Naïve Art: Expression of the Heart and Soul
The term Naïve Art or Folk Art is most generally applied to the work of self-taught artists with no or little formal training or technique; presuming the existence of ‘an academy’ and of a generally accepted ‘educated’ manner of painting. While perhaps lacking such academic orthodox skills, most naïve artists nevertheless apply themselves to their art as dedicated professionals with a resolute and independent spirit. Several trained artists with formal training also choose to paint in a naive style. During the twentieth century academies and different movements of naïve art emerged in various countries. Naïve Art is now a fully recognized art genre, represented in art galleries worldwide.
The term Naïve Art and its contemporary understanding and connotations are somewhat problematic linguistically and politically and as a result are often misunderstood. The original French definition of the word Naïve trace to Latin linguistic roots meaning “natural” and “native.” However, around the 1880s when “naïve” hopped from French to English, it lost such deeper meaning. When examining the Oxford English Dictionary one clearly observes a difference between earlier entries and new online editions. Whereas naïve is a “true genuineness, an unaffected ingenuous simplicity of nature or absence of artificiality;” when we think of something as “naive” today, we tend to think more along the lines of the OED definition of “childlike; gullible; unsophisticated; having or showing a lack of experience, judgment, information or credibility.” Originally this word with a wholesome meaning acquired more critical or pejorative senses over time, devolving into a negative or judgmental meaning. There is a clear clue back in the OED and also in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Both say that the word naïve “has never been fully naturalized in English.” Gary Fine explains in his critical work Everyday genius: self-taught art and the culture of authenticity, that, “Primitive art is another term often applied to art by those without formal training, but is historically more often applied to work from certain [Native] cultures that have been judged socially or technologically “primitive” [or “childlike”] by Western academia, such as Native American, sub-Saharan African or Pacific Island or Tribal Art.”
Naïve Art and Folk Art are related terms, but not necessarily synonymous. They share a similar style and composition, but their historical roots differ slightly. Historically, Folk Art is the term given to ‘peasant’ or laborer’s arts and crafts from former feudal European peoples. It is the 19th century village or rural arts and crafts that migrated with immigrants to different parts of the globe during the colonial era. Such rural art forms and urban traditions of semi-skilled craftsmen barely survived during the growth of industrialization. With these roots, Naïve Art is therefore more readily known in America and other developed countries as Folk Art. These naïve arts and crafts are culture conscious, handed down from generation to generation, such as portrait painting (“limnings”), sign writing or painting, carpentry, coach building, toy making, quilting, embroidery, weaving, etc. The Naïve Folk Art works are often painted on old wood and boards, fabric, and farm equipment, using homemade dyes and colors mixed from clay, egg yolk, minerals, plants and metallic dust.
Naïve Art is marked by a simple, unaffected and direct style that stems from an unforced, fresh and carefree impulse of the heart and soul. As with Impressionism, the naïve artist’s perception is strongly expressed in the composition of the painting (a raw expressionism of the soul) rather than any attempt at graphic realism. As such these seemingly innocent images are transformed into intuitive icons of a people’s soul witnessing the world. The purest definition of Naïve Art is ultimately that which is ‘natural’ and ‘native.’ Naïve Art is therefore less technical in approach and more imaginal, mythic, experiential and spontaneous. Naïve Art’s characteristics are specifically an awkward relationship to the formal qualities of painting, which is responsible for its idiosyncratic scale, its difficulties with drawing and literal perspective that result in a charmingly awkward, somewhat disproportionate, humoristic and often refreshing social commentary and vision. Naïve Art rarely uses shading or shadowing, and as a result, figures often look like they are floating in raw space. The strong use of pattern and rhythmic designs, unrefined bright colors and simplicity rather than subtlety, are all markers of Naïve Art. Visible reality is depicted in a naïve and fun way, often with great attention to detail and color. Bihalji-Merin states in The World Encyclopedia of Naïve Art: “The character of naïve art flourishes in a psychic landscape of disarming honesty, innocence, simplicity, ingenuousness and charm. The naïve artist treats us to a uniquely literal, yet extremely personal and coherent, vision of what the world was, is or should be. It offers us, often in painstaking detail, a timeless and optimistic depiction of an ancient story or mythical tale, an ordinary occurrence or current event, a special ritual or ceremony or daily activity. The naïve painting bustles with color and excitement, brims with wry humor and candor, bubbles with unbridled empathy and love.” Naïve Art has a distinct style of humor that consists of, for example, pink lions, people with fruit on their heads bigger than themselves, chickens larger than people, chickens grabbing people in their mouths, and aristocratic children posing for a portrait pulling one another’s ears and noses.
Naïve painters form no particular trend in modern art, as their straightforwardly eccentric structures stand outside the intellectual concerns of fine art. Their work is not influenced by historical developments in style or form. Naïve Art is therefore, free of convention and uncontaminated by social or art norm.
Naïve Art is as old as the human need for artistic creativity, for in essence all art is naïve to begin with; that which is natural and native to the expression of the heart and soul. Naïve Art has withstood the test of time as it spans across all of human history: from our humble beginnings as drawers on cave walls to modern day naives or folk art on farm equipment. Bihalji-Merin notes in the World Encyclopedia of Naïve Art, “then [so-called] primitive people, living in the Stone Age, looked to their immediate surroundings for inspiration, depicting animals whom they feared and those whom they herded; the female figure as a fertility symbol; and man in his manifold role of huntsman, herdsman and tiller of the soil.” Throughout the generations of different nations Naïve Art has remained ever-present worldwide. Naïve Art, says Oto Bihalji-Merin in the World Encyclopedia of Naïve Art, “has outlasted the ever – changing variety of aesthetic styles…[remaining] an essential part of the … [art] scene in any period.” Naïve Art has a universal appeal, as Jacques Ardies, Brazilian naïve art author and gallery owner, explains in his noted work Naïve Art in Brazil that the reason Naïve Art outlasts all other art styles is as follows: “Diversified in [stylistic approaches]…full of originality and creativity, and seeking at the same time to capture nature and the great cities, figures and landscapes, the faiths and popular traditions…naïve painters outlive the erudition of contemporary art through their candor and spontaneity. They are painters who do not want or seek to change the world by their authentic art, but merely, as part of it, to pretend that the magic of Art may help man to return to the simpler [more essential] things of life.” Naïve Art’s one-of-a-kind, unique, humoristic and joy-inspiring character, uplifts the spirit, enlightens the heart and soothes the soul. This growing attraction of Naïve Art at the present time has profound soulful roots and is not a mere fashionable craze. Our civilization has entered a critical phase in its scientific and technical development. The more the world expands within our consciousness, the more acutely the individual feels alienated from it. The irresistible march of technical progress – paid for by an increasing depletion of our psychic capital – has directed the eye of the artist once more towards elemental images of the soul and heart. In their search for comprehensive links and affinities, artists and connoisseurs are turning not only towards the archaic experiences of sensibility but also toward the later forms of primitivism, Naïve and indigenous art. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy notes, “the most awkward means are adequate to the communication of authentic experience, and the finest word no compensation for lack of it. It is for this reason that we are moved by the true Primitives [the Naïve] and that the most accomplished art craftsmanship leaves us cold.”
Naïve Artists. The oldest and most famous Naïve artist of all time is French painter Henri Rousseau. In addition French naïve artists include Camille Bombois, Andre Bauchant and Paul Gauguin. Alfred Wallis and LS Lowry are known in England, while Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson), Edward Hicks, John Kane, Morris Hirschfield, and Horace Pippin are recognized in the U.S. Eastern European Naïve artists are Krsto Hegedusic, Franjo Mraz, Mirko Virius, Ivan Generalic, Ivan Rabuzin, Serbian Martin Jonas and Dusan Jevtovic. In Israel Naïve artists Shalom Moscovitz, Gabriel Cohen and Yefim Ladizhinsky are well known. Brazil Naïve artists include Ivonaldo, Rosina Becker do Valle, Jose de Freitas, Silvia de Leon Chalreo, Jose Antonio da Silva and Heitor dos Prazeres. Portugal, Spain, Germany, Russia, as well as various Central (Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador) and South American countries have active Naïve Art movements. Various African countries have Naïve Art, including Ethiopia, South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zaire and Namibia. In Tanzania, the Naïve Art movement of popular paintings is known as Tingatinga. Artists include Edward Saidi Tingatinga, Abdul Mkura, Omari Adam Ally, Mohamed Charinda, Daudi Tingatinga, George Lilanga and Omary Amonde.
By Lizelle Marais
Dreamtime Gallery & Studio
Ardies, Jacques. Naïve Art in Brazil. Sao Paulo: Galeria Jacques Ardies Empresa des Artes, 1998.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda. The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Lanham: World Wisdom, 2010.
Fine, Gary Alan. Everyday genius: self-taught art and the culture of authenticity. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2004.
Bihalji-Merin, Oto. World Encyclopedia of Naïve Art. London: Muller, 1984.
Goscinny, Yves. Tingatinga: The Popular Paintings of Tanzania. Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania: La Petite Galerie, 2000.