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Sacred & Profane
Michel Nedjar and Expressionist Primitivism

January 13, 1998 to March 14, 1998

For the second year in a row, the Galerie St. Etienne inaugurates the winter season with a double exhibition, pairing the mixed-media paintings of self-taught artist Michel Nedjar (b. 1947) with work from our regular cohort of Expressionist artists. While the double exhibition has a concrete purpose--to complement the Outsider Art Fair (January 23-25) and the Art Dealers' Association Art Show (February 19-23)--it also provides a welcome opportunity to resume an ongoing dialogue between our two areas of specialization. The Expressionists' profound interest in unschooled artistic efforts forms a natural historical base for this dialogue, but today's resurgent fascination with the subject of self-taught art suggests that it is also necessary to recast the discussion in contemporary terms. Michel Nedjar, a French artist championed by Jean Dubuffet as an avatar of Art Brut ("raw art"), in certain respects neatly encapsulates our current conception of "the other." Though he is hardly an "outsider," Nedjar's attempt to reach beyond the confines of civilization in search of existential essences may be seen as a present-day expression of the Primitivist urge that has been a concomitant of modernism throughout this century.

Primitivism is probably the most salient manifestation of the avant-garde's enduring obsession with "otherness," which also found an outlet in the glorification of work by children, folk craftsmen, the mentally ill, and a sundry group of self-taught "naives" and "outsiders." The roots of Primitivism may be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "noble savage" and to the Romantic idea that the truth can only be found in a pure state of nature, untainted by civilization. The advance of industrialization over the course of the nineteenth century gave these concepts greater cogency and urgency, while at the same time, through the adjunct mechanisms of trade and colonialism, providing contact with a host of once impossibly remote societies. The Primitivist ideal of an untainted culture was at various times located closer to home, in Romanesque and Gothic Europe, in Byzantium, in the Italian art of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in Egyptian and Japanese court art and even in contemporary self-taught work; only in the 1920s did the term "Primitive" acquire its current, stricter association with the tribal arts of Africa and Oceania. The move of tribal objects from the ethnographic museum to the art museum was facilitated--if not directly caused--by the modernists' desire for a new formal vocabulary to replace the dead language of academic realism. That Primitivism simultaneously constituted an affront to bourgeois tastes and societal conventions also meshed nicely with the modernists' revolutionary fervor.

Using Western civilization as a normative standard, Primitivism assumes that humankind has passed from a savage state to a cultured one, and that there is a substantive qualitative difference between our society and the ostensibly simpler ones that came before or that still exist in distant, less developed regions of the world. This qualitative difference may be presented as either positive or negative: civilization is readily equated with progress, but just as easily associated with a deadening of the human spirit or even the literal extinction of human life through ecological and technological malfeasance. A parallel dualism characterizes artistic Primitivism, which on the one hand stands at the cutting edge of the modernist aesthetic, and on the other attempts a regression to a more primal creative state. The idea that one can go forward only by going back, by retrieving the lost "other," lies at the heart of the Primitivist mandate. We look to the other without in order to find the other within.

Primitivism is thus as much an ideology as an aesthetic, and it has over the course of this century assumed disparate artistic guises. Formal devices specifically inspired by tribal art characterize much early twentieth-century Primitivism, from Picasso in France to the Expressionists in Germany. Still, German Expressionism was not a monolithic movement, and the Primitivism practiced by the Brücke artists in the North varied significantly from that of the Blaue Reiter artists in Munich or the Austrians to the east. The most visually obvious Primitivism may be found in the work of such Brücke artists as Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who were in part stimulated by Dresden's ethnographic museum. The classic "look" of Expressionism--its angularity, geometricity and truncated proportions--owes much to these tribal influences. While a similar Primitivist proclivity permeates the work of the Blaue Reiter artists, its stylistic impact is more subdued, possibly diluted by the broader array of non-academic creations (children's art and folk crafts, for instance) which the Munich group favored. The Blaue Reiter artists responded to all these artistic genres in tandem as providing passage to what Kandinsky termed "the inner resonance of the thing;" the group's orientation was as much spiritual as formal.

Primitivism's trail grows weaker as one travels from Munich to Vienna. Oskar Kokoschka would later point with pride to the impact of his early visits to ethnographic museums, which he favored over (or even to the exclusion of) art museums. Yet he claimed not to have been directly influenced. "I would have had to live like [the tribal peoples] for my imitation to be genuine," he wrote. In this, Kokoschka early on identified one of Primitivism's nagging problems: though Westerners may appreciate tribal art on any number of levels, these works will never have the meaning for us that they do for their original makers and audience, because we are forever foreclosed from their culture and its attendant beliefs. Kokoschka's protestations notwithstanding, however, it is hard to imagine that tribal art had absolutely no influence on him. The raw, scraped surfaces of his first oil paintings, and the angular, hatched lines of his early drawings have no other conceivable precedent. Egon Schiele, who developed his own Expressionist idiom a year or two later than Kokoschka, perfected a similar angularity of line, possibly indirectly through Kokoschka's influence. Of all the major Austrian Expressionists, Alfred Kubin was the only one who had a profound interest in other cultures, and his wide readings informed much of his work.

Though Primitivism assumed sundry forms in the imagery of the early modernists, most of these forms evinced some overt stylistic connection to tribal art objects. This approach shifted markedly in the postwar period, as artists became more concerned with emulating the content of tribal art, rather than its superficial look. The publication of more thoroughgoing ethnographic studies provided a deeper intellectual understanding of the organizational and belief systems of tribal societies, as well as fostering a more instinctual immersion in myth and magic. The impact of this new orientation in Western art begins with Abstract Expressionism and continues in many subsequent developments, from the earthworks, conceptual and performance art of the 1970s to the shamanistic endeavors of Joseph Beuys. Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut must be considered as part and parcel of this trend.

In the 1940s, Dubuffet, spurred by his Surrealist colleague André Breton, began a protracted search for what he called "art outside culture." Rather than looking for non-Western material, however, Dubuffet scoured Parisian flea markets, the French countryside and, in particular, European mental institutions, eventually compiling the vast holdings that are today housed in the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. Dubuffet was basically seeking within Europe the same sort of Ur-art that his modernist predecessors had attempted to find in Africa and Oceania. Although Dubuffet claimed to be after expressive essences, in his own work he often seemed quite self-consciously to imitate the superficial formal qualities of Art Brut and children's art. It would be left to Michel Nedjar to perfect a more truly essentialist approach.

Nedjar's art emanates from a visceral reaction to objects and materials. Like Dubuffet, Nedjar is a collector and has in fact co-founded his own museum of Art Brut, L'Aracine, in a suburb of Paris. But Nedjar's response to the objects he accumulates--not just art, but also fetishes, bits of bone, feathers and a plethora of societal detritus--is more emotional than intellectual. He credits at least some of this to his grandmother, who was a rag merchant at the Clignancourt flea market. Salvaged materials--particularly rags--hold great significance for him, evoking lost lives and the surviving remnants of a dead past. These salvaged objects are at once elegiac and hopeful, linking the dead to the present and thus vouchsafing the endurance of the human spirit. Nedjar's first artistic creations, which he began making in 1976, were dolls formed from old rags. Later, he began making paintings on salvaged cardboard and paper. His is an alchemical process: the creation of sacred objects from base elements.

It is no coincidence that Nedjar's dolls and some of the figures in his paintings evoke the faceless bodies one sees in photographs of Nazi concentration camps. These shattering images, which Nedjar first encountered in a television documentary as a teenager, had a profound effect on the artist, a Jew whose parents were among the few family members to survive the Holocaust. Haunted by his family's history, Nedjar was forced into an even closer personal encounter with death when he contracted tuberculosis while serving his obligatory stint in the French army. This experience prompted him to abandon his incipient career as a tailor and fashion designer and embark on a lengthy journey to such far-flung places as India, North Africa and Mexico. In Mexico, he was especially moved by the ceremonial figures used to celebrate the Day of the Dead and by the attendant proposition that highly charged inanimate objects can be a means to connect with the spirit world. If Nedjar's dolls may be seen as literal, three-dimensional spiritual totems, his paintings further the same objectives in more symbolic, two-dimensional terms. His shadow figures and almost featureless masks are a way of transcending individual identity and contacting the sacred presence beyond.

An accomplished filmmaker as well as an artist, and a widely traveled citizen of the world, Nedjar is hardly working "outside culture." His example points up the growing foolishness of such categories as "outsider" and "mainstream" art. We live today in a global environment, in which the differences between non-Western and Western societies are rapidly eroding, and artists have available a vast smorgasbord of cross-cultural sources. Against this trend, there are those who cling passionately to ethnic separatism, who contend that other cultures are inherently unknowable and that Westerners have no right to trespass there. The Primitivist notion that there is a universal aesthetic that supersedes national and ethnic boundaries is increasingly seen as benighted if not downright racist. Surely it is difficult to separate the idealization of "the other" that forms the core of Primitivism from Western suprematism, but if the goal is finally to find the "other" within, then ethnic entitlements are almost beside the point. Primitivism in this sense is not about us and them, but wholly about us, and our attempt somehow to recover spiritual authenticity, wherever we may find it, in a seemingly dispirited world.