Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Modern Primitivism

ENGL 016.302
instructor(s):
MW 3:30-5
fulfills requirements:
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major

King Kong, Josephine Baker, Picasso’s masks, Freud’s “dark continent” – why has the twentieth century been so drawn to the idea of the primitive?  In this class, we’ll think about ideas of origin and authenticity in relation to the primitive, beginning with the eighteenth-century image of the “noble savage,” and primarily focusing on the twentieth century’s appropriation of Africa for both mass entertainment and high art.  Modern artists and writers seemed to think that the primitive offered them something – what was it?  Did Picasso’s use of the African mask, for example, make his work more modern?  More original?  In order to respond to these questions, we’ll look at some visual art (Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Man Ray), watch some film (including King Kong and Josephine Baker’s Princess Tam Tam), read some poetry and fiction (including poems by Langston Hughes and fiction by Joseph Conrad), and read some of the century’s most influential critical work (by Freud and his postcolonial critics).  The class will be small, discussion-based, and committed to serious engagement with the questions of race, colonialism, and modern aesthetics raised by the twentieth-century representation of the primitive.