Primitivism: Fascination with the Original or an Appropriation of the Exotic?

Modern art, and not least Expressionism, is inextricably linked with a longing for the pristine and the originality of indigenous peoples and their artifacts, i.e. the “primitive” in the true sense of the word (Latin prīmitīvus = “the first of its kind”). Accordingly, the art historical term “Primitivism” does not refer to the art of indigenous peoples itself, but to a modern Western art movement inspired by indigenous art that believed in the superior originality of the primitive. Nolde’s prints Mann und Weibchen (Man and [little] Woman, 1912), Tändelei (Dalliance, 1917), and Mann und junges Weib (Man and Young Woman, 1918), which can be understood as variations on the first human couple, Adam and Eve, quite clearly illustrate what is meant by this.

An important condition enabling the emergence of Primitivism was the simultaneity of colonization and industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Colonization led to expanded knowledge of the indigenous peoples and cultures now dominated and economically exploited by the Europeans; industrialization created the need to compensate the burdens associated with it and thus stimulated the longing for the other as the original. In 1913/14, the Noldes participated in the “Medical-Demographic German New Guinea Expedition,” which took them via Moscow, Siberia, Korea, Japan, and China to what was then “Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land,” i.e. the north-east of present-day Papua New Guinea. Nolde produced many momentary sketches that display a strong interest in the living conditions of the indigenous people. However, Nolde not only drew from life, but also from ethnographic photographs (images). And here, his work touched on the construction of race through a supposedly scientific approach and assessment of the “exotic” from a Eurocentric mentality of superiority. Nolde’s respective written statements are therefore likewise caught between the poles of respectful interest and unilateral appropriation. He lamented the exploitation of indigenous peoples by Europeans, while at the same time worrying that German museums might miss out on the best artifacts of “foreign” cultures because other colonial powers were faster. Rohlfs, on the other hand, never embarked on such journeys: curiosity about the exotic occupied a much smaller space for him. Although some studies seem to be based on ethnological photographs (book on display), he seemed more amused by this yearning for the original and the mentality of white superiority (exhibition catalog, page 28). Instead, Egyptian fabrics from the Osthaus collection were influential for the design of his figures, such as Tänzerin (Dancer, around 1913).

Artistic images are feats of translation that can stray far from their reference to the real world. Nolde’s woodcuts Familie (Family, 1917) and Kerzentänzerinnen (Candle Dancers, 1917) are apt examples of this. Nevertheless, the fascinated gaze appears problematic today to the extent that it—or its objectification in painting—is based on a cultural and domination divide in which case the gaze becomes an act of asymmetrical appropriation; it exercises, as it is put today, a “regime of the gaze.” Nolde noted: “Up in Jutland I was looking for gypsies. In the sand hills of Dejbjerg I found a little house, ruinous, and inside it, under the window, lay an old gypsy. The light streamed beautifully over him. As an impression of nature, it was almost as beautiful to me as the magnificent Rembrandt painting ‘Jacob, Blessing Joseph’s Children.’ Only hesitantly did I commence painting. An old gypsy mother started to scold me. The boy who was carrying my things hurried out the door. I stood still.” (Emil Nolde: Das eigene Leben, Berlin 1931, p.134 [translation]). The fact that a gaze regime is at work here, despite the cozy, anecdotal narrative style, becomes clear not only from the “gypsy mother’s” futile attempt to ward him off, but also from the fact that Nolde explicitly compared this episode with another he once experienced in Paris: “I encountered something similar, even more beautiful, later on in Paris.” At that time he had accidentally caught sight of a French woman dressing and had been berated by her. Here, we see a downright delight in the asymmetrical, forbidden gaze, which cannot be returned by the sleeping “gypsy” or the averted Frenchwoman. Such a gaze regime can certainly be paralleled by a characterization of the other as beautiful and dignified or as a bearer of generally human values, as shown by Nolde’s depiction of a Spanish Roma woman (image) and his watercolor Mutter und Kind (Zigeuner) (Mother and Child (Gypsies), 1921), the latter especially in comparison with the lithograph Mutter und Kind (Mother and Child, 1913): caring portrayals that can nevertheless be read as documents of a power divide encoded as cultural difference by way of their titles and in the context of other Sinti and Roma depictions.

Rohlfs’ painting Zigeunerin mit Kind (Gypsy Woman with Child, 1937), which also carried the title Mädchen mit Kind (Girl with Child) from the start, initially seems to fit into the same framework, both in terms of subject and title. But the date of origin, 1937, strongly points at a different interpretation. In fact, the date suggests the assumption that the child gazing fearfully out of the picture is to be read as a reflection on the persecution of the Sinti and Roma by the National Socialists.

The so-called Tatjana-Zyklus (Tatjana Cycle), comprising twenty-nine sheets, is a special form of exoticism in Rohlfs’ late work. Tatjana Barbakoff (1899–1944, murdered in Auschwitz), the daughter of a Jewish-Russian father and a Chinese mother, addressed her cultural origins in dance. With fantastic costumes and also with her parodist choreographies, the self-taught dancer was the muse of many artists of her time. Her extraordinary beauty also fascinated Christian Rohlfs, a friend of hers. In addition to her performances, which exaggerated the exotic themselves, he also depicted her with her dance Am Pranger (in the pillory), a strong, unmistakably political statement.


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Further to: Virtuosity and Judgement


Christian Rohlfs, Zigeunerin mit Kind (Gypsy Woman with Child) and Mädchen mit Kind (Girl with Child, 1937)

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