Skip to main content

UPDATE 2: Dr. Sherman has done it again! French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire: 1945-1975 has been awarded the Alf Andrew Heggoy Book Prize for the best book published during the previous year dealing with the French Colonial experience from 1848 to the present by The French Colonial Historical Society. It is very rare for an author to win both the Heggoy and Pinkney prizes in the same year. Here is the statement from the Society: This is a beautifully argued, deeply evidenced, and important book, which concerns France but speaks to how understandings and relationships anchored in empire shaped late-twentieth-century modernity writ large. With research in archives that stretch from Tahiti to St.-Germain-des-Pres and the Massif central, and an approach to analyzing visual sources that is deeply interdisciplinary in inspiration while profoundly historical in its claims and presumptions, Sherman’s study breaks new ground in multiple domains. Among its signal contributions are the complex and meaningful links the author draws between the age of French empire and the France of the “thirty glorious years.” It is a move certain to shift current discussions about state structures and “colonial imaginaries” outward, forcing historians of the era to take the productive and causal role of culture into account. Sherman brilliantly demonstrates how the emergence of the widely-deployed idea of Primitivism was inextricable from colonialism yet became, in the writings and claims of artists, scholars, and interior designers, detached from this history, so as to appear simply evocative. It remained, he shows, sourced in and driven by imperial forms of power and domination. Whether through discussions of French peasants or in the pages of fashion magazines elaborating “primitive chic,” feel-good versions of the primitive actively erased still pulsing connections between French empire–with its violence and its racism–and post-decolonization French culture. As he tacks between the French art scene and the new museums that the Fifth Republic created, which drew from and obfuscated the symbolic and actual capital that previous generations had pillaged from colonial holdings, and the tourist resorts and nuclear-testing grounds of French Polynesia, Sherman makes incisive use of cultural theory to drive a rigorous and masterfully executed argument. It is a real pleasure to award him the Alf Andrew Heggoy Book Prize. 

UPDATE: Congratulations are again due to Dr. Sherman, whose book, French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire: 1945-1975, was awarded the annual David H. Pinkney Prize as the best book in French history published in 2011 by a citizen of the U.S. or Canada by The Society for French Historical Studies. This is one of only two awarded in the U.S. for the study of any aspect of French history and is a signal honor for Dan and the Art Department. Here is the statement from the SFHS: “On the recommendation of its David H. Pinkney Prize Committee, the Society for French Historical Studies announces that the David H. Pinkney Prize  for the best book in French history published in 2011 by a citizen of the United States or Canada or an author with a full-time appointment at a U.S. or Canadian college or university, is awarded to Daniel J. Sherman for his book French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945-1975, published by the University of Chicago Press. The committee was especially impressed by French Primitivism’s conceptual sophistication in addressing political history, anthropology, the fine arts, and, most significantly, the museum culture of France all in a specific way through the prism of “primitivism.” Focusing on the persistence of an infatuation among the French beaux-arts and museological elites, Sherman offers an excellent example of the persistence of cultural values and images even after the original impetus for them may have been lost. Sherman follows the convoluted relationships between primitivism and the legacies of colonialism, even when those promoting the former seemed to wish to liberate themselves from the vestiges of empire, as in the example of the couture of Yves Saint-Laurent or the Musée du Quai Branly. The connection of beaux-arts and arenas such as couture and tourism, the latter in the promotion of Tahiti, are additional strengths of the book. Sophisticated in concept and execution, based on extensive archival research, and written in a beautiful style, this book will also inform new readings of African art, whether in local art galleries, France, or elsewhere.” 

 For over a century, the idea of primitivism has motivated artistic modernism. Focusing on the three decades after World War II, known in France as “les trentes glorieuses” despite the loss of most of the country’s colonial empire, this probing and expansive book argues that primitivism played a key role in a French society marked by both economic growth and political turmoil.

In a series of chapters that consider significant aspects of French culture—including the creation of new museums of French folklore and of African and Oceanic arts and the development of tourism against the backdrop of nuclear testing in French Polynesia—Daniel J. Sherman shows how primitivism, a collective fantasy born of the colonial encounter, proved adaptable to a postcolonial, inward-looking age of mass consumption. Following the likes of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Andrée Putman, and Jean Dubuffet through decorating magazines, museum galleries, and Tahiti’s pristine lagoons, this interdisciplinary study provides a new perspective on primitivism as a cultural phenomenon and offers fresh insights into the eccentric edges of contemporary French history.

Comments are closed.