In 19th-century Europe, Christianity was no longer commonly trusted. Certain elites even reject it point-blank. The worldview based on faith in God was being driven away by the cult of reason and science. The theory of evolution developed, stating that man was not created by God but originated from animals. Yet at the end of the century, the conviction that scientific learning could bring people happiness weakened. Many thinkers and creators succumbed to pessimism. Culture in the 20th-century was to a large degree a product of the desire to renew and regenerate European civilisation.

There was a great range of ideas on how to overcome the crisis of European culture. Many believed in political ideologies: Marxism, communism or anarchism. Their aim was – and still is – a total reconstruction of the social order in the name of an allegedly better future. Also the notion that a new European culture should be based on pure undegenerated primeval values became increasingly popular. Knowledge of Europe’s distant past was improving. Remains and remnants of prehistorical creatures and old cultures were being found and more and more was known about non-European cultures. Crowds flocked to exhibitions to see goods, exotic animals or objects brought from across the oceans. In the 1800s, typically there was a sense of superiority that accompanied talking about such contemporaneous trophies, yet in the 20th century Europeans increasingly often became fascinated by archaic culture.

In art, admiration for primitive cultures is symbolised by the creative output of the French painter Paul Gauguin.
Initially, he was looking for ‘primitiveness’ in French Brittany, where he wrote the following words: ‘When my clogs [wooden shoes] resound on this granite soil, I hear the dull, matt, powerful tone I seek in my painting.’ In 1891, he went to Polynesian islands, and in 1901 settled on the Marquesas Islands. There, he would paint tropical nature, exotic locals and totems representing their deities. These pictures were completely different from European painting of old. They do not represent space based on the principle of linear and aerial perspective respected since the Renaissance – the artist does not focus on faithful representation of depth and tridimensionality. There is also no depiction of natural light, something that fascinated the Impressionists so much. The works are colourful and made of flat blotches of hues. Gauguin’s paintings became a powerful inspiration for modern creative artists.
Successive trends in painting were also looking at primitive art for inspiration. When Pablo Picasso painted The Young Ladies of Avignon in 1907, he broke with the tradition of the European female nude. His model was not ancient Greek sculpture as it was for painters of previous centuries. Instead he shaped the silhouettes inspired by African sculpture. His example would be followed by hundreds of painters across Europe.

In 1911, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art that ‘a “roughly” hewn post in an Indian temple was completely penetrated by the same spirit as a living “contemporary” work.’ Yet he did not want to imitate the forms of primitive art by simplifying the characters painted. He wished to express ‘the same spirit’ in a new language of painting. Thus the charm of the primitive became one of the inspirations of modern abstract art.

The Swiss artist Paul Klee’s reflection on the primitive was exceptional in its depth and subtlety. Already in 1902, he declared that he was not interested in past models. He wrote in his diary that he would ‘abstract everything’ and work ‘modestly like a self-taught man.’ At the beginning of his artistic trajectory, he was linked to a group of painters from Munich known as the Expressionists. Most frequently, these artists wanted to express anxiety and despair through their art. It is not surprising – that was during the First World War. Yet Klee’s imagination went further. He wanted to create paintings expressing the world’s everlasting essence – a value on which the entire universe was based. To achieve this he looked for an expressive language that would be as elementary and simple as possible and yet universal. The painter was inspired by archaic cave drawings and the colourful ‘primitive’ culture of Morocco and Tunisia. Klee became the strongest singular personality of 20th-century German art.

Central European creative artists had a completely different attitude to primitive art. They were inspired by Cubism yet treated it as another accomplishment of European art. The long captivity under foreign rule – Russian, Prussian, Austrian, Turkish – triggered the desire to strengthen their own culture. The development of artistic creation was to at least partly compensate for the lack of political freedom. Art had the task of recalling the nation’s history and consolidating the national community. Once the First World War ended in 1918, Central European nations regained the political freedom they had been craving. National identity was thus to be expressed in a national style. In Poland, there were attempts to find its roots in folk art. The simple wood engraving and glass painting practised by the highlanders of Podhale became an inspiration. In Central Europe, the fascination with primitive culture therefore had a different foundation than in the West. Primitiveness was not seen as the opposite of artistic tradition. On the contrary – the former was seen as the source of the latter.

The results varied. Sometimes, folk patterns were replicated too literally. Most interesting were works combining tradition with modernity, e.g. Cubism, such as in the art of the Czech Jan Zrzavý and the Pole Tytus Czyżewski. Inspired by austere folk art, they managed to successfully avoid what could be called superficial Cubist styling.
After the Second World War, the situation did not in fact change. In Western Europe, the inspiration drawn from the ‘non-civilised’ continued to express the rebellion against cultural tradition – the only difference being that charges of being bourgeois were now accompanied by slogans calling to fight ‘capitalist exploitation and the degradation of human life’ inspired by Marxist ideology. They were championed, for instance, by the international group Cobra, bringing together artists from Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. In Central European countries, the attitude towards Marxist ideology was different. As after the Second World War they fell under the rule of the Soviet Union, its main supporter, the task of preserving cultural tradition, that time around destroyed and distorted by communists, became relevant yet again.