`Naive' Pictures of Vivid Power

Andras Kalman's museum celebrates `art of the people'. ENGLISH FOLK ART

`MUMMY, I want to buy that one!'' The small boy's voice was urgent, imperative. The object Simon so immediately wanted was a small model of a lifeboat in a glass case, displayed in the musuem he was visiting with his mother. ``You can always come back and see it again,'' explained Andras Kalman. ``You see, all the children want to see it also.''

Simon seemed to accept that - even though he had no idea who was speaking to him. Mr. Kalman has a distinct, smiling bonhomie and a Hungarian accent of benevolent charm. He proceeded to tell Simon all about lifeboats.

Then Kalman said, ``Come, I want to give you something,'' and for five minutes our private tour of this museum was suspended while Simon nonchalantly put his arm round his new-found uncle's neck and shiningly received a free gift of a reproduction of one of the gallery's paintings.

Simon's mother said she had learned of the Museum of English Naive Art in Bath only recently. It was ``wonderful,'' she added.

Kalman is a successful London art dealer. In the 1940s, newly immigrated from Hungary, he had started out with a gallery in Manchester.

His London gallery, along the road from Harrods, specializes in modern European art, and he has shown work by such 20th-century English artists as Winifred and Ben Nicholson, Alan Lowndes, Christopher Wood, and Mary Newcomb. Two artists whom he has strongly supported are modern English ``naive'' artists: Cornish fisherman Alfred Wallis and London seamstress Elizabeth Allen.

For over three decades, Kalman has had a passion for collecting authentically ``naive'' art - works done not by sophisticated artists assuming naivet'e, but by genuinely untrained artists who made pictures of vivid, expressive power, and were helped rather than hindered by a childlike vision free of artistic ``knowledge'' or ``improvement.'' It's the tradition, in fact, of folk art in Britain from the mid-18th century until today.

Now, the bulk of his naive art collection has gone public in the form of this privately run, generously money-losing museum in the ancient West Country city of Bath. Its walls feature pictures, delightfully simple and direct, of prizefighters and prize pigs, portraits of children and ordinary families with modest pretensions, pictures of busy market towns, and depictions of bear-bating, rat-catching, and duck-shooting.

This is art of the people - charming, pulling no punches, devoid of pomposity.

The museum - open from April 1 to Oct. 31 each year - is still too little known: even supposedly up-to-date English Museum Guides fail to mention it.

``When I started to collect, I didn't know what I was doing, you see,'' says Kalman. ``I just bought a few pictures because they were funny, and they were not expensive, and they looked nice in our dining room and bedroom. And before I knew... I got hooked on them. People got to know about me - `This man is mad about these pictures' - and they brought them to me. Then they went on tour in America, England, and Scandinavia. And we still have enough at home.''

It was then that Bath's Preservation Trust let Kalman know about a derelict old school and church. ``They restored the church, and I restored the school.'' Some 60 things from his collection toured the United States at the admiring instigation of Beatrix Rumford, director of the Abby Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, Williamsburg, Va., who had ``discovered'' Kalman's personal collection when she came to Britain to learn about relationships between the folk art of the two countries; only she found there was very little to be seen in British museums.

Kalman - whose geniality can switch to a particularly telling irony - is critical of the snobbish attitude of the British art establishment toward this country's folk art. He is irritated that a major London museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, owns one of the ``very, very great pieces of English folk art'' - an eight-panel screen, 1746, depicting rural pastimes from fox-hunting and card-playing to shooting and fishing, and even a comic peeping Tom spying by moonlight on bathing women. But, says Kalman indignantly, ``it is never shown.''

When he started collecting, he also ran up against another form of aesthetic superiority: art restorers. They couldn't understand why he would pay 28 pounds ($45) for a soot-covered picture with a hole in it and then ask them to save it at the cost of 100 pounds ($158).

One particular London restorer would tell him all the fine old masters he worked on. It was as if he thought (says Kalman): ``Why does this fellow come with his old banger into a Rolls-Royce showroom?''

But Kalman's taste, determination - and money - won out, and he has managed to save all kinds of folk objects like shop and pub signs, a fowling piece, weathervanes, and a model lifeboat.

Above all, it is the paintings that are memorable. Kalman has tried to get examples that broaden one's view of ordinary life in Britain over the last 200 years. One recently purchased picture shows a ``traffic accident'' involving a collision of horse-drawn coaches, portrayed with direct verve and the excited observation of a child telling a story pictorially. Another one depicts a street in Richmond, Yorkshire. Kalman calls it a ``key'' picture. It shows a shop with a sign that reads ``painter, gilder, paper-hanger.'' The point is that the name of this local tradesman-craftsman is the same as the signature on the painting itself. So it actually shows what kind of person produced this naive art.

Generally, though, Kalman says, ``there is no signature and they didn't want to make themselves into names. They just did it like craftsmen.'' They're none the worse for that.

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