The aesthetic interest for the primitive and the savage

This page is linked with American Encounters with Tibetan Material Culture

An explanation for the exploration of Tibetan culture by Westerners can be found in the aesthetic interest for the primitive or the savage. The aesthetic interest for the primitive was at stake at the beginning of Modern Art, when its best representantives nourished a fascination for primitive masks. The primacy of aesthetic emotion is also the motivation for collectors who built museum collections of Tibetan art, such as Donald Rubin and the Rubin Museum of Art. The aesthetic interest for the savage is also well reflected in the captivating power of devil dances on Western audiences.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Western artists were quite fascinated with masks, and the 'primitive' culture of masquerade can be said to have had a great impact on the experiments of Modern Art. In pre-World War I Paris, Montparnasse artists were very influenced by their visits to the Musée de l'Homme, Paris' equivalent of New York's AMNH. For instance, African tribal masks were very influential in Cubist experiments, which is obvious in some of Picasso's works like Les demoiselles d'Avignon (MoMa, New York City). In The Story of Art, Gombrich evokes the role of tribal masks in Modern Art, as "a way out of the impasse of Western art" and a "search for expressiveness, structure and simplicity" (p. 563). In a paragraph about Picasso and Cubism, he writes : "{Picasso} began to study primitive art, to which Gauguin and perhaps also Matisse had drawn attention. We can imagine what he learned from these works: he learned how it is possible to build up an image of a face or an object out of a few very simple elements." (p.573).

Picasso, Les demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
In this perspective, the interest in non-Western civilizations can be qualified as primarily aesthetic. Such aesthetic drives are also at stake in the building of collections of Tibetan art. For instance, Jacques Marchais' motivation for collecting Tibetan objects, although she was well-versed in Tibetan tradition and attracted to Buddhism, was mainly aesthetic. This tendency is also illustrated in an online article about the collectors of Himalayan art Donald and Shelley Rubin, founders of the Rubin Museum of Art:

The couple’s passion for Himalayan art began 30 years ago with an impulsive purchase of a Tibetan painting of the Buddhist goddess White Tara that was on display in a Madison Avenue gallery in New York City. “We fell in love with the painting – the composition, the coloring, the dynamism, the absolute beauty of it,” says Donald Rubin. The Rubins continued to purchase art that they loved and were passionate about – “pieces that spoke to us directly” – at auctions and galleries, never intentionally setting out to assemble a museum collection.

“Donald has had the passion and the drive to collect,” says Shelley Rubin. “I love the art, particularly the mandalas, which convey a sense of order and peace, yet have energy and beauty wrapped up in them.”[1]

In the preface to Demonic Divine, Donald Rubin says, "If you are new to Himalayan art, you may be horrified by many of the paintings and sculptures....scenes of death and destruction, decapitation, monstrous beings with garlands of severed heads gorging on human hearts, in short a human hell more terrifying than any horror movie....Yet, curiously, each severed head and each mangled corpse in these Himalayan works of art is a metaphor for the opposite: the destruction of hatred, revenge, anger, egotism, ignorance and greed." [2]

It seems that, aside from scholarly study or spiritual investigation in Tibet, the art of the Himalayan region can raise a more immediate feeling among the Western audience. It can be explained by aesthetic emotion for captivating civilizations. Not only collectors, but also other actors of the encounter between Tibet and the West, can be said to have yielded to this aesthetic emotion. For instance, the botanist and explorer Joseph Rock was fascinated by Tibetan devil dances and masks. This 'savage' aspect of Tibetan culture was highlighted in explorers' account at the beginning of the 20th century and nourished Western imaginings. For example, in 1927, a silent movie entitled The Devil Dancer was produced by Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood.

[2] Rob Linrothe and Jeff Watt. Demonic Divine: Himalayan Art and Beyond. New York & Chicago: Rubin Museum of Art & Serindia Publications. 2004. viii.

Gombrich Ernst, The Story of Art, Phaidon,1995 (1950).