Thursday, January 2, 2014

Principles of Modernism: Primitivism and the Pre-Raphaelites

Ancient sculpture from what is now

Primitive is a loaded word. At a basic level it's related to "prime"---something not derived from something else; Basic. The word also refers to an early stage of development when development is arranged in a hierarchy, for example, primitive, single-cell lifeforms.

In a Eurocentric culture defined by a hierarchy of civilizations, primitive has come to mean an early stage of culture or civilization.

Seeing the World From 9th Avenue
Saul Steinberg
The New Yorker, 1976

Life outside Paris, New York or London has often been considered primitive by Parisians, New Yorkers and Londoners.

Mask from the Fang in Africa
Now at the Louvre
Once at the Trocadero Museum

The implication is that primitive means uncivilized, crude and unsophisticated. We try to avoid using that term today when referring to different cultures and other countries and religions, but primitive seems acceptable in talking about art, craft and style.

Understanding the history of the appreciation of the primitive explains a lot about modern art and why the beginning of modernism is often dated to the middle of the 19th century.

John Ruskin

Civilization requires art historians before we can have art history terms. It was in the mid-19th century that British John Ruskin established himself as an early art critic, art historian and standard bearer of the "primitive."
Ruskin, the Cathedral in Lucca

The young Ruskin and his parents visited Italy in the standard grand tour of Renaissance architecture, sculpture and paintings that defined the peak of European civilization at the time. The 14th and 15th century artists of Florence, Sienna and Venice were known as Renaissance artists (renaissance = rebirth in French).

Head of David by Michelangelo

The accepted wisdom was that Michelangelo, DaVinci and Botticelli created a rebirth of civilization after the Dark Ages (or in less judgmental terms, the Medieval Period.) The "civilized" consensus: There was no art in the Dark Ages, or art was so primitive it was not worth studying.

Madonna and Child 
in the style of the Medieval Period

Ruskin sketched and painted the required art but soon found himself drawn to earlier architecture, paintings and sculpture. He defined the art of Italy's pre-Renaissance period as primitive, yet glorified the primitive in his books and lectures.

Madonna della seggiola 
by Raphael, 1515, Florence

Because paintings by Raphael with their almost photographic realism defined high Renaissance art, some of Ruskin's contemporaries took to calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, rejecting Rafael's "corrupting influences" and seeking inspiration in medieval arts.

When I went to Tuscany I followed in Ruskin's footsteps, marveling at the survival of so many pre-Renaissance buildings and paintings. I also prefer a simple church of green and white striped stone to a high-Renaissance, faux-classical temple like Bramante's.

San Pietro by Bramante, 1502

The striped facades of Tuscany did not appeal to Ruskin's father.

"When my father now found himself required to admire also flat walls, striped like the striped calico of an American flag, and oval-eyed saints like the figures on a Chinese teacup, he grew restive..."

The discussion of primitive versus naturalistic, medieval versus Renaissance, traditional versus modern began with Ruskin's thoughts on why his father was wrong and he was right.

Ruskins' 3-volume work of criticism
The Stones of Venice series was published between 1851 and 1853.

Ruskin's ideas on the value of primitivism mark the beginning of modernism to many.

See more about Ruskin here at the Ruskin Research Centre site

Read more about the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at the Delaware Art Museum's site.

A review of a recent Pre-Raphaelite exhibit by a critic at the New York Times:


  1. Thank you for the art history lesson today!

  2. I agree with Nifty - Thanks!