‘Naïve’ art, and the artists who created it, became well known in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Who were these artists, and what was their background? To find out, we have to turn back the clock and look at the history of art at that time.
It is interesting that for much of the intervening century, the naive artists themselves seem to have attracted rather less attention than those people responsible for ‘discovering’ them or publicising them. Yet that is not unusual. After all, the naive artists might never have come into the light of public scrutiny at all if it had not been for the fascination that other young European artists of the avant-garde movement had for their work – avant-garde artists whose own work has now, at the turn of the millennium, also passed into art history. In this way we should not consider viewing works by, say, Henri Rousseau, Niko Pirosmani, Ivan Generalic, André Bauchant or Louis Vivin without reference at the same time to the ideas and styles of such recognised masters as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Max Ernst and Mikhail Larionov.
But of course, to make that reference itself presents problems. Who was influenced by whom, in what way, and what was the result? The work of the naive artists poses so many questions of this kind that experts will undoubtedly still be trying to unravel the answers for a good time yet. The main necessity is to establish for each of the naive artists precisely who or what the main source of their inspiration was. This has then to be located within a framework expressing the artist’s relationship to the ‘classic’ academic (‘official’) art of the period. Difficult as it is to make headway in such research, matters are further complicated by the fact that such questions may themselves have more than one answer – and that each answer may be subject to different interpretation by different experts anyway.
It gets worse. All the time the works of previously unknown naive artists are coming to light, some of them from the early days of naive art, some of them relatively contemporary. Their art may add to our understanding of the phenomenon of naive art or may change it altogether. For this reason alone it would simply not be feasible to come to an appreciation of naive art that was tightly-defined, complete and static.
In this study, therefore, we will contemplate only those outstanding – yet outstandingly diverse – examples of naive art that really do constitute pointers towards a genuine style, a genuine direction in pictorial representation, albeit one that is currently little known. Think of this book, if you like, as a preliminary sketch for a picture that will be completed by future generations.
It is difficult – perhaps even impossible – to quantify the influence of Henri Rousseau, Niko Pirosmani and Ivan Generalic on professional ‘modern’ artists and the artworks they produce. The reason is obvious: the three of them belonged to no one specific school and, indeed, worked to no specific system of art. It is for this reason that genuine scholars of naive art are somewhat thin on the ground. After all, it is hard to find any basic element, any consistent factor, that unites their art and enables it to be studied as a discrete phenomenon.
The problems begin even in finding a proper name for this kind of art. No single term is descriptive enough. It is all very well consulting dictionaries – they are not much use in this situation. A dictionary definition of a ‘primitive’ in relation to art, for example, might be “An artist or sculptor of the period before the Renaissance”. This definition is actually not unusual in dictionaries today – but it was first written in the nineteenth century and is now badly out of date because the concept of ‘primitive’ art has expanded to include the art of non-European cultures in addition to the art of naive artists worldwide. In incorporating such a massive diversity of elements, the term has thus taken on a broadness that renders it, as a definition, all too indefinite. The description ‘primitive’ is simply no longer precise enough to apply to the works of untaught artists.
The word ‘naive’, which implies naturalness, innocence, unaffectedness, inexperience, trustfulness, artlessness and ingenuousness, has the kind of descriptively emotive ring to it that clearly reflects the spirit of such artists. But as a technical term it is open to confusion. Like Louis Aragon, we could say that “It is naive to consider this painting naive.”
Many other descriptive expressions have been suggested to fill the gap. Wilhelm Uhde called the 1928 exhibition in Paris Les Artists du Sacré-Coeur, apparently intending to emphasise not so much a location as the unspoiled, pure nature of the artists’ dispositions. Another proposal was to call them ‘instinctive artists’ in reference to the intuitive aspects of their method. Yet another was ‘neo-primitives’ as a sort of reference to the idea of nineteenth- century-style ‘primitive’ art while yet distinguishing them from it. A different faction picked up on Gustave Coquiot’s observation in praise of Henri Rousseau’s work and decided they should be known as ‘Sunday artists’.
Of all the various terms on offer, it was naive that won out. This is the word that is used in the titles of books and in the names of a growing number of museums. Presumably, it is the combination of moral and aesthetic factors in the work of naive artists that seems appropriate in the description. Gerd Claussnitzer alternatively believes that the term is meant pejoratively, as a nineteenth-century comment by the realist school on a visibly clumsy and unskilled style of painting. For all that, to an unsophisticated reader or viewer the term ‘naive artist’ does bring to mind an image of the artist as a very human sort of person.
Every student of art feels a natural compulsion to try to classify the naive artists, to categorise them on the basis of some feature or features they have in common. The trouble with this is that the naive artists – as noted above – belong to no specific school of art and work to no specific system of expression. Which is precisely why professional artists are so attracted to their work. Summing up his long life, Maurice de Vlaminck wrote: “I seem initially to have followed Fauvism, and then to have followed in Cézanne’s footsteps. Whatever – I do not mind. . . as long as first of all I remained Vlaminck.”
Naive artists have been independent of other forms of art from the very beginning. It is their essential quality. Paradoxically, it is their independence that determines their similarity. They tend to use the same sort of themes and subjects; they tend to have much the same sort of outlook on life in general, which translates into much the same sort of painting style. And this similarity primarily stems from the instinctual nature of their creative process. But this apart, almost all naive artists are or have been to some extent associated with one or other non-professional field of art. The most popular field of art for naive artists to date has been folk art…
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