By primitive art, we usually understand the artistic statements produced by “primitive peoples”. By “primitive peoples” we generally mean all those whose social organization is either basically tribal, excluding therefore the concept of Nation or State, or who are, in general terms, “non-civilized”.
The distinction arose with the European expansionism, and clearly matured during the growth of the mercantilist and capitalist modern empires during the course of the XIX century, alongside the birth of Art History itself, as a discipline. This way, History of the Art segregated “primitive art”, mainly because it was an art “with no history”, that is to say, an art depending on “natural” conditions, either of geographical or biological character.
Since the end of the XIX century the term acquired the meaning it has nowadays (Taylor, Primitive Culture, 1871), implying an ethnocentric criterion, based on the evolutive superiority of western art and its forms.
Pre-historical art (glacial, post-glacial and, the so called, proto-historical), traditional African art, Eskimo art (inuit), the art from the native people of North America, the art from Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, Papua) and Australia (Australian aboriginals) are all considered “primitive arts”.
In a merely evolutionist perspective, primitive art or primitivism correspond to an incipient stage of evolution of the expressive faculties. That is why they coincide with peoples bearing primitive social forms.
“Primitive art” characterizes itself by the anonymity of its authorship, and as an immediate answer to the demands of social balance, where religious and economic factors intersect. Thus, primitive art belongs to the sphere of language, and in some radical situations such as the pre- and post-glacial pre-historical art, to dialect itself. In primitive art there is not, not yet, a distinction between structure and ornament.
It is also known as “first art” (art premier), “tribal art”, “natural art”, “primeval art”, “art from the origins”, “traditional art” or “savage art”.
Primitive art, from the expressional point of view, takes position between two opposite poles:
a) a naturalism which may be considered planarity [i], “direct” or “naive”; b) a radical stylization and abstraction, far off any reference to any canon-law of realism.
Furthermore, many objects are the result of a codification, conditioning the access to their significance to a restrict group (initiates), being almost always connected with the ritual, religious and magical sphere.
The oldest primitive art testimonies date back to the XVII century. Before that, they were part of wunderkammern (“the chamber of wonders”). In the beginning, such objects, were looked at as mere artefacts, without any aesthetical value, were regarded as curiosities. Afterwards, they became part of the evolutionist narrative, illustrating the “preservation of the races” (Darwin, 1857) and exhibited in museums, which appeared following the transcontinental exploring voyages of the XIX century and the beginnings of modern colonialism, thus giving rise to ethnographical museums (Copenhagen, 1841; Berlin 1856: Leiden 1864; Cambridge/Massachusetts, 1866, Dresden, 1875, Paris, 1878) and colonial exhibitions of notable impact (Amsterdam, 1883; London, 187; Tervuren/Brussels, 1897).[ii] In Portugal, the establishment of the Ethnography and Archeology Museum [Museu de Etnografia e de Arqueologia] in Lisbon (1893), now MNA, was conceived by its founder, José Leite de Vasconcellos, to be a kind of “Portuguese Man Museum”, and therefore, including both pre-historical and contemporary demonstrations of primitive or archaic nature.
Primitivism, by its turn, is the result of an aesthetical judgment and validation of the artistic demonstration from the point of view of western History of Art and its narrative – under construction since, at least, the XVI century.
This is how primitive art acquired aesthetical value, particularly after the advent of the Modernist movement (c. 1910). Since then, it became part of the number of the collectable artistic objects, susceptible of systematization, accumulation and contemplation, drawn out of its initial condition of social product, and even generating an art market.
The knowledge about primitive art in its many demonstrations, and its inscription in a precise geographical frame, led to its insertion in the History of Art, in spite of being mainly a separate chapter, since it evades the traditional variation of styles and authorship, which characterize the periodization of western art or of other civilizations.
More recently, and although the concept is still in use, primitive art is understood within the scope of “cultures” and of the artistic expression of isolated peoples.
[i] Cf. SUMMERS, David, Real Spaces, Phaidon, 2003
[ii] Cf. HONOUR, Hugh, FLEMING, John, A World History of Art, (4th ed.), 1995, p. 689