Affinity of Forms in Tribal and Modern Art

In Minimalism, modern artists strive for basic forms of expressions in the belief that more is gained by way of paring down all unnecessary details. Simplicity is also a quality that is frequently encountered in tribal art, i.e., art that is produced by pre-literate societies. This affinity of form is both a visual delight and intriguing. Artists from both ‘primitive’ and modern cultures seem to have understood that in conveying powerful, elemental expressions, less is usually better than more. Examples below demonstrate this point.

Joan Miro (1893-1983), Untitled, 1930 and Imunu figure from the Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea, 19th century

Henry Moore’s “Square Form” was made during one of the most dynamic and experimental periods in the artist’s career. Carved from an ancient block of stone, the work demonstrates Moore’s interest in the use of abstraction as a bridge that connects past and present.

Henry Moore (1898-1996), Square Form, Hornton stone, width: 54 cm.

Moore’s “Square Form” is strikingly similar to a 19th century warrior’s buckle, carved in the form of an abstract dragon called ‘aso’ from the Iban Dayak people of Borneo, Indonesia.

Left: Henry Moore (1898-1986), “Square Form”, 1936. Hornton stone. Right: Warrior’s weapons buckle, with abstract aso (dragon), Iban Dayak, Borneo, Indonesia, 19th century.

Mark Rothko’s “color field” paintings, heavy with implied content and emotional impact, ventured beyond abstract representation to embody the drama of humanity, both tragic and ecstatic.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Untitled, 1960. Oil on canvas. 69 x 50 in.

But Rothko did not invent color fields. In the 19th century, the people of southern Sumatra, Indonesia already had similar ideas as the next piece, a wedding shawl, shows.

Lawon (Woman’s Wedding Shawl), Palembang, Sumatra. Early 20th century. Silk, resist-dye (tritik) technique. Size: 38″ x 80″.

Our final example compares a Brancusi wood sculpture of a seated female with a wooden ancestor figure from Tanimbar island in Maluku, Indonesia. Once again, the two pieces share many formal similarities.

Left: Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Seated figure. Early 20th century. Right: Ancestor figure, Tanimbar island, Maluku, Indonesia, 19th century.

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