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Primitive Ornament & Decoration

From the universal testimony of travellers it would appear, that there is scarcely a people, in however early a stage of civilisation, with whom the desire for ornament is not a strong instinct. The desire is absent in none, and it grows and increases with all in the ratio of their progress in civilisation. Man appears everywhere impressed with the beauties of Nature which surround him, and seeks to imitate to the extent of his power the works of the Creator.

Man's earliest ambition is to create. To this feeling must be ascribed the tattooing of the human face and body, resorted to by the savage to increase the expression by which he seeks to strike terror on his enemies or rivals, or to create what appears to him a new beauty. (The tattooing on the head which we introduce from the Museum at Chester is very remarkable, as showing that in this very barbarous practice the principles of the very highest ornamental art are manifest, every line upon the face is the best adapted to develope the natural features.) As we advance higher, from the decoration of the rude tent or wigwam to the sublime works of a Phidias and Praxiteles, the same feeling is everywhere apparent: the highest ambition is still to create, to stamp on this earth the impress of an individual mind.

Female Head from New Zealand
Female Head from New Zealand.

From time to time a mind stronger than those around will impress itself on a generation, and carry with it a host of others of less power following in the same track, yet never so closely as to destroy the individual ambition to create; hence the cause of styles, and of the modifications of styles. The efforts of a people in an early stage of civilisation are like those of children, though presenting a want of power, they possess a grace and naivet rarely found in mid-age, and never in manhood's decline. It is equally so in the infancy of any art.

Cimabue and Giotto have not the material charm of Raphael or the manly power of Michael Angelo, but surpass them both in grace and earnest truth. The very command of means leads to their abuse: when Art struggles, it succeeds; when revelling in its own successes, it as signally fails. The pleasure we receive in contemplating the rude attempts at ornament of the most savage tribes arises from our appreciation of a difficulty accomplished; we are at once charmed by the evidence of the intention, and surprised at the simple and ingenious process by which the result is obtained.

In fact, what we seek in every work of Art, whether it be humble or pretentious, is the evidence of mind, - the evidence of that desire to create to which we have referred, and which all, feeling a natural instinct within them, are satisfied with when they find it developed in others. It is strange, but so it is, that this evidence of mind will be more readily found in the rude attempts at ornament of a savage tribe than in the innumerable productions of a highly-advanced civilisation. Individuality decreases in the ratio of the power of production. When Art is manufactured by combined effort, not originated by individual effort, we fail to recognise those true instincts which constitute its greatest charm.

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