Theses Doctoral

Primitive before Primitivism: Medieval and African Art in the 19th century

Majeed, Risham

This dissertation chronicles how medieval, and particularly Romanesque art, came to be understood as “primitive” and “originary” throughout the nineteenth century. I argue that because Romanesque sculpture was perceived to be both an anterior and foreign style, its alterity disturbed the linear nationalistic narratives being developed throughout the nineteenth century. The rediscovery of Romanesque monuments, following a fraught and violent period of destruction, confused the entire notion of “origins,” because even though they were ancient, they lacked purity and innovation. Romanesque art was non-naturalistic, de-centralized and did not conform to the established aesthetic canons of the time in which it re-entered the European imagination. Theoreticians’ engagements with Romanesque furnished them with language and a model of comparison for the great variety of nonwestern, and mostly non-naturalistic, styles that were brought back to Europe during the same period. I propose that Primitivism developed as a strategy of identity formation arising out of an unprecedented and radical disavowal of the past during the French Revolution, in which medieval art played a generative role.

Each chapter traces the interdependence of margins and metropoles in the concomitant fashioning of national and colonial identities, as France gradually intensified its expansion into Africa. Through synchronous analysis of new technologies of reproductive media, particularly lithographs and photographs, I argue that neither African nor Medieval art entered the nascent discourse of art history in isolation, as the respective historiographies of those fields would have us believe. Most importantly, my research reveals the intellectual and pictorial dialogue between anthropology and art that lead to the foundation of two seminal museums, The Museum of Ethnography and The Museum of Comparative Sculpture at the Trocadéro, by the eminent architect and theoretician, E.E. Viollet-le-Duc.

I also argue for the anthropological origins of Art History in the late nineteenth century and the effect that the former’s methods had on the categorization of certain arts as “primitive.” More specifically, I show that perceptions of African art were not conceived in a vacuum, nor did they arise distinct from European material culture and aesthetics. Indeed, both Romanesque and African art were first treated as ethnographic evidence of “primitive” societies steeped in collective ritual, entirely at odds with the individual secularism at the core of Modernity. Since anthropology and ethnography treated visual material as reflections of the stages of civilization rather than as forms with their own self-regulated logic, the theorization of Romanesque and African art was colored by the biases of a different discipline. This pre-history shows that the circulation of African art in the early Colonial period did not engender Primitivism but rather that pre-existent notions of “primitivity” attached to Romanesque sculpture were extended to this newly discovered material culture.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Murray, Stephen D.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 1, 2015