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French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945-1975

French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945-1975

by Daniel J. Sherman

 For over a century, the idea of primitivism has motivated artistic modernism. Focusing on the three decades after World War II, known in France as “les trentes glorieuses” despite the loss of most of the country’s colonial empire, this probing and expansive book argues that primitivism played a key role in a French society marked by both


 For over a century, the idea of primitivism has motivated artistic modernism. Focusing on the three decades after World War II, known in France as “les trentes glorieuses” despite the loss of most of the country’s colonial empire, this probing and expansive book argues that primitivism played a key role in a French society marked by both economic growth and political turmoil.

In a series of chapters that consider significant aspects of French culture—including the creation of new museums of French folklore and of African and Oceanic arts and the development of tourism against the backdrop of nuclear testing in French Polynesia—Daniel J. Sherman shows how primitivism, a collective fantasy born of the colonial encounter, proved adaptable to a postcolonial, inward-looking age of mass consumption. Following the likes of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Andrée Putman, and Jean Dubuffet through decorating magazines, museum galleries, and Tahiti’s pristine lagoons, this interdisciplinary study provides a new perspective on primitivism as a cultural phenomenon and offers fresh insights into the eccentric edges of contemporary French history.

Editorial Reviews

Philip Nord
“Ernest Renan made the observation long ago: it is not just what citizens remember that helps to make a nation but also what they forget. He was speaking of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The same will to forget is at work today in France’s effacement of its colonial past. Daniel Sherman’s penetrating work on twentieth-century French primitivism hammers the point home with exceptional analytic sophistication and an unflagging intelligence.”

Leora Auslander
“Bold and innovative in its conceptualization and execution, this book persuasively argues for the crucial role of primitivism in French culture and society following the end of the Second World War. Sherman combines an array of sites of cultural production and consumption to create a fascinating image of the period. This is an impressive and exciting work.”

Richard Shiff
French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire is exemplary social history, cultural history, and art history—all informed by an intellectual sophistication linking several theoretical perspectives to an analysis that takes many fascinating turns. Sherman associates diverse observations of specific events with grand ideological constructions, sometimes to pinpoint inherent tensions, sometimes to give voice to a telling fact that otherwise remains silent. Simultaneously a study of postwar France and a commentary on historical method, this text is admirably responsible to its own judgments, explaining its concepts and terms as its argument proceeds. Regarding no cultural practice as beyond suspicion, Sherman ends with historical investigation and analysis at its very best.”

Nicholas Thomas
“The lively controversy around Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly reminds us that primitivism is a complex ongoing cultural formation, with dynamics beyond those of modernist art. Daniel Sherman’s deeply researched study conducts a fascinating exploration of less-usual artistic suspects such as Gaston Chaissac, but ranges also over ethnography, museology, tourism, and ongoing contention in France's remaining colonies. This is a topical and absorbing history.”


“With impressive breadth of research, this study brings together a wide range of related subjects in a style that is focused, intellectually engaging, and accessible. Highly recommended.”
Oxford Art Journal
 “A brilliant study of period taste.”
Museum Anthropology
“Sherman’s examination of creatively chosen textual and visual illustrations to expose the complexities of the discourses and practices that ‘write primitivism into this period’ is a major strength of this volume.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
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6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

FRENCH PRIMITIVISM and the Ends of Empire, 1945–1975

By Daniel J. Sherman

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-75269-3

Chapter One


Circa 967

Four events, occurring within months of each other in the fall of 1966 and spring of 1967, encapsulate the history this book seeks to tell. In September 1966, French president Charles de Gaulle visited French Polynesia, one of his country's most distant overseas territories and one of the last under semicolonial rule (a governor appointed by Paris exercised executive authority, ostensibly in tandem with the leadership of an elected local assembly). Polynesia, and notably its most populous island, Tahiti, was the object of elaborate plans for tourist development, made possible by the arrival of jet aircraft at a newly constructed airport in 1961. But de Gaulle was not on vacation: he had come to witness the explosion of a nuclear device at France's new testing base in the eastern Tuamotu archipelago; it was the second such test to be held there. Passing through the territorial capital of Pape'ete on his way to the Moruroa atoll, the president ignored the complaints of local politicians and acknowledged no contradiction between the nuclear testing program and France's committment to tourism as a form of economic development that would preserve Polynesia's distinct cultural heritage.

The second "event" qualifies as such perhaps only in the most technical sense, as a moment in a repetitive series: the unveiling in January 1967 of several spring-summer couture collections that made use of motifs from African art. When Yves Saint Laurent announced his retirement and that of his couture line in January 2002, producing a flurry of retrospective press coverage, the French minister of culture, in a brief statement, referred explicitly to his 1967 African collection as epochal. But the 1967 trend was not limited to Saint Laurent; a different set of African-influenced designs formed part of Marc Bohan's collection for Christian Dior.

The third and fourth events occurred within a few weeks of each other in April. One was also part of a series: the launch of Arts primitifs dans les ateliers d'artistes (Primitive Arts from Artists' Studios), the third annual exhibition at the Musée de l'Homme, which, with a highly aesthetized presentation of objects from Africa, Oceania, and native American cultures, broke with the museum's traditional mode of display. The other had less precedent: the opening at the Musée des Arts décoratifs of the first major public exhibition of the works the artist Jean Dubuffet had collected under the rubric art brut, known in English as outsider art—more than seven hundred pieces by some six hundred self-taught artists.

What connects these four events? On one level, all represent aspects of modernity in France, understood as a state of change or newness perceived as such. Nor is this convergence unexpected at a moment that could be considered the apex of Gaullist technocracy, a year before the profoundly unsettling events of May 1968. Yet each also reveals, on closer inspection, the pull of something different, a kind of past, tradition, or otherness, that together cloud the picture of postwar France's embrace of modernity. The technological modern, nuclear weaponry, finds it proving ground in a place bound to France by colonialism, a system haunted by the traumas of the recent past. One of the youngest, most self-consciously innovative designers on the French fashion scene looks for inspiration to cultures regarded as deeply bound to tradition, on a continent less than a decade independent from colonial rule. A museum of anthropology, historically committed to exhibiting objects as specimens of their cultures of origin, presents them as works of art. And one of France's few international art stars in the postwar period, an artist known for his antiestablishment positions, entrusts a collection amassed largely in secret to that classic venue of institutional modernity, a museum exhibition.

Reading more closely, seeking to probe below the surface of events, looking for complexity and contradiction in discourse—all of these lie at the heart of historical practice, and of the method I practice in this book. But beyond the contradictions of modernity, something else connects these four moments. In different ways each demonstrates the continuing potency of cultural primitivism in French society during the three decades after World War II, the period of its most intense and wide-ranging embrace of the modern. Primitivism as a tendency in art and ideas can be traced back to antiquity, but in this book it denotes, more broadly, an expressed affinity for people or peoples believed to be living simpler, more natural lives than those of people in the modern West. As such, it constitutes not only a pervasive cultural tendency worthy of historical study, but also a revealing lens through which to study that context. Taking on particular contours in France because of France's fraught relationship with modernity, primitivism as a cultural phenomenon refracts French modernity at its difficult, largely obscured boundary with the colonial past. Throughout its multiple manifestations in this book, primitivism remains tightly entwined with both modernity and colonialism.

Behind the twin roles primitivism plays—as object of study and as refracting lens—lies a complex history, of which only a brief summary is possible here. At least since the eighteenth century, every age has had its own form of primitivism; while they share a certain operational mode, in which the supposed purity of the primitive offers a challenge to the civilized West, the assumptions underlying primitivism have changed. If in his contribution to Guillaume Raynal's Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes (1781) Denis Diderot advocated miscegenation as a way of reconciling civilization and savagery, in the second half of the nineteenth century primitivism generally took second place to the dominant racial thinking of the time, which postulated a hierarchy of human races akin to the Darwinian evolution of species. The classic form of modernist primitivism grew out of a simultaneous challenge to the ideology of scientific racism from two directions—the European artistic avant-garde and cultural anthropology, incarnated by such figures as Franz Boas in the United States and Marcel Mauss in France—in roughly the two decades surrounding 1900. The convergence of these two trends in the halls of Paris's Musée d'Ethnographie at the Trocadéro, where artists from Picasso and the Fauves to the surrealists supposedly found inspiration, has in turn become one of the classic vignettes of the history of modernism.

The central conceit of modernist primitivism holds that the artist (in the broad sense of a creator) can, through a valorization of the primitive, advance a personal, inventive form of expression while at the same time critiquing the hypocrisy, soullessness, or sterility of the modern West. For most of the twentieth century the political valence of primitivism interested interpreters less than its broader philosophical and aesthetic dimensions. In his Primitivism in Modern Art, a still-influential text from 1938, Robert Goldwater writes:

It can perhaps be said that primitivism tends to expand the metaphor of art—by which is meant a well-defined object form with a definite, precise, and limited if intricate reference—until either by formal simplification or symbolic iconographic generalization, or both, it becomes a symbol of universal reference.

This artistic understanding of primitivism has a certain reifying effect, reaffirming the conceptualization of primitivism as a perpetual syndrome of Western "civilization" going back to the Greeks, what Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas, in another work from the 1930s, called "the discontent of the civilized with civilization." Goldwater referred to a "primitivist assumption," operating in a largely nostalgic mode, that "the further one goes back—historically, psychologically, or aesthetically—the simpler things become; and that because they are simpler they are more profound, more important, and more valuable."

In a probing 2006 book, Victor Li has made clear how crucial a place the idea of the primitive other has occupied in philosophical critiques of modernity, from Jean Baudrillard to Jürgen Habermas. His analysis extends to the influential strand of criticism that emerged around a controversial 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "Primitivism" in Twentieth Century Art: Affinities of the Tribal and the Modern. The basic postulates of that critique include the following: First, primitivism, in extolling the lives and creative expression of supposedly simpler and more authentic others, serves to reinscribe the legitimacy and superiority of the Western observer. Second, the "primitive" only comes into existence with its constitutive other, variously the civilized or the modern. Third, though many primitivists criticized colonialism, imperial structures of power and knowledge provided access to the people and objects central to primitivism, and those structures thus, as Hal Foster noted, must be regarded as primitivism's basic precondition. Yet, as Li observes, these postulates, notably in the work of Foster and Marianna Torgovnick, end up producing a new form of primitivism, "a neo-primitivism that guards the primitive Other from dialectical appropriation [and] ... emphasizes absolute difference or radical alterity," and, in so doing, marks "the rehabilitation and renewal of the Western subject." Whether current French primitivism constitutes a "neo-primitivism," suggesting at first a rejection and then a renewal, remains debatable, but the persistence of an unselfconscious primitivism in France into the twenty-first century, long after it has come under challenge elsewhere, offers an inviting framework for the historical questions this study explores.

A productive use of primitivism in historical study demands a flexible conceptualization that takes into account its multiple valences at particular moments. In this book I treat primitivism as at once a discourse, a myth, a fantasy, part of a larger colonial or neocolonial apparatus, and a metaculture, with one or more of these roles predominating at any given moment. Though these terms will receive further elucidation as the context warrants, a few brief definitions are in order now. A discourse comprises a series of statements within constitutive rules of enunciation; it produces the subject by delimiting what can be said about it. Myth, in the sense Roland Barthes gave it, is a particular type of discourse: "myth is depoliticized speech." It "does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification." Fantasy involves a projection that weaves together myth, other forms of discourse, and latent conflicts into a concise narrative staging of unconscious desire. An apparatus, in Michel Foucault's conception, brings together discourses, regulations, institutions, architecture, science, and moral propositions into a system of "relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge." Finally, Greg Urban's notion of "metaculture" pertains to a discourse and associated practices intensely focused on the meaningful or signifying core of a culture, and thus spawns interest in that culture that accelerates its transmission.

Two related points about these terms should be made at the outset. First, as with much poststructuralist thought, they typically involve an element of elision, constriction, or concealment; second, in their very conception they have always had close links to either the primitive or the colonial. The "relations of forces" Foucault discusses involve various kinds of manipulation, and apparatus (in French dispositif) is readily modified by the term "colonial." To naturalize, in Barthes's Mythologies, entails depoliticizing, depriving something of its history. In setting out the concept of myth in 1957, Barthes uses the French empire as a privileged example: "If I state the fact of French imperiality without explaining it, I am very near to finding that it is natural and goes without saying." The most visible sign of colonialism's human consequences—variously métissage, racial mixing, or hybridity, both a foil for and occasional component of primitivism—occupies a central place in Sigmund Freud's understanding of fantasy. For Joan Scott, fantasy typically transposes a synchronic into a diachronic relationship, a process she illustrates with this example: "Instead of desire/ punishment or transgression/law being seen as mutually constitutive, they are understood to operate sequentially: the advent of modernity brings the 'loss' of traditional society." And for Urban, modernity is a naturally occurring "metaculture of newness," constantly preoccupied with its relation to existing metacultures of tradition, which prefer normative methods of replication to the innovation valued by modernity.

In the colonial apparatus, primitivism deploys knowledge to justify particular kinds of power. As such it calls for certain kinds of action—whether the preservation of culture or, on the part of colonial subjects, imitation or mimicry—that mask its operation but may also subvert it; the historian must remain sensitive to these effects. As fantasy, myth, or discourse, primitivism conceals or elides not only colonialism but other mediators between the Western self and the primitive other that both accompany and, in the period under study, come to supplant it. The most significant of these occluded elements, I will argue, is market capitalism: because the "primitive" is conceived as existing in harmony with nature and in simpler, face-to-face relations, and because the developed market is a hallmark of modernity, primitivism cannot recognize their connection without exposing the contradictions of its own construction.

In arguing for the value of primitivism to historical analysis, I also seek to contribute to two lively areas of debate in French history: the interweaving of French and imperial history, and a new interest in the history of the so-called trente glorieuses, the period of demographic and economic takeoff from 1945 to 1975. The link between colonialism and what Paul Rabinow dubbed "the French modern" has occupied scholars for some time. Kristin Ross and Herman Lebovics, in particular, have sought to complicate the narrative of the postwar boom years by connecting it to the trauma of decolonization. Though suggestive, Ross's study suffers from a mismatch between a sweeping argument and an overly narrow empirical base, Lebovics's from a unidirectional portrayal of decolonization as a shift of technocratic expertise and styles of authority from overseas to the metropole. They thus leave room for interpretive frameworks sensitive at once to context and to the complex interweaving of politics and discourse.

More useful in reconceptualizing the trente glorieuses—itself an ex post facto term that emphasizes economic continuities over political up-heaval—have been two historiographical developments. First, the new colonial history has offered a comprehensive picture of France as a dynamic network of mutually interacting nodes both in the metropole and overseas. Work on the interwar period and on recent debates over immigration has, moreover, shown the possibilities of applying that framework to the metropole. Second, a series of books on the Fourth and early Fifth Republics, concerned with topics as varied as the role of youth in postwar reconstruction, French philosphers on television, and changes in the construction of French citizenship and of French universalism in the wake of the Algerian war, has sought not simply to expose the connections between empire and metropole, but to explore the multiple ways their concealment became central to French self-understandings. Primitivism illuminates yet another aspect of this process of concealment.


Excerpted from FRENCH PRIMITIVISM and the Ends of Empire, 1945–1975 by Daniel J. Sherman Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Daniel J. Sherman is professor of art history and adjunct professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In addition to editing several books in critical museum studies, he is the author of Worthy Monuments:  Art Museums and the Politics of Culture in Nineteenth-Century France and The Construction of Memory in Interwar France, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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