband was also gripped by the juju or magic of these items when he first encountered them–he is not an artist per se, but he felt it–and we have lived with some masks and other sculptures in our home for many years. Is it cultural appropriation? Well, we are not endeavoring to attain primitivism or Africanism. We just like what we feel expresses something uniquely beautiful or intriguing.

    We cannot afford the museum-quality work that has perhaps been “danced” (or magicked via shamanism or community collectivism, though we have a few good pieces that appeal to us aesthetically). My husband has had some concerns that the art is coming out of the African continent, often illegally, or to be replaced by Christianity or Islam. On the other hand, perhaps this import is a kind of rescue. The ethics are complicated.

    We don’t buy any African art anymore. But we do live with what we have, and we love its form, its history, its–yes– “ethnicity.” And we love what we see influencing the European artists whose work we also enjoy–Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse, Nolde…

    and the peculiar sense of exorcism, vivid presence, elegant form– those remain in our love of these works. I wish we could get to the Branley Museum for this show! Thank you so much for the photos and the texts.

    1. Ann, Thank you for this thoughtful response. These issues continue to be a bit sticky. I don’t think there is a simple answer to the appropriation issue. Each case deserves consideration. This is so well expressed.

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