By Alexandra A Jopp
The “other” has performed many functions throughout human history. It has variously been a source of fear, fascination, inspiration, exoticism, disgust and many things in between. One consistent theme emerges, though: how one defines the other (whatever it may be in a given situation) often goes a long way toward defining oneself. This self-identification through proxy was never more true – or more intentional – than in the Surrealists’ conception of otherness and their investigation of it through ethnography.
Surrealists went beyond mere curiosity about the exotic features of other cultures that typified movements such as Orientalism. In a world based on modern, rational thought that Surrealists found to be lacking, adherents of the movement looked to the artifacts of primitive cultures for meaning. Like the products of automatism, primitive objects were pure expressions, unfiltered by the (modern and rational) conscious mind.
“For every local custom or truth, there was always an exotic alternative, a possible juxtaposition or incongruity,” Clifford wrote. “Below (psychologically) and beyond (geographically) any ordinary reality there existed another reality.”
It was this other reality that Surrealists sought, both in their artistic practices and in their ethnography. Society, to them, had, in essence, fictionalized reality with modern inventions that obscured meaning and that led, ultimately, to the barbarism and devastation of World War I. The primitive creations of pre-modern people – as well as the primitive expressions of the subconscious – were thought to be a more accurate reflection of the true nature of being human. There is, perhaps, some irony in this. Surrealists, via the Dadaists, after all, grew out of the war, as an expression of contempt for it and for the rational society that created it. Their embrace of the primitive was part of their rebellion against contemporary values. Yet there is nothing more primal than conflict and aggression.
P.S. Since the 80s, the art market experienced a spectacular boom in primitive art. The Surrealists and primitivism as Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and the Fauves opened the appetite of collectors by giving them taste for representations out of the ordinary, taking a break with five-century classicism.
* Primitivism is a perspective on non-Western Art.