AfricaThe Myth Of Primitivism
Although stylized carvings from the kingdoms of Sapi, Benin, and Kongo were popular in Europe in the sixteenth century, scholarly interest in African art in general did not begin until the nineteenth century, when European colonization of Africa increased the number of examples arriving in European museums. But by this time the European attitude to the arts of other cultures had changed drastically, having been influenced by ideas of Enlightenment and evolution. Both ideas placed European culture at the apex of human development, using its naturalistic representations as the benchmark for the arts of other cultures. And since most of the sculptures and masks from Africa were stylized or conceptual in form, European scholars looked down on them as "primitive" and a failed attempt to imitate nature.
Although naturalistic representation turned up as early as 1910 in Africa, such as the terra cotta and brass figures of Ife, Nigeria, they were dismissed as the works of foreigners. In fact, Leo Frobenius, the German anthropologist who first brought Ife art to world attention, attributed the portraits to the ancient Greeks, who, he speculated, might have settled among the Yoruba before the Christian era. According to him, if a full figure in the Ife style were to be found, it would almost certainly reflect a proportion similar to that of classical Greek art. Fortunately, a full figure has been found and dated to the twelfth and sixteenth centuries of the Christian era. Contrary to expectation, its proportion is completely different from that of Greek art but closer to what is found in the generality of African figure sculpture—the head being about a quarter of the whole body, notwithstanding the naturalistic treatment of body parts.
By and large the myth of primitivism is no longer taken seriously. First, its assumption that naturalism was a late stage in the progressive evolution of art from the conceptual to the lifelike has been debunked by the occurrence of naturalistic images in the prehistoric rock art of Africa, Europe, and Australia. Some of the examples from Africa were created about twenty-five thousand years ago. Second, from a close study it is now known that the disregard for naturalism in African art is deliberate, not the result of a technical deficiency. It has been influenced by different cosmologies that not only trace the origin of art to supernatural beings but also identify the human body as a piece of sculpture animated by a vital force or soul. In other words, art makes the spirit manifest in the physical world. The time-honored ritual still associated with the creation of sculptures and masks today clearly shows that art in precolonial Africa was not so much concerned with imitating reality as with evoking its essence. Thus stylization hints at the interrelatedness of the physical and metaphysical. Ironically, the same so-called primitive art of Africa contributed significantly to the birth of modern European art at the beginning of the twentieth century, inspiring prominent artists such as André Derain, Maurice Vlamnick, and Pablo Picasso, among others, to abandon naturalism in favor of stylization and abstraction.
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