Primitivism in Modern Art

The abstract expressions of tribal art is one of the reasons why I find this art genre so captivating. Indeed, one comes across many instances where tribal sculptures share a close affinity with, and even rival the best of modern art (minus the price!). Happily, appreciation for this connection between “primitive” and modern art is growing; increasingly, one encounters art galleries and museums hosting exhibitions that situate tribal and modern art alongside each other for aesthetic and scholarly contemplation.

To cite an early example, some twenty years ago, the Jan Krugier gallery in New York and Spanish tribal art gallery, Arte & Ritual, staged an exhibition entitled Traces: Primitive & Modern Expressions. The exhibition was dedicated to the influence of “primitive” art on the works of great artists of the 20th century. The catalog opened with a striking confrontation between an imunu  statue of the Papuan Gulf, New Guinea and a painting by Joan Mirò (untitled ) dated 1930. Seen side by side, the two art pieces seem like artistic siblings until one is reminded that these objects are worlds apart in time and space. It is of course the well known that Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Brancusi and other giants of modern art often looked to tribal art for inspiration for many of their finest works. And why not? Far from being mutually distinct, tribal and modern art are part of our shared humanity.


Imunu dancing figure, Papuan Gulf, New Guinea, H: 155 cm. These rare dancing statues are described by tribal art expert, Douglas Newton, as “the most personal of all the Gulf of Papua”.

Joan Miro (1893 – 1983), Untitled, 1930. Oil on canvas.

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