Daniel Sherman

French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945-1975

University of Chicago Press 2011

December 5, 2013 ROXANNE PANCHASI

The “primitivist idea” has played an important role in art and culture from at least the late nineteenth century. From Paul Gauguin to Pablo...

The “primitivist idea” has played an important role in art and culture from at least the late nineteenth century. From Paul Gauguin to Pablo Picasso, to the more recent Musée du Quai Branly (opened in 2006), a variety of individuals and institutions have engaged with so-called “primitive” peoples; collected their artifacts; displayed, represented, and mimicked their cultural forms and practices. Daniel Sherman‘s French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945-1975 (University of Chicago Press, 2011) examines the postwar history of primitivism as one inflected throughout by the colonial past and present. Offering readers a perspective on the trente glorieuses  (“thirty glorious years”) following the Second World War, Sherman challenges oversimplified narratives of economic recovery and prosperity, reminding us that the period was one of deep cultural and political cleavages that cannot be understood without reference to the history and legacies of French imperialism.

The book looks at the visual arts, of course, but also makes fascinating links between this domain and others: ethnography, ideas about home décor, tourism, and nuclear testing. Tensions between notions of modernity and tradition run throughout the chapters of French Primitivism. Postwar anthropologists, artists, museum curators, and planners considered the primitive in the metropolitan context, developing internal as well as external forms of preservationism and systems of knowledge/representation that drew on long-standing ideas and practices directed at colonial subjects and cultures. From rural Brittany to Paris, to French Polynesia, French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire illustrates an interdependence of culture and imperialism that continues to resonate in contemporary France.

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