Transforming the Self: The Politics of Aesthetics in Modernist and Primitivist Art, 1890-1920 Presentation uri icon



  • From Gauguin's travel to Tahiti to Picasso's fascination with Africa, primitivism was central to the development of modern art. Most art historians have concluded that primitivism relied on the same discourses of "civilized" versus "savage" that underpinned the racism that justified colonialism and imperial oppression. However, other scholars have recently emphasized that artists like Picasso were inspired by utopian, especially Kropotkinian, anarchism to reject mainstream European culture, including colonial-era racism. This paper continues the latter direction by exploring an under-studied aspect of artistic primitivism around the turn of the twentieth century: the ways that primitivists sought to transform themselves from alienated bourgeois subjects within global industrial capitalism into liberated and creative individuals connected to nature within a non-hierarchical and authentic humanity. From the 1890s through the 1920s, the development of primitivist aesthetics was inseparable from a politicized project of cultural renewal, one that began with the artists themselves within their aesthetic communities. These artists appropriated, subverted, and transgressed colonial culture, attempting to transform their European "selves" into the "primitive Other." In this way, primitivists used colonial culture against itself, and in the process developing aesthetic forms that fundamentally embodied their counter-cultural—indeed utopian—politics.

date/time interval

  • November 5, 2015 - November 8, 2015