What is Naïve Art?
For many, the term “naïve art” conjures up the verdant valleys and happy hamlets of Anna Mary Robertson (”Grandma”) Moses, the luxuriant vegetation and exotic jungles of Henri Rousseau, and the palmy South Sea Isles and pristine Tahitian women of Paul Gauguin. Brazilians identify naïve art with the fascinatingly colorful village scenes of Ana Maria Dias; the folkloristic motifs of Rosina Becker do Valle; and the insightful Biblical interpretations of Jose de Freitas. Eastern European naïve art is associated with the powerful village scenes of Ivan Generalic and the floral farmlands of Ivan Rabuzin. In Israel, we recall the rich Biblical scenes and Cabalistic imagery of the Safed zeigermacher (watchmaker), Shalom Moscovitz, lovingly known as “Shalom of Z’fat”, and we revel in the anachronistic phantasmagoria of Gabriel Cohen.
But whatever our association with the term “naïve art”, one is struck with the near-universal appeal of this exhilarating art form. Perhaps this appeal stems from the celestial, joy-inspiring palette of colors chosen by naïve artists to portray their subjects. Maybe it is the genre's simplicity, which recalls an earlier era, when life was less frenetic, when the telephone was a novelty and the typewriter a godsend. Or could it be the timeless nature of the subject matter, reminding us of opportunities missed, of wondrous roads less traveled? One conclusion is certain: this is art that warms the heart and soothes the soul!
Naïve art is characterized by a refreshing innocence and the charming use of bright colors, child-like perspective and idiosyncratic scale. It portrays simple, easily-understandable and often idealized scenes of everyday life. The naïve artist - often self-taught - treats us to a uniquely literal, yet extremely personal and coherent, vision of what the world was, is or should be. It offers us, often in painstaking detail, a timeless and optimistic depiction of an ancient story or Biblical tale, an ordinary occurrence or current event, a special ceremony or daily activity. The naïve painting bustles with color and excitement, brims with wry humor and candor, bubbles with unbridled empathy and love.
From cave paintings to the present day, naïve art has traversed the millennia. As noted in the “World Encyclopedia of Naïve Art” (Bihalji-Merin and Tomasevic), so-called “primitive people”, living in the Stone Age, looked to their immediate surroundings for inspiration, depicting animals whom they feared and those whom they herded; the female figure as a fertility symbol; and man in his manifold role of huntsman, herdsman and tiller of the soil.
In North America, naïve art emerged, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from the work of coach builders, cabinet makers, and house and sign painters, whose art - mostly portraits of the upper class, landscapes and historical scenes - was often ancillary to their professional employment. These naïve artworks (known as “limnings”) were often painted on old wood and boards, using natural colors such as lapis lazuli and other minerals, plant dyes, metallic dust and egg yolk. From these humble beginnings, naïve art evolved in the USA into Quaker paintings celebrating strait-laced dignity and peace among men (Edward Hicks); smoke-blackened factories and historical themes (John Kane); mysterious, sensuous and erotic works (Morris Hirshfield); religious themes (Horace Pippin); and scenes from rural and farming life (”Grandma” Moses).
Contrary to the cultural “melting pot” that developed among newcomers flocking to the United States, the immigrants settling in Canada sought to retain their ethnic identities while depicting, with originality and freshness, their new environment. As most Canadian naïves have settled far from the country’s population centers, their artworks are imbued with themes of nature and isolation, the family hearth and rural life, reflecting Canada’s rustic, overwhelming beauty, along with its stark, oft-glacial conditions.
In Western Europe, naïve art came to prominence in the late nineteenth century, when Henri Rousseau, “Le Douanier” (the customs official), began exhibiting his works - side-by-side to those of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Bonnard and Matisse - at the Parisian exhibitions of the Salon des Independants. In 1891, when Rousseau was producing his first jungle painting, Paul Gauguin, who had departed the urban bustle of Paris for the simple life of the South Seas, was painting “Women of Tahiti.”
Rousseau’s freedom of expression and approach became the inspiration for the French naïves of the twentieth century. Like Rousseau, these artists belonged to the common people: Louis Vivin was a postman; André Bauchant, a gardener; Jules Lefranc, an ironmonger; Emile Blondel, a farmer. Their originality of style, coupled with a Rousseau-like search for the harmonious relationship between Man and Nature, resulted in works that enjoyed great favour among art critics and public alike, a trend which has continued through the present day.
Belgium’s rich art history and tradition, along with its familiar sites and architecture, form the backdrop for the freshness and elegance of the country’s naïvism. There appears to be a nexus between the medieval realism of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the picturesque precision and poetic vision of the leading Belgian naïves of today. The timeless charm and simplicity of Belgium’s lakes and legends, towns and castles, homes and gardens, provide irresistible temptations (and satisfactions) for these artists, whether Flemish or Walloon.
The naïve art of The Netherlands reflects a refreshing freedom from the characteristic constraints of the country's "academic" artworks. Dutch naïve art romanticizes the peaceful interaction between nature, mankind and the animal kingdom. A moodiness predominates, with cheerful sweetness in one work replaced by melancholy solemnity in another. Although the country's grey weather is palpable in much of the artworks of the Dutch naives, an exceptional feeling of light prevails - both in the riveting portrayals of idealized memories and in the powerful scenes of dramatic events.
The twentieth century was a period of great political and economic upheaval in Spain and Portugal. The resultant social unrest awakened, among the naïve artists in particular, a desire to preserve on canvas the culture and traditions of the nation as well as the timeless moments of a bygone age. Although the naïve art of both Spain and Portugal has all of the traditional elements of naïvism, a closer look discloses significant differences in subject and style. While Spanish naïve art reflects the fertile soil of an idealized imagination, Portuguese naïve art applies an idealized imagination to the fertile soil. While the Spanish naïves proudly portray Spain’s history, architecture and gardens as well as its traditional ceremonies and famous squares, the Portuguese naïves lovingly depict their native soil, toiling farmers, sparkling villages and cloudless horizons – a joyous marriage of man, earth and sky.
The naïve art of Italy arose in the Po River region in the first third of the twentieth century. With the passage of time, Italian naïvism gradually appeared in Umbria, Lombardy, Piedmont, Sicily and Sardinia. The Italian naïves idealize their local region, mixing poetic fancy with reverent, earthy depictions of everyday life. Although these artists' styles range from refined and elegant; measured and realistic; dreamy and idyllic; lyrical and delicate; chromatic and heartwarming; they invariably reflect a love of the Italian village, countryside and common folk.
A childlike simplicity prevails in much of the naïve art of the United Kingdom. Such is the ambience that prevails in bustling renditions of urban life; a memorable scene of classroom studies; and tranquil moments along the Cornish coast. The charming British restraint hovers throughout - in a London theatre visit; a serene seaside promenade; a muted-colored façade of a quaint shop; and a "feathered friend" in trompe l'oeil cage.
Without doubt, the frosty climate and sunless hours play an important role in the subjects dominating the artworks of the Scandinavian naives. That said, one finds that each of these artists "marches to the tune of a different drummer". While many Finnish naïve artists portray snow-filled Arctic scenes and local wildlife with great intellect and consideration, others turn to sun-drenched scenes of busy squares and children at play. Although certain Swedish naives render impressionistic landscapes or precisely-drawn, suburban neighborhoods, others provide us with whimsical "happy hours", jazz cafes and mouth-watering confections. And although, generally, the Danish naives concentrate on the architecture and daily life of their famous cities and towns, several turn for inspiration to Bible stories and the creeds and deeds of the local fishermen.
In Eastern Europe, the naïve movement began in the early 1930’s in and around the Croatian town of Hlebine. There, farmer-painters, such as Krsto Hegedusic, Ivan Generalic, Franjo Mraz and Mirko Virius, formed the “Earth Movement” and, in their paintings, began depicting the harsh reality of the peasants’ lot. In addition, they began painting on glass, striving for maximum intensity on a two-planed surface.
As the “Earth Movement” reached the cities and then stretched eastward and northward into Serbia (especially the areas around Kovacica and Jagodina), Hungary and Romania, its message was softened by a less-politicized peasantry that, for historical and cultural reasons, had a more sanguine outlook of life. This development – which, in Serbia, for example, was reflected in the works of Martin Jonas and Dusan Jevtovic – resulted in lighter, softer colors, a reversion to painting on canvas, and an idealized portrayal of everyday life. These artists emphasized life’s celebrations – the fairs, weddings and festivals – and filled their canvases with abundant crops, colorfully-dressed maidens and dancers, and sun-soaked skies.
Russian naïvism has developed in two parallel tracks – the first, folkloric and peasant art, rooted in poetic traditions and characterized by primitive features and symbolism, and the second, popular urban art, comprising personal and improvisational themes, and influenced by modern trends and the artists' general education. Despite the differences in origin of these two streams, each contains many of the traditional characteristics of naïvism: vibrant colors, child-like perspective and a lyrical affection for the land and those who plow, sow and harvest it.
In certain countries of Central and South America, naïve art has been inspired by indigenous mythology, mysticism, culture and tradition. While Mayan culture influenced the naïve artists of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and southern Mexico, and local tribal morés impacted the naïve artists of Panama; Aztec culture inspired the naïve artists of Mexico, and Incan culture influenced the naïve artists of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. In the mid-twentieth century, these artists’ works turned to ethnic and folkloristic themes: Mother Earth and Mother Nature; religious ceremonies and superstitions; traditional clothing and textiles; the rhythms and harmonies of everyday life. Until today, the Guatemalan naïve artists of Atitlan provide these themes in their bird’s-eye views of crop pickers and nocturnal markets, while those of Comalapa reflect such themes in their depictions of bustling markets, brimming buses and ceremonial rituals.
Mexican naïve art captures the vital energy and spirit of the local folk, depicting - in a wide array of bright colors - teeming market places overflowing with fruits, flowers and pottery; lovely lasses in ornamental dresses; and peasant life at home and in the field. The works of the Ecuadorian naïves concentrate upon life in the Tiguan Mountains and highlight Cotapaxi, the venerable volcano; perilous peaks overflowing with blithe-spirited shepherds, field workers and festive revelers; and the omnipresent condors, hovering overhead in a protective (but sometimes threatening) manner. Similarly, the Peruvian naïves focus their works on the heady heights of the Andes Mountains, portraying the color and vigor of community life and culture in a land of captivating cliffs, enchantment and wonder.
The Cuban naïve movement, which emerged in the mid-twentieth century, began in earnest in the 1980's, when the local naives convened a series of meetings aimed at strengthening the "collective" of self-taught artists and improving the image of naïve art. By 1994, the movement had blossomed into "El Grupo Bayaté", a professional organization of the leading naïve artists of Cuba, most of whom were concentrated nearby Santiago de Cuba. Cuban naïve art is a unique blend of mysticism, local rituals and religion, as well as dreams, nature and everyday life. It derives inspiration from the country's hardworking townspeople and field workers, and from the local landscape, architecture and history. Gerald Mouial, in his definitive, two-volume set, "Magic Art of Cuba", explains that Cuban naïvism is deeply rooted in both local and African culture, and its religious moorings are "born of the meeting of the Christianity imposed by the Spanish conquerors and the animist beliefs… …from Western Africa".
In Brazil, the naïve movement appeared at the end of the 1940's with the first exhibitions of Silvia de Leon Chalreo and Jose Antonio da Silva, and with the invitation to the naïve artist, Heitor dos Prazeres, to participate in the first Biennale of Sao Paulo. The probable explanation for the late emergence of Brazilian naïve art is grounded in history. While the Frenchmen, Henri Rousseau, Andre Bauchant and Camille Bombois, and the Americans, Edward Hicks and “Grandma” Moses, to name but a few (albeit the best known), were already “presence obligee” in important museums in the world, the works of the Brazilian naïve “pioneers” were being painted in outlying regions of the country and were discovered quite late. Therefore, the dawn of Brazilian naïve art came only during the second half of the 20th century. Brazilian naïve art is epitomized by enormous contrasts, which arise, in the main, from the intermingling within the large country of many different cultures – such as European, African and Indian – from all over the world. This mixture provides a fertile ground for budding artists of great originality. Brazilians are naturally happy, spontaneous and creative, and are uninhibited in expressing their emotions, and these traits, along with all of the youthful dynamism of the original movement, are still being reflected in the naïve artworks produced today.
The naïvism of Argentina defies simple categorization. The country’s native customs and traditions have never had the dramatic impact upon the local naïve artists as the Incan, Mayan, Aztec and African cultures have had on their fellow artists to the north. Instead, the waves of immigration to Argentina – in particular from Europe – during the past two centuries, and the resultant melding of European and other customs and traditions with those of the indigenous population, have had a major impact upon the life, character and morés of the people, as well as upon the country’s art, architecture, music and literature. These influences are seen, quite clearly, in the works of the Argentine naïves, which depict, in heartwarming colors and detail, the resonance of the city (particularly Buenos Aires, “the Paris of South America”), the beat of the tango, the pulse of the pampas, the swagger of the gauchos and the silent beauty of Patagonia.
Throughout the generations, naïve art has remained ever-present, percolating quietly below the surface and, on occasion, restoring its popularity in the public’s eye through the emergence of a particularly gifted naïve artist or a particularly vocal art aficionado prepared to evidence to the world the beauties of this unique art form.
Oto Bihalji-Merin, the co-author of the “World Encyclopedia of Naïve Art”, notes that naïve art “has outlasted the ever-changing variety of aesthetic styles, ... [remaining] an essential part of the ... [art] scene in any period.” The reason for this phenomenon is summed up beautifully by Jacques Ardies, the noted Brazilian naïve art author and gallery owner, who observes, in his book, “Naïve Art in Brazil”:
“Diversified in [stylistic approaches]; ... full of originality and creativity, and seeking at the same time to capture nature and the great cities, figures and landscapes, the faiths and popular traditions..., ...naïve painters outlive the erudition of contemporary art through their candor and spontaneity. They are painters who do not want or seek to change the world by their authentic art, but merely, as part of it, to pretend that the magic of Art may help man to turn to the simpler things of life.”
Naïve Art, a timeless genre, celebrates the human narrative and - in contrast to the frenetic pressures of the outside world - radiates joy, serenity, peace and tranquility. We are at the dawning of the Age of Naïvism, a genre whose time has come.
Dan Chill, GINA – Gallery of International Naïve Art
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