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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T53


Representative Art of Primitive People 1

When studying the graphic and plastic arts of primitive people,
two aspects have to be distinguished — the type of art which
develops from the mastery of technique, and the other which develops
from the attempts at a graphic representation of objects which interest
the people.

When we speak of art, we have to bear in mind that all art implies
technical skill. It is therefore an improper use of the term to speak of
primitive art when we refer to objects in which the producer does not
possess that mastery of technique that makes the product of his labors
a work of art. A basket, a pot, or a wooden object, crudely made and
irregular in outline, cannot claim the term of a product of artistic activity.
On the other hand, the increase in skill brings it about that the
products of the handicraft of man attain an artistic value. An inexperienced
basket-maker who does not control the movements of her
hands will produce an uneven fabric, the stitches of which will be different
in size and different in texture, and which will for this reason possess
an irregular surface. On the other hand, the expert basket-weaver will
have such control over her movements that all the various operations will
be performed in an automatic manner; so that the intensity of pull and
the manner of twisting that are necessary in these operations will be performed
with even intensity. For this reason the stitches will be absolutely
regular, and the regularity itself will produce an esthetic effect.
The same is true in the case of woodwork, where the use of the ax or of
the adz in the hands of the expert workman will be so automatic that
perfectly regular lines and surfaces will be produced. This virtuosity in
the handling of tools and of materials is the very essence of artistic skill;
and we may safely say that in many cases the esthetic effect of the manufactured
objects is not due to a primary intention on the part of the
manufacturer, but is a secondary product of the possession of masterly

While this skill may produce regularity of outline, it does not necessarily
result in designs. As soon, however, as the workman begins to play
with his technique — an occupation that is enjoyed by every virtuoso —
then the opportunity is given for the origin of design. The potter who
in turning her pot gives it regular impressions with the nail of her thumb,
the basket-maker who in playing with her technique develops the art
of twilling, or the woodworker who varies the form of the surfaces over
which he works with his adz, are led at once, by this very play with the
technique, to the creation of decorative designs.

In all these matters we do not presuppose any impulse that has for its
primary object the creation of esthetic forms: the esthetic forms appear
rather as secondary products of virtuosity. Neither do we need to presuppose
in this line of activities any desire to represent forms, and to
convey ideas by means of decorative forms.

It is obvious, however, that these technical activities do not exhaust
the range of forms that are found as products of the artistic skill of
primitive man. We find everywhere attempts to convey definite meanings
by means of graphic outlines or sculptural forms. These may be
simply what has been called “Augenblickskunst” by Wilhelm Wundt;
that is, forms which are intended only for the use of the moment, and
that are designed to represent to the mind of the maker or to that of
others certain impressions received from the experience of the moment.
In these productions the artistic element is practically absent, because
the outlines are always crude, and there is no technical skill exhibited in
their execution.

It is characteristic of the development of representative art, however,
that the technical skill which is acquired in the development of technical
art is applied also in the execution of representative forms; and it is in
this case that we actually find the beginnings of representative art.

It is not my purpose to discuss in the following lines the intimate
relations between decorative and representative art that do develop in
many cases, and that are found particularly close in primitive life.
This subject has been discussed fully and extensively in many publications
among which must be mentioned the excellent contributions by
Professor William H. Holmes, published in the Annual Reports of the
Bureau of American Ethnology. It may be sufficient to point out that,
according to our present point of view, it seems futile to discuss the
question whether representative decorative art is older than geometrical
decorative art, but that it rather appears that we are dealing here with
536two different sources of artistic activity, which tend to merge into the
development of graphic and plastic arts. We may recognize both a
tendency to geometrical conventionalization of representative design
whenever it is used for decorative purposes, and we may also recognize
the tendency to read meaning into geometrical decorative design when
it is given representative value.

Considerable interest attaches to the question of characteristics of
both the crude and more highly developed representative designs that
occur in various cultural stages.

We will direct our attention here particularly to the attempts at
representation on a surface; that is to say, to the graphic arts of drawing,
engraving, and painting.

It is clear that whenever man tries to represent objects of nature in this
manner, he is confronted with the problem of showing a three-dimensional
object on a surface. The complete presentation of the object in
all its aspects cannot be given; and the question therefore arises of
solving the problem how to represent in an adequate way a three-dimensional

When we examine the products of the art of primitive people, we find
that on the whole a method is used which is apparently quite foreign to
our modern feeling. While in our modern perspective drawing the
painter tries to give the visual impression of the object, showing only
what we believe we see at any given moment, we find that in more
primitive forms of art this solution of the problem appears unsatisfactory,
for the reason that the momentary position of the object will not
exhibit certain features that are essential for its recognition. For instance,
if a person it seen from the back, the eyes, the nose, and the mouth are
not visible; but at the same time we know that eyes, nose, and mouth
are essential characteristic elements of the human form. This idea is so
fundamental in the view of most primitive people that we find practically
in every case the endeavor to represent those elements that are
considered as essential characteristics of the object. It is obvious that
when this is to be done, the idea of rendering the momentary impression
must be given up, because it may not be possible to see all these different
features at the same time; and thus we find that one of the characteristic
traits of primitive art is the disregard of the relative position of the
essential elements of the object of representation.

It is interesting to note that the same problem presents itself to the
child when it first tries to draw, and that the solution of the problem
537generally follows the same line that is adopted by primitive man;
namely, the endeavor to represent all those elements that are considered
as essential and characteristic rather than the actual spatial
relations as they appear at any given moment. We must explain from
this point of view the profiles with two eyes, or the outlines of the body
under the garments, which occur in the drawings of both children and
primitive tribes.

However, it must not be assumed that this tendency is independent
of certain traditional characteristics that determine style. This may
be observed even in cases where we are dealing with realistic representations
executed in very crude outlines. Thus the human form as represented
in certain South American drawings consists very often of a
triangle with point downward, the two descending sides of the triangle
being continued as legs, while the horizontal line on top represents the
shoulder line, and is continued outward so as to represent the arms. In
other regions we find that the human body is often represented by a
curved line which is open below and terminates in the legs and feet.
The Eskimo, on the other hand, never utilize a form of this kind, but
always execute their drawings in the form of silhouettes. On account
of their tendency to show silhouettes, attention is directed only to the
outlines, which are executed in many cases with a remarkable degree
of fidelity to nature. On the other hand, the artist of the Magdalenian
period was not satisfied with the mere outline, but tried to fill in details
that the Eskimo habitually disregards. The treatment of the body by
the Bushman shows again other characteristics. Cases of this kind
indicate that we have to speak of traditional style even in those cases
in which the forms seem at first glance to be a result of the naive attempt
at representing essential elements of the object to be represented. This
stylistic character is expressed both in the outline and in the traits which
are selected for representation.

The fundamental idea that in the representation of an object its
essential traits must be shown has led to the development of artistic
styles which demonstrate a high technical skill, but which are quite
foreign to our feeling. Perhaps the most characteristic case is that of
the art of the Indians of the North Pacific coast of America, in which
the principle of representation of an object by means of symbols is
carried to extremes. The conventional form in which an animal body
is shown does not differ much for various types of animals; but the
fundamental rule underlying the art is that the characteristic parts of
538the animals must be shown. Thus a beaver, which is characterized by
the large incisors and by the tail, must contain these elements, no matter
how the rest of the body may be treated. The killerwhale must show
the large dorsal fin, no matter how the rest of the body may be presented.

Since the art of the Northwest coast is at the same time, on the whole,
a decorative art, in which definite principles have developed in regard
to the treatment of the decorative field, we find that the method of
representation consists always in the attempt to squeeze the symbols of
the animal that is to be represented into the decorative field and follow
the rules of the treatment of surfaces that are presented by the style of
the Northwest coast art.

When we compare the art of the North Pacific coast, which has
developed this tendency to an extreme degree with our modern art, it
might appear that the principles are fundamentally opposed to each
other. Nevertheless it is easy to show that modern art is only slowly and
by degrees emancipating itself from the idea that the representation of
a three-dimensional object should contain the essential permanent characteristics
of the object. If we remember that the imagination of the
primitive artist is given its direction by the desire to represent all the
essential parts of his subject, no matter whether they may be visible at
a given moment or not, we can see that those paintings, in which different
scenes of the same incident are represented as parts of one composition,
follow out to a certain extent the same idea. Thus if we
see in one painting Adam and Eve in Paradise on the left, the serpent
in the middle, and the expulsion from Paradise on the right,
it is clear that the artist followed in a way the same principle of
showing the essential scenes in the same painting, although they do
not belong to the same visual impression. But we can go a step farther.
Large groups, like those of the Dutch painters, in which, on a large
canvas, many individuals are shown with equal distinctness, do not
represent the momentary visual impression. We see with distinctness
only a small part of the visual field, while the rest appears blurred, and
the painting therefore represents, not a momentary visual impression,
but a picture reconstructed from a succession of impressions that are
obtained when the eye moves over the whole field of vision. The discrepancy
between the momentary impression and the painting is particularly
striking in those cases in which the picture itself is small and
can be taken in at a single glance. Then the sharpness of outline with
which all the figures stand out is contradicted by our everyday experience.
539It is only quite recently that pictorial art has used this phenomenon
to any extent in order to compel the viewer to direct his
attention to that point that is prominent in the mind of the painter.

Similar observations may be made in regard to color. We find that
almost throughout, the colors which are utilized are those in which
an object appears to us permanently. It is only with difficulty that
most of us get accustomed to green faces, such as appear in the shadow
of a tree, or red faces that may be produced by red curtains or the
reflection of a brick wall. In these cases the abstraction from the
momentary impression is so strong that most of us are not even aware
that we actually do see these passing color effects.

It appears from this point of view that the principle of painting what
may be called the permanent characteristics of an object have not by
any means disappeared from modern art, and that, although the conflict
between the momentary visual impression and what we consider the
permanent form is not as fundamental as it is in many forms of primitive
art, its effect may be traced even in modern times.

It is easy to show that the absence of realistic forms in the representative
art of primitive tribes is not due to lack of skill. For instance, in
those rare cases in which it is the object of the artist to deceive by the
truthfulness of his representation, we find that the narrow lines imposed
by conventional style may be broken through. Thus the wood-carvers
of the North Pacific coast, who are hemmed in so rigidly by the conventional
style of that region, succeed in carving heads remarkably
true to nature, which are used in their winter ceremonies, and which
are intended to give the impression that a certain person has been
decapitated. A remarkable specimen of this kind has been illustrated
in the Annual Report of the United States National Museum for 1895
(page 504). Equally convincing are some attempts of these Indians to
reproduce in wood carving classical statues that have been shown to
them. We must rather seek for the condition of their art in the depth
of the feeling which demands the representation of the permanent
characteristics of the object in the representative design.540

1 Holmes Anniversary Volume (Washington, 1916),pp. 18-23.