The term ‘primitive art’ is broadly used of the sculptures, and to a lesser extent paintings, of people living in tribal societies. It is a dangerous term in that it can easily seem to mean art of an inferior kind – partly because these objects are made by people living an existence less materially developed than our own, but also because tribal art makes no attempt at the realism which has been usually preferred by those who dwell in towns.
But primitive art has no interest in realism. Its purpose is to engage with the spirit world. The images, masks and statues suitable for dealing with spirits are not made according to the laws of perspective. They are seen with the eye of magic.
The art of our species
If Neanderthal man created any form of art, no traces of it have yet been found. But with the arrival of modern man, or Homo sapiens sapiens, the human genius for image-making becomes abundantly clear.
In the recesses of caves, people begin to decorate the rock face with an important theme in their daily lives, the bison and reindeer which are their prey as Ice Age hunters. And sculptors carve portable images of another predominant interest of mankind – the swelling curves of the female form, emphasizing the fertility on which the survival of the tribe depends.
Perhaps the most famous of early sculptures is the so-called Venus of Willendorf. Found at Willendorf in Austria, and dating from more than 25,000 years ago, she is only about four inches high. More than 100 fertility figures of this kind have been found in an area reaching from France to southern Russia.
The sculptor of the Willendorf Venus, scraping away with a flint tool at his fragment of limestone, is not engaging in what we would call art. His tiny but profoundly convincing fertility goddess is a religious object. An encampment of mammoth hunters at Gagarino, in the Ukraine, has yielded many such figures. The huts of the Gagarino hunters even have niches in the walls, or little shrines, to accomodate them.
Since the development of civilization and of the first literate societies, about 5000 years ago, the primitive tradition has continued to have a vibrant but essentially conservative existence in tribal societies all over the world. Ritual sculptures and masks are recreated to unchanging patterns for generation after generation, precisely because their sacred power in this form is well established.
There is no element here of the originality which has often been treasured in more sophisticated societies.
The marble figures of the Cyclades: from 3000 BC
The most surprising early tradition in sculpture is that of the Cyclades – a group of islands in the northern Mediterranean, scattered across the entrance to the Aegean sea.
Here, from about 3000 BC, large numbers of marble figures are carved. Most of them are of women, and they are designed to lie flat – perhaps suggesting death, for they have been found mainly in graves. In one sense they are in the primitive tradition which begins with the Venus of Willendorf. But they also develop an abstract quality which has seemed particularly attractive in our own time.
A Cycladic figure of about 2800 BC has the massive hips of a fertility goddess. Another, of some 300 years later, is visibly in the same tradition but the form has now evolved into something which seems (to our eyes) extraordinarily modern – even sharing Picasso’s free-thinking approach to the human nose. Figures like this are made in large numbers in the Cyclades at this time. Most of them are small, about ten inches in length.
This distinctive style fades away after about 2000 BC, as the islands come under the influence of the stronger Minoan culture. But the Cyclades provide a fascinating glimpse of a primitive tradition developing into one of great sophistication – without losing its primitive conservatism.
The first American sculpture: 1200 BC
The sculpture of the American continent makes a powerful start. The style is primitive but the scale is monumental.
Figures of this kind, introduced by America’s first civilization (that of the Olmecs at San Lorenzo and La Venta) will have a lasting influence through 2000 years of central American culture.
The most characteristic sculptures of San Lorenzo and La Venta are astonishing creations. They are massive stone heads, more than two metres in height, of square-jawed and fat-lipped warriors, usually wearing helmets with ear flaps.
The chunky and uncompromising quality of these images will remain typical of much of the religious art of Mesoamerica, particularly in the region around Mexico City. It can be seen in the rain-god masks of Teotihuacan (about 2000 years ago), in the vast standing warriors at Tula (about 1000 years ago) and in the brutally severe monumental sculpture of the Aztecs (500 years ago).
Rival masterpieces: 5th century BC
By one of the strange coincidences of history, the 5th century BC produces the first masterpieces in two incompatible styles of sculpture. Nearly 2500 years later, these styles become bitter rivals in the studios of our own time.
One is the classical realism which will prevail from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. The other is the sculpture of Africa, distorting human features and limbs in a dramatically expressive manner. African figures in this long and vibrant tradition inspire Picasso’s experiments with Cubism, which launch the mainstream of modern art.
The characteristic sculpture of Africa, which forms the largest part of what is usually considered primitive art, can be seen as early as 500 BC in the Nok culture – named from the village in Nigeria where pottery figures of this kind were first found.
The Nok statuettes are mainly of human subjects. Made of terracotta, they combine strong formal elements with a complete disregard for precise anatomy. Their expressive quality places them unmistakably at the start of the African sculptural tradition.
Barbarian art in Europe: 5th century BC – 7th century AD
During the long centuries of Roman dominance there is a marked difference between the art of classical Europe and that of the barbarian tribes. In southern Europe the realistic Greek tradition prevails. In the forests and village settlements of the north a much wilder imagination is at play.
The tribesmen are skilful workers of metal. Their creative energy goes into metal brooches and neck or arm rings (torcs) for the warrior families of the tribe, together with ornamental belt buckles, sword hilts and scabbards, or fittings for shield or chariot. Their decorative style is lively and curvilinear, in a dramatic jumble of animals and intertwining tendrils.
This type of art is characteristic of many large tribal groups (for example, the Scythians), but none are as productive as the Celts. From the Celtic artefacts found in central Europe at Hallstatt (7th-5th century BC) and La Tène (5th-3rd century), to others of a later date in western Europe, there is a gradual development of a style which will influence western art long after the Celts themselves have lost their prominence.
The restless swirling lines of their metalwork find a new Christian theme from the 7th century AD in the interlacing patterns of Irish manuscripts and stone Celtic crosses. And the carved monsters and grinning faces of barbarian art surface again in the capitals of Romanesque cloisters.
African terracotta figures: from the 5th century BC
The longest surviving tradition of African sculpture is figures in terracotta. Cast metal is the only other material to withstand the continent’s termites (fatal to the carved wood of most African sculpture). But the superb metal sculptures of Nigeria, beginning in about the 12th century, are of a much later period than the first terracottas.
West Africa, and in particular modern Nigeria, provides the longest and richest sequence of terracotta figures. They date back two and a half millennia to the extraordinary Nok sculptures. By around the 1st century AD figures of a wonderful severity are being modelled in the Sokoto region of northwest Nigeria.
Terracotta heads and figures have been found in Ife, dating from the 12th to 15th century – the same period as the first cast-metal sculptures of this region. At Jenne, further north in Mali, archaeologists (followed unfortunately by thieves) have recently unearthed superb terracottas of the same period.
One extraordinary group of terracottas is the exception in this mainly west African story, in that they come from south Africa where they are the earliest known sculptures. They are seven heads, found at Lydenburg in the Transvaal. Modelled in a brutally chunky style, they date from about the 6th century AD.
Powerful terracotta figures in traditional style continue to be made in Africa in the 19th and 20th century, contemporary with the superb carved wooden figures which survive from those two centuries.
Unlike European painting or sculpture, style does not greatly change over the years in African tribal art. So it is a safe assumption that the astonishing imaginative range of African carving familiar to us today was just as evident many centuries ago, though the objects themselves have now crumbled to dust.
Easter Island: 6th – 18th century AD
The famous statues on Easter Island are first described in 1722, the year in which the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen visits and names the island on Easter Day. They must have been carved over a long period, for there are about 600 of them, between 10 and 20 feet high, with the largest weighing some 50 tons. They may have been created at any time between the first arrival of people on the island, probably in about AD 500, and the visit of the Dutch in the 18th century.
The huge investment of labour in these production-line figures is an extreme example of the religious compulsion behind much primitive art.
The statues consist of massive heads, each on a sketchily carved top half of a body. The heads all have the same features – prominent noses, square jaws, deep-set eyes and long spaniel ears. Probably representing ancestors, they are designed to stand facing inland on ceremonial burial platforms, where the dead are exposed and their bones subsequently interred.
The material of the sculptures is an easily worked stone, formed originally of compressed ash, cut from Rano-raraku – one of the three extinct volcanoes on the island.
It is evident from the quarry on Rano-raraku that the figures are carved in the round from the rock face, and are not cut loose until nearly complete. The islanders have no metal, so the work is done with stone chisels – several of which have been found at the site.
Local tradition says that the statues are dragged to their destinations around the island, using rope from indigenous hemp and with round pebbles to serve as rollers. They are probably jacked into an upright position by means of an earth ramp and gradual excavation from below the figure’s base – in a method similar to that of ancient Egypt (see Building methods in Egypt).
African wood carving: 19th – 20th century AD
In Africa, south of the Sahara, wood is the natural material for carving. In the 20th century sculpture in wood is still very much a living tradition. Examples from the 19th century have been preserved in reasonable number, largely by the efforts of collectors. But earlier work has crumbled irretrievably, eaten by ants or rotted by damp.
Even so, the body of art surviving to us in this tradition is immensely rich. It powerfully suggests how much has been lost.
It is difficult to imagine how African tribal sculptors have viewed their own work, but they have certainly not seen it as art in the self-conscious western manner of recent centuries.
Tribal carving is done for a clear and practical purpose. A figure may represent an ancestor, destined to stand in a shrine. A mask may be intended for use by a shaman just once a year in a special dance. A post may be designed to prop up a chief’s verandah or to form part of a palisade round his house. An elaborate chair is likely to be for the chief himself to sit on. All of them will be better if carved in a dramatic or propitious way.
The art of Oceania: 19th – 20th century AD
The vitality and variety of African sculpture is rivalled only by the art of the region known as Oceania – the islands of the south Pacific. Particularly vigorous, in artistic terms, are the products of New Guinea and of the groups of islands lying to the southeast of it, including New Ireland, the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and New Caledonia.
As in Africa, the human face and form is used in a myriad different ways to provide masks, free-standing wooden figures, or decoration for gable ends, door posts and ceremonial seats.
The oldest art form of these islands is colourful basketry, often in elaborate sculptural forms, rather than the woodcarving which has predominated in recent centuries.
The reason is that the islanders had no metal tools until the first regular contact with Europeans in the 18th century. A new ease in the carving of wood made possible the lively and fantastic figures now associated with the region. The arrival of Christian missionaries brought a subsequent attempt to discourage such sculpture, linked as it usually is with a pagan world of spirits.
Tribal art and cubism: 20th century AD
Whatever the reason for the range of tribal art, the result is an unrivalled display of the power of the imagination. The basic subject, as in western sculpture, is the human body. But the tribal sculptor is liberated from the straitjacket of realism.
His ingredients may be limited to the parts of the body, but he constantly reassembles them in new dimensions and relationships. From a central axis of eyes, nose, mouth, navel and genital organs, to the peripheral cast list of hair, ears, arms, breasts, legs and buttocks, there is no predicting which of these elements will take the starring roles in any one production. Startling imbalance is restored to balance by the force of strong design.
It is hard to know whether a particular image may be intended to seem sad or terrifying (or neither, or even nothing), for this is a subjective matter on which an outsider may often be mistaken. But in these carvings there is no mistaking the energy and playfulness with which the human body is turned, by confident distortion, into such a gallery of wonderful creatures.
It is not surprising that Picasso, the most playful genius of the 20th century, is inspired by these fragmentations of dull reality to find a new direction of his own in cubism.