Magazine article Insight on the News

Naive Paintings of America's Past

Magazine article Insight on the News

Naive Paintings of America's Past

Article excerpt

Deborah Chotner, curator at the National Gallery of Art, has organized as well as cataloged an invaluable collection of wonderfully earnest American folk art.

Col. Edgar William Garbisch and his wife, Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, collected American folk-art paintings to hang on the walls of Pokety, the Eastern Shore hunting lodge in Maryland they inherited in 1941 from Mrs. Garbisch's father, auto manufacturer Walter Chrysler.

The Garbisches liked to call it "naive art" to distinguish it from works by more sophisticated painters who had studied their craft formally and were part of the mainstream art world.

Collecting in the 1940s and the 1950s when American folk art had few advocates, the Garbisches practically had the field to themselves, acquiring impressive numbers of first-rate works. Their own guideline, which they described in an essay written to introduce a catalog of their collection, was: "The true measure of the worth of any art is the extent to which it is enjoyed."

The Garbisches gave more than 300 of their paintings and 100 works on paper to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. They made donations to other museums, too, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but the National Gallery got the best and most significant of the works.

Deborah Chotner, "along with others," she's quick to say, is the curator who worked on the magnificent catalog that describes the works in the Garbisch gift, American Naive Paintings. Some of those paintings are part of the gallery's permanent on-view collection. Others have been hanging this summer on the museum's first floor. But all are part of the nation's heritage and will be on view from time to time at the National Gallery and perhaps as part of exhibitions elsewhere.

Their importance to America cannot be overestimated. They are an intimate and indispensable part of the nation past. Walking among them is a rich lesson in our history. The collection includes such fine artists as Edward Hicks, Susan C. Waters, Ammi Phillips, Joshua Johnson, Horace Bundy and many others.

"Folk art is not the sort of thing you learn in graduate school," Chotner tells Insight. "They don't touch on folk art or naive painting. Before I came here, I didn't have a great knowledge of folk art. That was something I learned as I went along. Now, I really do love the paintings."

Insight: Naive doesn't mean insignificant or that a piece is not worthy of serious attention, does it? These works are often quite moving and very impressive.

Deborah Chotner: The Garbisches liked the word naive; I like it and we use it. The Garbisch paintings range all over the map. Some people are clearly self-taught and some are very primitive in presentation. But a lot of things that found their way into the collection are not exactly naive. They are done by painters who have a lot of training and experience. Most of these painters were aspiring to be part of the middle class. They were trying to produce the best likenesses, the best landspaces, the best records [of life at the time] that they could.

Insight: Isn't it true that the Garbisches would dress down when they went looking for American art so that they wouldn't look like they were ready to pay a great deal?

DC: That's what I've been told. There were some years during the heyday of their buying when they bought huge numbers of works. Pieces were available and they snapped tip the opportunity. That would have been in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

They were part of a wave that included such people as Abby Rockefeller, who bought naive works and who wanted to document the Americanness of the art style of this country. They really did choose things because they were great pictures.

Insight: Can works by these artists still pop up from time to time, or has all the good stuff been bought by collectors? …

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