Before the heavy, grey mist of lockdown descended in early March, I was lifted into a universe of light, bright colour ; the exhibition From Douanier Rousseau to Séraphine at the Musée Maillol in Paris. Brought together for this experience of a world parallel were the paintings of the artists collectively referred to as ‘modern primitives’ or les Naïfs. Key to the exhibition was the art of le Douanier-Rousseau and one of his jungle scenes figures on the poster, already setting the tone. His name alone is familiar to us today – curiously synonymous with the exotic, painted in a bold, direct manner. The glaring, bestial eyes that peer out from luxuriant yet oddly flattened undergrowth, with their expressive yet undefinable gaze no longer have the shock of the new, but still mesmerize us, drawing us in, with the same power as William Blake’s poem The Tyger. Here, however, were the exhibits of other Naïve artists, assembled as a stunning whole, largely from the collection of Dina Vierny (1919-2009) - creator of the Musée Maillol - Fondation Maillol – and private collections.
|Rousseau - Détail Deux lions à l’affût dans la jungle - 1909|
|Séraphine - Pomme aux Feuilles - 1928-1930.|
|Séraphine - Pomme aux Feuilles - 1928-1930.|
We might now identify common traits and shared elements in the art displayed, but the individuals themselves did not openly exchange ideas and aspirations in their lifetime. Each worked in isolation, having their own personal agenda which was in turn affected by their own specific circumstances – both material and private. Many of them were self-taught, coming to art at a later stage in life, having no artistic background or formal training and certainly did not refer to themselves using the naïve label. The absence of inflated theories and set terminology adds to the strange charm operated by this unique artistic style and merits the play on words used to describe its creators ; des génies ingénus.
Gauguin described the primitive as being ‘the milk of sustenance’ for art. Without a reliance on the academic, the paintings of the modern primitive artists were not weighed down by strict, normalising codes in terms of content or technique and could grow unfettered. From such freedom rose a certain legerity ; modern primitive art flows towards other spaces, places and values. The artists’ vision of the world around them is reflected in a figurative manner ; it is representational, not realist or symbolist. Furthermore, the customary references that prop up our typical experience and understanding of a piece of art become mere visual props, providing no real guide as to how we should actually read the work. Unsurprisingly, an anthropocentric world view is largely absent here. Equal importance is placed on inanimate objects , static urban scenes, the natural world and the animal kingdom.
|André Bauchant - Oiseaux Exotiques - 1947|
In the realm of Naïve art, Man does not necessarily reign absolute. As a result, the key actors in the various settings are not pinned down by meaning and we too are liberated from it. We instinctively understand that this apparent ‘artistic anarchy’ does not hide some heavy message or secret agenda. There are none. Just as the artists, we too enter a naîve world of simple observation and appreciation. We may not know where the objective ends and the subjective starts in this imaginary, dream-like world that resembles our own, but we can simply enjoy our experience of it. Without needing to justify ourselves, or act as responsible adults we are likewise free to meander, child-like, from A to Z in a naïve aesthetic. In 1891, the artist Félix Vallotton drew attention to this very quality in Rousseau’s work; a juvenile self-sufficiency. He went on to declare that Rousseau’s Surpris ! (1891) was ‘the alpha and omega' of painting.
|André Bauchant - Ours dans la Forêt - 1925|
Just as some of the paintings are lifted by an almost spiritual quality, the devotion of these artists to their art transcended the constraining practicalities of life. And yet he majority of the primitifs modernes did not come from privileged backgrounds – far from it - and had to work hard all their lives. Frequently beset by financial concerns, they were only able to paint at night, on Sundays or later in life on retirement. Often, they barely managed to make ends meet and had to make personal sacrifices and/or impose these on their families. It is difficult to know how far the different milieux and life experiences formed and forged the art of these artists and vice versa, but these individuals frequently followed a trajectory peppered with events that would be deemed ‘colourful’ by anyone’s standards.
|André Bauchant -|
Rousseau never failed to believe in his own legend, despite the indifference or scorn that his work actually inspired in the art world for most of his life. His stubborn view of his own worth and capacity developed undaunted, as did his devotion to his art, even when he had to resort to busking as a violinist to survive. His mythomaniac proclamations merely added to his reputation as ‘un original’, both endearing and well-meaning.
|André Bauchant - Tigres - 1925|
|André Bauchant - Self-portrait - 1938|
Originally a gardener/ horticulturist, he turned to art in his late forties and vibrant, jewel-like studies of flowers frequently feature in his work – especially dahlias. His beautiful bird portraits create the same calm quality as in his other pieces, with ‘frozen’ feathered forms floating on the foliage. Many of these were apparently inspired and copied from stuffed birds in a nearby aviary. Like many of the other Naïfs, he would use sources where he could find them, thus gaining access to the most exotic realms from the most humdrum.
The architect Le Corbusier went on to become a collector of Bauchant’s art whilst Diaghilev commisioned works for his ballet stage sets. Unlike Rousseau, Bauchant indeed gained notable recognition and acclaim during his lifetime, in spite of living a largely isolated life. Discovering that the war years had led to his wife’s insanity, he set up home in an old mill in the middle of woods in the Indre-et-Loire region and devoted himself to his painting. Surrounded by nature, his artistic career seemed to flourish just as the plants that he had tended from his early years, and just as the flowers he painted, his life was pervaded by a mystical air.
|Ferdinand Desnos - Sangliers au Clair de Lune|
|Ferdinand Desnos - Portrait Paul Léautaud et Chats - 1953|
|Rousseau - Chat sur Coussin - 1890|
|Louis Vivin - La chasse aux Sangliers - 1926|
|Camille Bombois - Nature morte au Homard - 1932|
|Camille Bombois - Fillette à la Poupée - 1925|
|Camille Bombois - Nu de Face - 1935|