Not just another cute scene
PRIMITIVE''artists are far from scarce, but good ones are very difficult to find. Ever since Henri Rousseau became famous, and the Western world got to know the work of Grandma Moses, Camille Bombois, Louis Vivin, John Kane, and a handful of other ``naive'' painters, dealers and curators have been looking for individuals with no formal art training but with an extraordinary knack for making art. It's not that there aren't enough ``primitive'' painters around or that they aren't aware of the fame and fortune that await them should the art world decide they have that special quality. In truth, quite the opposite is the case, as is proved by the large numbers of such artists who show their work in local exhibitions from Maine to California, and the number who make a comfortable income by selling their canvases through galleries specializing in what is loosely described as ``folk art.''
No, the problem is not one of scarcity, nor even of lack of ability, but of cuteness and coyness, and of a self-conscious posturing that takes refuge in whimsy, nostalgia, and a bittersweet call for a return to ``the good old days.''
Most of today's so-called primitive art is extremely sophisticated and calculated, both in technique and in theme, and is made and packaged as shrewdly as any other product with a particular market in mind. Snow-covered farm scenes with horses and buggies, cattle next to barns, and forests and fields in the background are especially popular, as are Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts with dozens of colorfully dressed people celebrating in various ways in lively and charmingly decorative compositions. And if everything else fails, there are always the paintings of stiff-looking children holding their pets, old-fashioned villages with quaint little buildings all lined up in a row, and Grandpa and Grandma out for a ride in the old Model T.
One wouldn't mind all this so much if the styles and techniques employed weren't so coldly precise and contrived, and if each of these pictures didn't resemble at least a dozen others almost down to the smallest detail.
To see just how slick, empty, and artificial most commercially distributed ``primitive'' works are, we need only compare them with the genuine articles painted by someone like Grandma Moses or John Kane. In both cases, we are struck by the extraordinary warmth and authenticity of what these two put down on canvas or panel, as well as the seriousness with which they tried to be as realistic in their depictions as possible, and not sweetly nostalgic.
No ``primitive'' painter of quality ever set out to be coy or cute, or to radiate so much ``good old days'' charm as to make his or her work irresistible to art buyers.
From Rousseau to the unknown ``naive'' watercolorist in northern Michigan or Oregon painting away at her florals on her kitchen table, art has been and will continue to be a serious and often difficult business carried out to fulfill an ideal, dream, or vision. These individuals' attitudes toward their work is essentially every bit as serious as was C'ezanne's toward his, and if the scope of their vision is less grand than C'ezanne's, one of their number, Henri Rousseau, was able at least once -- in his ``Sleeping Gypsy'' -- to match that great painter's grandeur.
The problem with so much so-called primitive art is that it is either too slick and calculated or too clumsily and unattractively painted. Faced with the choice, most of us, I would suspect, would prefer the latter, since honesty and integrity at least are virtues, and a poorly executed but straightforward depiction of a farm or rural landscape comes closer to our own ideal of art than any number of seductively sweet and pretty paintings of children with pets.
Even so, integrity is not sufficient for the creation of art. For that, such things as talent, imagination, skill, and sensibility are also required. And so the search goes on for ``primitive'' painters evidencing at least some of these qualities as well.
Vincent Haddelsey, I believe, is such an artist, not on a particularly high level, perhaps, but in that category, nevertheless. He may not match Grandma Moses in importance -- he is still a bit too self-consciously charming and technically calculating at times -- but in every other respect he has proved himself talented and imaginative, and someone who takes his work seriously as art.
He was born in 1934 in the agricultural county of Lincolnshire, England, where, as a boy, he developed what was to become an enduring passion for horses and for the environments in which they are raised, trained, and permitted to perform.
This passion gradually found expression in paintings depicting horses and equestrian activities in different parts of the world. While obviously from the hand of a self-taught painter, these pictures are remarkably accomplished, revealing a very special talent for color, composition, and the depiction of atmospheric effects.
Among his best works are several paintings executed during his 1980 trip to Inner Mongolia, where he had gone to study and paint the unique Mongolian pony.
In such images as ``Village of the Fourth Banner, Inner Mongolia'' and ``Herding Cattle, Inner Mongolia,'' Haddelsey not only summarized what life is like in that immense and bleak land, but proved once again that an untrained painter with talent and integrity can indeed also be an artist.