Neo-Primitivism – Alexander Shevchenko

This essay was published as a pamphlet in 1912 as Its full title : ‘Neo-Primitivism: Its Theory, Its Potentials, Its Achievements’.


We who hold neo-primitivism to be the artist’s religion say:

Physical nature in the true sense no longer exists. It has become the foundation of apartment blocks, and the asphalt of pavements and streets. Physical nature is nothing but a memory, like a tale about something marvellous that has long since disappeared.

The Factory-Town dominates everything.

Perpetual movement, endless coming and going, nightmarish and confused visions of the city follow one after the other. In the daylight which is obscured by houses, in the light created by the electric suns of the night, life appears completely different to us, full of other new forms.

The world has been transformed into a monstrous, fantastic, perpetually moving machine; into an enormous automatic organism, inanimate, a gigantic whole constructed on a strict correspondence and balance of parts.

We and the entire world are parts of the whole.

Robot-like, we have become habituated to life – getting up, going to bed, eating and working to set times; and this sense of rhythm and mechanical harmony is reflected in our entire life, cannot but be reflected in our mode of thought, in our spiritual life, in art.

A simple, physical copy of nature can no longer satisfy us.

We are used to seeing surrounding nature modified, embellished by the hands of man the creator, and we can only demand the same of art.

Such is the creation of the century in which we live.

Naturalistic painting does not exist for us, just as nature does not exist without cleared, sanded or asphalted roads, without water-mains and artificial light, without telephone or tramway.

We are endeavouring to find new paths for our art, but we do not reject the old forms altogether, and of these we acknowledge above all primitive art, magic tales of the ancient Orient.

The simple and innocent beauty of the luhok, the austerity of primitive art, the mechanical precision of construction, the stylistic nobility and beautiful colours gathered together by the creative hand of the master artist, that is our watchword and slogan.

Life without movement is nothing, and that is why we always try not to restrict the form of objects to a single plane, but to communicate their movement by representing their intermediate forms.

Beauty only resides in the harmony of simple combinations of forms and colours. Mannered beauty borders on the illusory sophistication of the market, a product of the corruption of popular taste.

Primitives, icons, lubki, trays, signboards, fabrics of the Orient… these are the models of real value and of pictorial beauty.

The words ‘Art’ (that is to say fiction) and ‘Nature’ (that is to say reality), intersect to become ‘the creative will of the painter 1 , which takes its materials from divergent sources. That is why we do not aim for a naturalistic resemblance to nature in our paintings.

Nature is a raw material, which only excites in our souls this or that emotion at the moment when we carry out what we have conceived of within the plan of the painting.

One should copy neither art nor life, but instead observe them and study them both ceaselessly. In art, the observation and the study of nature must have as a point of departure a subject of art itself. We take as the starting-point of our art the lubok, primitive art, and the icon, for there we find a more precise, more direct perception of life and one which is, furthermore, purely pictorial.

Just like the primitivists and the painters of the East, we consider that the most valuable and productive work is that which is guided by direct perception. This opens up greater possibilities to the artist to reveal his own conception of the world, and does not distract attention with unnecessary details, which too often happens when one works from nature. * * *

The word Neo-primitivism itself is a word which both characterizes the evolution of pictorial realizations, their origin in primitive art, and likewise testifies that they belong to our era.

There are not and there cannot be phenomena arising from nothing.

Ideas are not born but reborn, and so everything that is normal is successive and develops from preceding forms.

Such is our school which, taking primitive art as its source, develops in the contemporary era.

Generally it is admissible to describe as primitive, not only the simplicity, the clumsiness of past artists, but also folk art, for which there is a specific name, the lubok. The word primitive directly reveals an Oriental origin, for today it reflects the entire spectrum of Oriental art -Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indo-Persian art …

In our school, this notion reveals the character of painting (not of the subject), the manner of execution, the use of pictorial traditions of the Orient.

This initiation to the Orient is an inner and spiritual one. But this is not a simple imitation, of which one usually says ‘it is in an Oriental style’; for example, Stelletski, whose works in no way speak of old Russia, of Byzantium, of icons, does not achieve this. This is nothing but historicism, the examining of lofty ideas in the manner of a dilettante, an imitation lacking perception, whereas the icons are completely suffused by the Orient and by Byzantium and at the same time remain completely original.

Neo-primitivism is a profoundly national phenomenon.

Russia and the Orient have been indissolubly linked since the Tartar invasions, and the spirit of the Tartars, the spirit of the Orient, is embedded in our lives to such a degree that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish where the national character trait ends and where the influence of the Orient begins.

All human has in general come from Asia, not the other way round as certain people assert.

Our entire Asiatic and the foreign masters, the architects, weavers, artists, and all those from the Occident carrying within them a spark of European civilization, fell immediately in our barbarous country under the influence of the Tartar , of the Orient, of our more original, more passionate , and the Occidental civilization was reduced to dust before the Oriental .

Take our ancient Russian painting. It suffices to compare our grass writing with the tapestries of the Orient, our ‘spiritual and moral painting’ and its direct extension – the popular images and the lubki – with Indo-Persian painting, to discover quite clearly their common origin, their spiritual affinity.

In other countries, the influence of the Orient is no less evident, no less grandiose; the forms of Occidental art fashioned themselves entirely from Byzantine forms, which had been borrowed in their turn from the even older art of Georgia and Armenia.

Thus one comes full circle, a progression of the arts from us, the Orient, the Caucasus, towards Byzantium; then to Italy, borrowing from there techniques of oil painting and the easel; then returning to us.

Hence the epithets like ‘Frenchified Painting’ in which, if we take our investigation further, we find the splendour of our Barbary once again, the primitive art of the Orient, more so than the Occident with its simple, naturalistic, sometimes quite absurd imitation of nature.

All of this can in a sufficient measure justify our enthusiasm for the art of the Orient. It has become evident that there is no other reason to use the products of the Occident, which received them from the Orient, all the more so since after their long circular voyage they have had plenty of time to spoil and rot.

There is no longer any reason since we have daily and direct contact with Asia.

We are called Barbarians, Asiatics.

Yes, we are Asia and we are proud of it because ‘Asia is the cradle of Nations 1 , a good measure of Tartar blood flows in our veins and we salute the Orient which is to come, ultimate origin, cradle of , of all the arts.

Hence Neo-primitivism which takes the Orient as its origin is not the repetition, the popularization of the Oriental which inevitably renders all art forms banal; no, it is entirely original. The Orient is reflected in Neo-primitivism to a great extent, for instance in the interpretation, the traditions; yes, but our own national art plays a large role. (Just as when children create art.) This primitive art which is unique in its genre, is always profound and true, created where our Asiatic origin can be found in all its plenitude.

Nor is Neo-primitivism a stranger to Occidental forms and we declare openly:

Asia has given us all the depth of its , its primitive nature, and Europe has in its turn added some traits of its own civilization.

Thus Neo-primitivism is born of the fusion of Oriental traditions and the forms of the Occident. […]

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