The idea of the primitive has long been a potent and highly influential current in British thought and history.footnote1 In particular, the period 1918–30 saw primitivism established as an important theme in writing on art and anthropology. Analysis of the concept may therefore usefully begin there—with a span of time seemingly unitary enough to justify a synchronic treatment. The war deeply affected the nature of the concept, in particular the perception of the existence of savagery beneath a civilized exterior, the definition of barbarism on racial grounds, and the construction of an image of the British working-class fighting man. It also ushered in a new economic and colonial era. At the end of the period, the Depression marked another economic phase characterized by intellectual radicalism. Between these two events many factors remained stable: economical and political debates, the retreat of the avant-garde, and attitudes to colonialism that to some extent defined views of the primitive.

To attempt to define the primitive in a priori fashion, before looking at how the concept was actually used, would be to arrive at a transcendant and ahistorical definition. We should rather look at the concept as it operated in the writing of this period.

The word ‘primitive’ is frequently used of artistic work produced by people in the following groups: the naive, the savage, the insane, the child, folk, medieval. ‘Savage’ art includes work from contemporary and prehistoric societies and ancient civilizations. ‘Folk’ art includes peasant and proletarian art of European countries. Writers often make simple comparisons between the areas, as these two observations by art critics show: ‘Here is a case. . .of a child of twelve. . .being moved to produce art as fine, in essence, as that of Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Giotto, and some other few examples of primitive inspiration.’footnote2 ‘[Le Douanier] Rousseau is the folk painter, and he has the aspiration of the peasant. . .The Gothic peasant does not lie far below the skin of the bourgeois.’footnote3 These comparisons are at once all-embracing and elusive. The child’s work is like Botticelli’s—in essence; Rousseau is actually a peasant—but only beneath a petitbourgeois exterior. How do such comparisons work? What do the various aspects of the primitive have in common? Is it to do with the essence of the art, the character of the artist, or the quality of the execution? Often it is simply the soul of the artist. Given a similarity in the groups of souls, minds or natures, a similar art naturally and directly results. In primitive art the relation between conception and execution is supposed to be unproblematic and direct in a way that is not true of more civilized work.

Likewise, children’s art and savage art are similar since they are both based on the incapacity associated with growing up: ‘All children have passed through from the primitive achievements of the most primitive of the Ur-folk.’footnote4 This assumed identity between ontogenesis and phylogenesis is a commonplace of the psychology and anthropology of this period. The art of the insane was thought to be similar in this respect. Often the similarity is to do with simplicity, naivety or honesty, qualities that express themselves in the final product as much as in the artistic process: ‘The carver of idols is, without doubt, the most scrupulous of realists. He works with almost the same delicious naivety as Rousseau, who before painting a full-length of the poet Alfred Jarry, carefully measured him with a pocket-rule, after the fashion of a tailor.’footnote5 When primitive art was discussed, there was generally an erosion of the usual distinctions made in art criticism. The relations between the soul of the artist and the essence of the work, between the quality and type of the execution and their expression in the work, are taken to be unmediated and direct.

So we can begin to make some sense of the concept of the primitive as used in the 1920s as being centred on the capacities and characteristics of a certain type of mind. However, many attempts were made to split open the category, to divide off one or more of its facets or to challenge its coherence altogether, not least by positing the existence of an exclusive, true or essential primitive. So the anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers thought the concept should be restricted to the most primitive people (in the sense of being the lowest down on the ‘evolutionary ladder’) that we know of. These would be the closest we can get to the true primitive, the first people.footnote6

More important is the dispute over whether to include in the definition members of the avant-garde who take the primitive as their subject or idiom. Much of this controversy was centred on Gauguin because of his primitive subject matter and assumed life style. Wyndham Lewis stated one side of the argument: ‘Gauguin was not an artist-type. He was a savage type addicted to painting. He was in reality very like his sunny friends in the Marquesas Islands. He was in as limited way a savage as an American Negro. Such people are savages who go in for art for motives of vanity or of undisguised sex.’footnote7 Jan Gordon expressed the opposite view: ‘I think he was too civilized. He was so civilized that he could regard this civilization as a fraud. Whereas to the savage it is a heaped marvel.’footnote8

It was generally praise to identify some aspect of a modern, self-conscious artist with the primitive, but it was something else for the identification to be made complete. Thornton and Gordon thought Gauguin and Van Gogh were primitive and unbalanced, the latter so seriously that his work contained symbols showing a regression to the primitive life of the race.footnote9 C. Hercules Read went further, in characterizing much avant-garde work as a ‘pathological return to the crude and rudimentary conditions of barbarism’.footnote10