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Art in the Contemporary World: Primitivism and Beyond: Western Art and Other Cultures Throughout the Ages


Admission requirements

See MA Arts and Culture programme guide and Exam regulations.


Visual art making in the Western tradition has often drawn inspiration from art works of other traditions around the globe. The most notable cases concern early twentieth-century European avant-garde artists, such as Picasso, Matisse and Nolde, who turned to the art forms of so-called primitive or tribal cultures to stimulate their work. Western artistic engagements with these art forms led to the coining of the term Primitivism, which is nowadays contested for being Eurocentric and discriminating. But Western artists before and after the European avant-gardes have also been inspired by art from outside the European tradition, including the works of cultures that at the time were equally considered to represent a more primitive state of development (including ancient Egypt and Japan).

In this seminar we will critically read classic texts on the phenomenon of Primitivism, including writings by Robert Goldwater, Colin Rhodes, Ernst Gombrich, William Rubin and Jean-Hubert Martin. Students are required to write a paper that discusses one or another aspect of Primitivism, ranging from theoretical considerations to case studies, from ancient times until the present.

Course objectives

Students learn to:

  • critically analyze the most influential twentieth-century literature on Primitivism from a present-day perspective

  • work with a pluralist and dynamic concept of art

  • understand and theorize the process of interculturality

  • apply a conceptual framework of World Art Studies and its theories and approaches

  • reflect on various approaches

  • work with a chosen framework with regard to carry out the analysis of a chosen artwork


See the timetable on the Arts and Culture website.

Mode of instruction

Research seminar.

Attendance is compulsory. Students are allowed to miss a maximum of two seminars.

Assessment method

  • Paper (70%)

  • Presentations (30%)


Blackboard will not be used with this course.

Reading list

Will be announced at the beginning of the seminar.


Students are requested to register through uSis, the registration system of Leiden University for this course. General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Students who are not in the MA Arts and Culture programme, but who would like to take this course as an optional course, please contact the Co-ordinator of studies.

Contact information

Prof. dr. W. van Damme


  • As a compulsory course for the Leiden MA specialisation Art of the Contemporary World and World Art Studies this course focuses on art as a gobal phenomenon and aims at understanding the hugely important processes of interculturality with regard to modern and contemporary art. Together with the MA course on Art, Design, Science and Ethics, which has a focus on philosophical theories and aesthetics with regard to contemporary art and science, this course gives the MA specialisation Art of the Contemporary World its engaged Leiden profile.