Marisa Merz (1926-2019), Untitled, undated. Mixed materials on rice paper. Paris, private collection. Courtesy of Saint Honoré Art Consulting, Paris. © Marisa Merz/Merz Fondazione / Adagp, Paris 2021

Marisa Merz (1926-2019), Untitled, undated. Mixed materials on rice paper. Paris, private collection. Courtesy of Saint Honoré Art Consulting, Paris. © Marisa Merz/Merz Fondazione / Adagp, Paris 2021


Ossip Zadkine et
Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc | Caroline Achaintre | Maria Thereza Alves | William Anastasi | Jean Arp | Valérie Blass | Michel Blazy | Miriam Cahn | Corentin Canesson | Marc Chagall | Morgan Courtois | André Derain | Rebecca Digne | Etienne-Martin | Louis Fratino | Thomas Gleb | Natalia Gontcharova | Eva Hesse | Hannah Höch | Vassily Kandinsky | Laurent Le Deunff | Fernand Léger | Mark Manders | Marisa Merz | Gyan Panchal | Abraham Poincheval |Helene Reimann | Auguste Rodin | Jessica Warboys

At the beginning of the last century in Paris, Ossip Zadkine was one of the artists who invented a new sculptural language by turning toward the “primitive”.

Well beyond formal research, the radical nature of his work then testified to a distrust of modern civilization and its values. In the gesture of the craftsman, in the faith of the Romanesque sculptor, in the naivety of the sign-painters of his native Russia, Zadkine saw not a lack of knowledge or technique, but the vanished or threatened example of a genuine link to the world.

It is through the song of this “primitive soul” that Zadkine’s work is in dialogue with those contemporaries of his who claimed to be wild, Fauvist, Neo-Primitivist; but also, so intimately, with those who today are still seeking to give utterance to “the palpitation of human life shattered by the tragic”.


The first section of the exhibition borrows its title from a book by Pavel Florensky, Russian writer, philosopher, and theologian. It opens on a certain view of primitivism, which straight away denies the idea of a hierarchy between the artistic productions that would depend on the development of the society, or the individual, from which they are born.

Like Zadkine and his contemporaries, particularly the Russian ones, who violently rejected academicism, the writer reverses the terms of the equation and states: “To normalise the methods for representing the world mathematically is a task of insane presumptuousness.”

Children’s art (Vassily Kandinsky’s collection), art by self-taught persons (Helene Reimann), popular art such as extrawestern or “archaic” arts—medieval art and icons—serve as an alternative model for artists who also try to see and represent the world differently.

This reversal of perspective, at once formal and symbolic, is noticeable in the Fauvists’ and Neo-Primitivists’ works. It can be found in Valérie Blass’ works or in Hannah Höch’s collages, with their propensity for hybridity, and, in a different way, in perspectivism, the capacity to look at something as if someone else, specifically an animal, in Abraham Poincheval’s Lion-Man.



The body is a major issue for both modern “primitivist” and contemporary artists. In the same way that they seek to free representation from its academic shackles, the body must be freed from its fetters of social obligations: returning to nudity (André Derain), allowing the body to freely express itself through postures and dance (Auguste Rodin), not repressing its sexual dimension. This asserted freedom and power can be found, like a manifesto, in Miriam Cahn’s female warrior figure.

But beyond this immediate societal interpretation, the crystallization of research around the body lies in its ability to challenge classic dichotomies. The body is interiority as well as exteriority, a threshold perfectly represented by the skin (Morgan Courtois). It is flux as much as fixation; energy as much as matter; a receiver as much as a transmitter. As indicated by the etymology of “âme”, the French word for “soul”, a word so dear to Zadkine, the body is entirely breath, it crosses and is crossed by its environment.

The body, and no longer only the eye, becomes the tool for a sensitive apprehension of the environment. The same research is carried out with the new abstract language of Kandinsky or Jean Arp, and the simple seismographic recording of the vibrations of the world by William Anastasi. It is the research of a “primitive language” that would speak another truth of the world, a truth below or beyond devastating rationalist discourse.

The representation of the face, therefore, can get rid of the cheap finery of appearance to tend towards true apparition. Nurtured on Russian culture and the memory of icons, but also fascinated by his discovery of Buddha sculptures, Zadkine strive to breathe into his many Heads a presence, a life, which does not just lie in the accuracy of anatomical detail. A few decades later, Marisa Merz’s Heads testify to the same timeless energy.


The garden studio, where Zadkine carried out so much of his research, allows us to evoke the motif of the shelter, The Dwelling, according to the title of Étienne-Martin’s work, which is also that of a series of sculptures and drawings by Zadkine.

It is an essential theme for whom looks towards the “primitive”: alongside the only physical protection brought about by contemporary society after the industrial revolution, for many modern and contemporary artists it is about reestablishing the idea and the gestures of a necessary envelopment that may not be only material, but also ritual, psychological, memorial. The thought of a progression is replaced by that of a containment, which engages both mind and body.

The wooden entanglements of the Tower of Shadows, like a woven fabric, build up a space sheltered from the visible, reminding us that physical as well as psychological life does not thrive in full transparency. Around it are organized a vast number of actions and forms that retain time, matter, memory, before their inevitable transformation.

PUBLICATION  | L’Âme primitive, 144 p., 100 ill., 29.90 €, Éditions Paris Musées

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Jeanne Brun, conservatrice en chef du patrimoine, directrice du développement culturel et du musée de la BnF, Claire Le Restif, directrice du Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry-le Crédac avec la collaboration de Pauline Créteur, attachée de conservation

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