Visual Art: A Wild-Eyed Visionary and Mad as a Brush
Darwent, Charles, The Independent (London, England)
Two Painters: Alfred Wallis and James Dixon Tate St Ives
It is easy enough to dislike the idea of Alfred Wallis, especially if you have an aversion to corn dollies or Coleridge or both. Wallis's place in the history of British art lies in that arch backwater known as "naive": a heading that carries with it the distant smell of lavender bags and ley lines and tatting. As if this were not reason enough to avoid him, Wallis also suffers from having been Discovered, with a capital D, by Ben Nicholson.
According to the story (alas, all too probably true), Nicholson was walking through St Ives with Christopher Wood in 1928 when he came upon the 73- year-old Wallis, painting away in romantic penury in a small cottage in Back Road West. Recognising a genuine noble savage when he saw one - Wallis was not merely a bearded ex- fisherman but mad as a brush - Nicholson turned his find into a painterly Ancient Mariner: a wild-eyed visionary, given to apocalyptic utterances and painting on scraps of cardboard. And to spelling badly: "Sir," wrote Wallis to Nicholson, "i am glad your plesed with som of the pictures i serpose you are pretty well serplied for The Time." Sic, as they say.
If all this mythologising has put you off Wallis in the past, then ignore it. However emetic Wallis's press, an excellent new show at the Tate Gallery in St Ives - a kipper's throw from Back Road West, for Coleridgeans among you - proves that Nicholson was right about the painter's genius. Putting together such privately-owned (and hence infrequently seen) pictures as The Schooner and the Lighthouse with little-known landlubbery works like Kettle's Yard's Street of Houses and Trees, the Tate's exhibition shows Wallis to be something more than just Naive. It also shows the term to be more or less meaningless: about as useful an adjective as the word "primitive" when applied to an Ashante mask.
Political incorrectness apart, one of the problems with Naive art is that it sounds elective, like Cubism or a Situationism. When Nicholson painted his Porthmeor Beach, St Ives shortly after meeting Wallis - a work so profoundly Wallisian as to verge on piracy - he was painting Naively, which is to say, faux-naively. When Wallis painted The Blue Ship five years or so later, he had no sense of himself as a Naive artist, merely as an artist. The picture's extraordinary power lies in its sense of discovery, of each passage in it - dragged foreground, wrinkled pigment, black geometry - being invented from nothing. Nicholson knew about fancy things like scumbling, and chose to ignore them; Wallis knew only the drag and pull of paint,the boundaries of his technique. …