Books: Eye of the Beholder

Article excerpt

PERHAPS primitive art holds more appeal for writers and the general public than it does for professional art historians? Dickens, Melville, Hardy, Lawrence, Ted Hughes and Elizabeth Bishop - as her recently published letters (reviewed on page 32) copiously confirm - all draw on the primitive, the magically and strangely untutored, as one of their richest imaginative resources.

The mystical and devout Alfred Wallis is the inspiration behind Christopher Reid's subtle exercise in the nave, "Memres of Alfred Stoker", while Paul Muldoon in a tender early poem celebrates that renowned Irish primitive painter, James Dixon, who spent his life on wind-scoured Tory Island off Donegal:

These representative lives

Steered between the rocks of sea and land.

And these other uncluttered journeys

The Wild Goose leaving after

A good dance in Tory Island hall,

The Queen on her Royal Yacht Britannia

Miss Rodgers driving the cattle home.

The easy telling of these endings

The Weep wrecked on back of the lighthouse

The Rothy Bay of Greenock

On the rocks near the east end,

The Fairholm on the rocks beside Alarin.

Ninety people have been drowned

Under the weight of this oil and canvas

Though one survived by clinging to the brush.

Nave painters love maritime subjects, often painting ships in glazed, static, exquisite detail so that they appear more like tiny models preserved in bottles than wooden or metal craft straining against the elements. Such artists also place, as Muldoon implies, a delicate and very spiritual stress on survival, on the rescue from oblivion of individual, local lives. For them the provincial and the parochial is the land of milk and honey, immune to metropolitan values. They have a salving delight in what Thomas Hardy termed "the beauty of association" - the wear on a threshold and a beloved ancestor's battered old tankard are his examples - and they often infuse the work with what a Native American might term the Great Spirit. As small children's drawings do, these paintings suggest an animist vision of natural and man-made objects that sometimes gives them a mute and haunting sanctity.

American Nave Painting comprises the works in the great collection in the National Gallery in Washington: in Britain there is only the tiny but distinguished collection of English nave art in Bath to represent what ought to be regarded as a major, indeed primary, aesthetic category. British art historians, with their aroma of country houses, their pervasive snobbery and sporadic treachery, tend to ignore such art, while their American counterparts appear to suffer from a sort of floundering embarrassment when confronted by it. They admire, for example, the fruity profusion of Chipman's Melons and Grapes, while criticising the composition for the "skewed perspective" that creates the illusion that the fruit is "slipping toward the view". Worse, the vine's "outsized" leaves are "more appropriate" to squash or melon.

Again and again, the experts who have compiled this magnificent volume criticise the paintings for their "awkward anatomy", "simplified shading", stiff overdone poses and "loose, clumsy" handling of paint. Thus a bold, stark, but also delicate and tapestry-like painting, Mahantango Valley Farm by "Unknown", is criticised for its occasional "crude passages" and deployment of "a primitive perspective with no single vanishing point". This response is both tautological and entirely beside the point - a primitive painting is a primitive painting and we can no more rebuke it for being one than we can dismiss a ballad for being a ballad.

What is surely needed, in art criticism and literary criticism alike, is a genuinely autonomous category of Nave art that rises above the negative connotations the term currently shares with "primitive". …