Riet van der Linden's universal 'primitivism'

In 1984 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibition that was to be sharply criticised, fuelling a debate on the way in which the West approaches the art of non-Western cultures. Primitivism in 20th-Century Art was a landmark exhibition in which William Rubin and a team of art historians investigated the strong influence of non-Western art, ethnographic objects, on the work of many Western modernists. They focused on influence on forms in the work of painters and sculptors, on the discovery of a new visual idiom. The arrival of artistic objects from the colonies resulted in a veritable liberation from the straitjacket of naturalism. Artists drew inspiration from ethnographic objects without regard to their context or function, just as they would find nourishment in the work of self-taught artists and 'outsiders'. In an increasingly industrialised, secular world, there was a powerful longing for the original and the animate ˝ a longing that was projected onto 'the other'. Primitivism was criticised for its typically Western modernist standpoint, in which Western art was presented as the canon, with non-Western works of art as inspiring points of reference on the margin. The centre was contrasted with the periphery, where 'the other' dwelt. Jean-Hubert Martin's Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris five years later was the reply ˝ also fiercely criticised ˝ to this classic manner of presentation: different artistic worlds, Western and non-Western, were displayed side by side on an equal footing. There was no longer a centre, and hence no longer a periphery.

The interesting thing about the debate outlined here is that it has nothing to do with the objects produced by Riet van der Linden. Although as an art historian she is familiar with the theoretical frame of reference, her work is the product not of cerebral processes but of an inner necessity ˝ which one of the great masters of modernism, Kandinsky, a vehement opponent of 'art for art's sake', considered the key element in all essential, timeless art(1). Riet van der Linden goes for long walks near her secluded home in the famous Bordeaux wine-growing region. The vines she passes on her way are tied up with strips of cloth of the most varied provenance, known as ficelles. After the grape harvest, many of these are left behind on the ground, soiled with earth and rotting away.

At one point she felt a need to do something with the timeworn materials she came across: ficelles, weathered canes, bits of metal, pebbles. Tying the strips of cloth to the canes became a ritual. The resulting objects summon up associations with wandering dervishes' walking sticks, signposts, reference points in the earth that people once felt a bond with. The half-decayed cloth marks the rhythm of time like a walker's footsteps. Whenever her path took her near water and the sea, polished elements presented themselves. Shells or crabs' legs added reminders of life.

Branches with cloth in subdued tones ˝ earthen red, lavender blue, off-white ˝ trace musical scores on the wall, compositions of loneliness and longing, sounds from afar. Free-standing objects wound with string or wire turn into beings that can be recognised just as the charge of a magical object from another culture can be intuitively detected. And hence they possess more affinities than their maker could have suspected.

Sculptures and objects from the Vodun religion of West Africa include pieces of cloth whose colours have specific meanings: red for the life force, black for the earthly domain and white for the spirit world. Vodun sculptures are made of wood in combination with 'charged' objects such as skulls, shells, old bottles and padlocks. Figures are tied together with string. The element iron introduces the force associated with the spirit being Ogun. These are sculptures that depict the link between human life and forces of nature in a manner perceptible even to the uninitiated. The sympathetic magic of the bochio sculptures of peoples such as the Fon and Ewe protects, wards off evil, strengthens and heals.

You might expect Riet van der Linden to have a collection of ethnographic objects at home, but you would be wrong. Unlike the aforementioned modernists, she has discovered her informal art without any external stimuli. Her 'primitivism' is as uncultivated as that of Wim de Haan (1913-1967). Her walks through the outer world are in fact walks through the inner world. A visual idiom with a universal impact has developed intuitively. Surprisingly for a feminist, the products of her gleanings sometimes include phallic forms. Sometimes they are archaic human figures. Often they are abstract objects that appear animated in some undefined way. Their aesthetics are more or less accidental, appearing to have emerged spontaneously. During a visit to Wim de Haan's widow I pointed to a splendid sculpture I hadn't noticed before: a rough pole wound with rope, with a violent eruption of loose strands at the top. 'That isn't one of Wim's works,' said Mia de Haan, 'it's the cat's scratching post.' And yet it really could have been one of his sober, religious-looking sculptures from the early 1960s! De Haan had broadened my field of vision to the point where I could recognise the 'divine' in the scratching post. Riet van der Linden's unconscious idiom of signs puts the viewer in touch with the universal primal stratum of art. That is true 'primitivism' ˝ without a centre or periphery.

Wouter Welling
/ translation Kevin Cook

(1) Wassily Kandinsky: Über das Geistige in der Kunst, MŞnchen, 1912, in de vertaling van Charles Wentinck: Spiritualiteit en abstractie in de kunst, Uitgeverij Vrij Geestesleven, Zeist, 1987, p.17