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French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945-1975

 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.

312 pages | 10 color plates, 51 halftones | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | © 2011

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Art: Art--General Studies


History: European History


“Ernest Renan made the observation long ago: it is not just what citizens remember that helps to make a nation but also what they forget. He was speaking of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The same will to forget is at work today in France’s effacement of its colonial past. Daniel Sherman’s penetrating work on twentieth-century French primitivism hammers the point home with exceptional analytic sophistication and an unflagging intelligence.”

Philip Nord, Princeton University

“Bold and innovative in its conceptualization and execution, this book persuasively argues for the crucial role of primitivism in French culture and society following the end of the Second World War. Sherman combines an array of sites of cultural production and consumption to create a fascinating image of the period. This is an impressive and exciting work.”

Leora Auslander, University of Chicago

French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire is exemplary social history, cultural history, and art history—all informed by an intellectual sophistication linking several theoretical perspectives to an analysis that takes many fascinating turns. Sherman associates diverse observations of specific events with grand ideological constructions, sometimes to pinpoint inherent tensions, sometimes to give voice to a telling fact that otherwise remains silent. Simultaneously a study of postwar France and a commentary on historical method, this text is admirably responsible to its own judgments, explaining its concepts and terms as its argument proceeds. Regarding no cultural practice as beyond suspicion, Sherman ends with historical investigation and analysis at its very best.”

Richard Shiff, University of Texas at Austin

“The lively controversy around Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly reminds us that primitivism is a complex ongoing cultural formation, with dynamics beyond those of modernist art. Daniel Sherman’s deeply researched study conducts a fascinating exploration of less-usual artistic suspects such as Gaston Chaissac, but ranges also over ethnography, museology, tourism, and ongoing contention in France’s remaining colonies. This is a topical and absorbing history.”

Nicholas Thomas, University of Cambridge

“With impressive breadth of research, this study brings together a wide range of related subjects in a style that is focused, intellectually engaging, and accessible. Highly recommended.”


 “A brilliant study of period taste.”

Oxford Art Journal

“Sherman’s examination of creatively chosen textual and visual illustrations to expose the complexities of the discourses and practices that ‘write primitivism into this period’ is a major strength of this volume.”

Museum Anthropology

Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Circa 1967
2 Peoples Ethnographic: The Colonial Inheritance of French Ethnography
3 Primitive Accumulation: Refashioning the Colonial
4 Totemic Artists: Gaston Chiassac, Jean Dubuffet, and the Problem of Categories
5 Trouble in Paradise: Tourism and the Myth of Preservation in French Polynesia


French Colonial Historical Society: Alf Andrew Heggoy Book Prize

Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Society for French Historical Studies: David H. Pinkney Prize

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