The Claridges, 18 December 2021 – 24 April 2022
The idea of primitivism centres on the wish to identify with, or respond to, elements of a society that are deemed ‘primitive’. In artistic terms, it is about rejecting realism, simplifying technique and reducing the formal means of expression to a ‘primitive’ state. The term itself is borrowed from discussions of Western art, where high-profile examples include the images of Tahiti and its people made in the 1890s by Paul Gauguin, and responses to African sculpture by Pablo Picasso in 1906-09. The second thread of primitivism—the reduction of formal means—is best exemplified by the ‘cut-outs’ made by Henri Matisse in the 1940s.
Although primitivism in modern Indian art arose partly in response to developments in the West, the meanings and experience of primitivism in the Indian context must differ markedly. In the first place, the West was reacting to civilisations very different from their own, including in Asia, but what was exotic to them was already familiar to artists in India. And secondly, despite the best efforts of the colonial art schools, the naturalistic conventions of post-Renaissance art were far less deeply entrenched in India, and were thus more easily overturned. For many, the ‘return’ to the primitive meant a revival of the local. While Western artists went in search of an elusive, idealised ‘noble savage’, urban Indian artists, seeking to assert their authentic identity, drew inspiration from the least colonised segments of their own society.
The sixteen artists represented in this exhibition together represent a broad spectrum of the ways in which primitivism has manifested itself in modern Indian painting and sculpture. We do not suggest that these artists collectively represent the whole of Indian primitivism, nor that primitivism represents the whole of what each of them did. Primitivism is a trait, not a bounded set: there was no manifesto that these or other artists signed, or self-declared group that they joined. It is a treatment that becomes apparent in varying degrees and ways. Indeed, in so far as primitivism is part of the condition of modernity, we could have chosen almost anyone. We have chosen these artists to explore a range of manifestations of primitivism, and to try and sketch its history.
‘Western artists had a particular interest in this type of ethnic art c. 1905-35, beginning with the Fauves, Cubists, and Die Brücke who incorporated elements of it into their own work. This in turn led to a deeper study of this subject by both anthropologists and art historians’