Los Angeles

“Primitivism in Modern Graphic Art”

UCLA Art Galleries

Around the turn of the century, all three major art movements—Expressionism, Fauvism and Cubism—came under the influence of African primitivism, each for its own reasons. The Expressionists were drawn to African sculpture for the directness of its emotional statement, the Fauves for its simplified shapes and flat decorativeness, and the Cubists for what seemed to be (for want of a better word) a “natural” abstraction.

Because the word “primitivism” has become so strongly associated with this particular movement in this particular period of art history, we tend to lose sight of the fact that it is a generic term as well. Every country has its primitives that collectively form the art history and tradition of that country. As in perhaps no other country, Germany’s art tradition is inexorably meshed with the graphic media—more specifically, the woodcut.

The UCLA exhibition treats sensitively and intelligently the impact of both levels of primitivism on modern graphic art. The art of Balega and other tribes of the Congo is exhibited, along with photographs of the people of Uganda. Within the print exhibition itself, selected examples (occasionally photographed, because such prints are exceedingly rare) of early German woodcuts relate to thematically grouped modern prints. For example, a superb group of cats by Gerhard Marcks and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff are accompanied by two early German woodcuts of the same subject—one from around 1500, the other a 14th-century book illustration.

The exhibit ion is perhaps too strongly slanted toward the German Expressionists, but then it was in this area that African primitivism had its greatest impact on graphic art. Germany’s print tradition, and the revival of the rough, direct, and spontaneous woodcutting technique by Gauguin and Munch, paved the way for the assimilation of African primitivism into the German Expressionist movement. Besides examples by members of Die Brucke group—Nolde, Schmidt-Rotluff, Heckle, Kirchner—the exhibition includes woodcuts by forerunners Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin, as well as prints by Picasso, Meininger, Max Weber, and others.