An English Mariner Who Naively Painted Memory Onto Cardboard

There is no reason why painting should not be all about memories. To sit still and scrupulously observe is only one way in which paintings are made. The English primitive artist Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) sat still and remembered.

This ex-mariner, ex-rag-and-bone-man was in his 70s when he started to paint. Some artists who saw him for the first time as he worked in his cottage in St. Ives, Cornwall, were immediately struck by his resemblance to the old Czanne. But apart from both of these artists being somewhat brusque and grumpy, and apart from the fact that both, in states of great aloneness, painted as if no one had ever painted before, two more different artists could hardly be imagined.

One surprising difference is in the matter of certainty. Czanne's doubts and uncertainties were monumental, but the naive Wallis was definite about his reasons and intentions. His pictures betray little indecision.

Wallis brushes his yacht paint with quick knowing across his scraps of cardboard (given to him by the local grocer). He fills in, without style, the shape of a sail, or the sea, or the grass, or the sky.

He does this confidently in order to make these aspects of his picture immediately apparent.

The sea, in particular, he paints according to its mood and state. It is as if he knew without question that the liquidity of paint is the perfect tool to convey the liquidity - and the light and movement - of the ocean.

Czanne was almost heroically aware of the limitations of painting and picked away at its confines like a prisoner trying to escape. Wallis seems to have found that painting, in the absorbing character of its making, was freedom. He did not see it as a problem. He knew why he was doing it - "for company," as he put it - and he knew what he was trying to do with it.

He must have been aware, when he decided to start painting, of the many other artists who colonized St. Ives. He called them "real" artists, not considering his picture-making the same thing. And when Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Adrian Stokes, and Naum Gabo, among other professional artists, treated his work not only with polite respect but genuine admiration, he must surely have been surprised.

They found inspiration in his childlike "ignorance," and even an instructive example. Wood, staying for a spell at St. Ives, wrote in a letter: "More and more influence de Wallis, not a bad master though," and seems to have taken no notice of the professional academic painters resident in the place.

Wallis was semiliterate. He was no more tutored in words than he was in picture-making. But his paintings said what he wanted them to say, and he corresponded with his collectors and supporters, among them Ben and Winifred Nicholson, and the collector/writer J.S. Ede, who was working at the Tate Gallery in London.

To Ede he wrote, word for word: "What i do mosley is what use To Bee out of my own memery what we may never see again as Thing are altered all To gether Ther is nothin what Ever do not look like what it was sence i Can Rember."

Wallis thought of his paintings as informative records of a world that had passed away. How else could he make these records except by pictures?

The Kapil Jariwala Gallery in London has organized a remarkable exhibition (through March 30) of Wallis's paintings. Here are assembled more of his works than most visitors have ever seen in one place. It is an eye-opener. But one would be wrong to conclude from the consistency of vision conveyed by this gathering of his pictures that he was more sophisticated than supposed; he was truly unsophisticated.

HIS artist-patrons did not change him at all. He liked their attentions, and would be quite annoyed if they did not visit him for a while or ask for work. From this attitude it appears that he felt appreciated rather than patronized by them.

But he was not in the least concerned to paint for them what they wanted: He had his own inner necessity. The fact that each of them saw something different that was valuable to their work in his work, shows how intelligent a painter he was. He was not as simple as the word "naive" suggests. If he painted like a child, then it is also true that few children's paintings have 70-odd years of accumulated life experience and knowledge behind them.

The critic and author Mel Gooding wrote a couple of long paragraphs introducing the current show. They are the opening shots for a book he plans offering a "radical reassessment"of Wallis. Although the artist's first admirers - particularly Ben Nicholson - wrote fascinatingly about him and his procedures, about his color, form, and materials, Gooding believes we "have seen Wallis for too long through [their] eyes."

He wants to call his book "What Wallis Knew." He wants to get away from the simplistic notion that Wallis was merely an intuitive, unconscious artist.

Gooding writes: "What Wallis knew is to be found in his work: Properly considered, it reveals him to have been a profoundly meditative artist, his aesthetic that of the intelligent eye, his vision compounded of reverie and recollection."

Moreover, Wallis knew very well that a painting, however instinctive, still needed "preparation and premeditation." Gooding's book should be worth reading.

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