Primitive Figuration

Primitive Figuration

In 1905, Primitive Figuration was introduced to the West, largely through German Expressionist Graphics. Primitive Figuration is the simplification of the human form, creating a simplified, mostly monotonous figure, which can be known to be formed of abstract, and interpretive shapes. It was initially practiced by a group of rebellious painters and print makers, which were beginning to become more well known in German Art.

Expressionism began to filter through avant garde, into the more popular culture, in the middle of artistic genres, sculpture and print, painting and it even began to work its way through to scene design on the stage and screen. In later years, it influenced New-York born, Los Angeles based designer Saul Bass, who was known for designing the opening sequence and film poster for ‘The man with the golden arm’ (1955)

Further Primitive figuration research

When researching Primitive figuration I found it was not a widely known concept and in fact I found minimal websites that had information about the subject. However, I did come across one website, listed in my bibliography, that explained Primitive Figuration is the reduction of realistic forms into more abstract shapes. An example of Primitive figuration I found out about through the website was this painting.

It is a prehistoric cave painting of deers almost leaping into the arms of hunters. It almost shows a sense of self sacrifice as the deer appear to be running in the direction of the hunters. It shows how primitive figuration has derived from many years ago where it was used to show the successes of hunters through paintings. Both the deer an people have a simple form, stripped of detail with minimal features.


Another example of primitive figuration is a painting in the Lascaux caverns, which again is of a similar form to the deer and hunters painting. It shows supernatural fantasy creatures which resemble things such as horses, deer, hyena, and bears. These animals are stripped of their realistic forms and are made up of abstract shapes showing how the early type of primitive figuration started. After finding that there seemed to be many examples of this type of primitive figuration in the Lascaux caves, I decided to research into what these are.


From my research I found that the Lascaux caves are caves in the South West of France, which are famous for its Palaeolithic Cave paintings. The paintings are estimated to be around 17,300 years old, which shows how far back primitive figuration is really dated. The majority of the paintings are thought to be of animals which live there at the time, which is backed up by fossil evidence. However, whether some of these animals have been exaggerated, or adapted to appear more of a fantasy form is another question. The caves contain around 2,000 figures which are dived into three categories, human forms, animals, and symbols/signs. Due to the lac of materials so long ago, most of the paintings are painted in black, red and brown mineral pigments, which suggest drawing in such an abstract form was easier. However, this form of primitive figuration was then carried on through many of the years and is now still used today in graphic design, but for a very different purpose. Rather than advertising things, primitive figuration style art was something that was seen to be done out of pure creativity for the purpose of simply producing a form of artwork. Although not all primitive figuration was used as pure art work. Symbols and signs were developed to help people have an understanding of each other so long ago, and are sometimes interpreted as rules in that day an age.

From the images seen below, we can see how primitive figuration has developed from being hand-drawn, to being produced on things such as Photoshop an Illustrator, where they have been given sharp edges and block colours.


Anatomy of A Murder

Bass, S (1959) Anatomy of A Murder [Poster] Available at:

‘Anatomy of a Murder’ was deigned by Saul Bass, and shows a clear example of how abstract shapes can be used to create a human form. The designer of this image has used slightly angular shapes which together create this symbolic image. These aspects of the image make it seem as though it may have been a print, as the simplicity to it is something which would be an effective printmaking technique. The typography also has an angular shape to it, and although includes some curved edges, works well with the shape of the human figure in the piece. The colour scheme is bold and simple, and a single block colour background has been included, which allows the main focus of the piece to be in fact on the human form, which doesn’t divert the audiences attention from the focal point of the image.

The purpose of this design is to entice people to watch this film, without revealing to much information as to what the story is going to be about. It gives key information, and does not show any picture of the actual film/production, but instead shows a symbolic man in the center of the page.

The designer has used the concept of primitive figuration to represent the main plot line of the film; murder. The arms and legs are detached from the main body of the person, perhaps showing the effect of a dead person. The concept has been used carefully, and the focal point has been carefully thought about within this piece as it is not overcrowded with shapes, and instead has a simple form.

The concept conveys the message of the film through the typography written inside the shape of the persons body, and advertises the film through this. Although the poster may be memorable because of the block shapes and colour, I feel that the writing itself isn’t, and if you viewed this from a distance you would not be able to see what the writing says.

I feel the successes of this piece are the colour scheme that is used, and the shape of the persons body as I feel it is quite unusual, and something that is very original to this particular film. The human form in the middle of the page almost acts as a logo, and I feel as though it would most likely be used throughout the film for things such as flyers or DVD covers.

I don’t particularly like this design as I feel it is just too simple, and wouldn’t interest me in watching the film. I feel that the concept is quite boring, and has a poor effect when used in advertising as my immediate reaction to an advert should be that it excites, or interests me. Because of this I don’t think I will be using any aspects of primitive figuration within my work.

The Man with the Golden Arm

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Bass, S (1955) THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM [Theatrical Release Poster] Available at:

This poster was designed by Saul Bass, and is aimed to advertise the Theatrical play ‘The man with the Golden arm’ The designer has used the concept to produce a unrealistic arm for the main focus of the poster. The writing is clear within this poster and the arm takes up the frame of the piece.

The concept helps to convey the message through the arm that is located in the center of the page. It doesn’t reveal much information, nor does it show a lot about the production.

The designer has used primitive figuration for the main focal point of the poster, to advertise the fact that the play is about a man with a golden arm. The arm shown on the front of this poster however, does not appear golden, and therefore gives you the idea that there is more to the plot than just a man with a golden arm.

The successes of this piece I feel are the typography, and the arm in the center of the page. Firstly, I feel that the typography is clear and simple, and does not divert your focus from the main part of the poster, but can be clearly read and seen without confusion as to what it says. Another success this poster has is the composition. I feel that the composition has been carefully thought about, in order to decide which information is the most relevant, and which parts of the poster would be seen first. Choosing to place the arm in the center of the page, almost orientates the play around this main factor, and suggests it is the most important part within the play.

However, I do feel this poster has a lot of negative points to it. Firstly, I feel the poster has a very flat appearance and to improve this a sense of background and foreground could perhaps have been added. In addition, I feel that there is not much of a colour scheme going on in this poster, and I believe that adding some sense of colour scheme would make this poster more memorable.

bonjour voisin!


Quarez, M (1994) bonjour voisin! [Poster]Available at:

bonjour voisin! is a poster designed by Michel Quarez, to advertise local public meetings. The designer has used the concept of primitive figuration to create a person with a large hand for the focal point of his poster. ‘bonjour voisin!’ in fact means ‘hello neighbor!’ and is supposed to symbolize the friendly atmosphere that is at the local public meetings. The text at the bottom of the page means “the elected officials meet the Dionysian (wild)” The word Dionysian is an adjective used in Greek mythology, which relates to the sensual and emotional aspects of human nature. Although this poster takes a lot of understanding, the pictures is simply meant to show the simple handshake of a friendly and welcoming neighbor.

The designer has used the concept of primitive figuration to show the simplicity of the friendliness of the public meetings. It aims to be inviting and show a friendly atmosphere. Using the colour red for the hand of the person is an interesting aspect, as red has connotations to things such as love, but also the devil. This is a part of the poster I am not as fond of, as although the hand appears big to show a friendly aspect, I feel that using the colour red for such a key part was not as effective.

Another thing I am not too fond of about the poster is the dark green background, as it makes the black primitive figure less visible from afar. Additionally, it makes the small blue writing at the bottom of the poster hard to read, which is another thing that makes the poster less successful.

I feel one of the main successes of this poster is the white writing at the top of the poster s it is noticeable, and stands out on the poster. I also like the idea of the large hand to represent a friendly handshake, but feel the colours could be changed on this.

Overall, I don’t think I will be using this concept in my work as I feel it is quite unprofessional looking, and almost quite childish. Generally, it has very block colours to it, which makes the concept look very flat. This is something I don’t want my poster to be, as I want it to almost have a sense of life to it, and make it memorable for good reasons. This work has not inspired me, but instead has made me think about how I don’t want my car advert to look.

Source: Helen, S and Vienne, V (2012) 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd


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