Memory, precisely recalled

The French "naive" painter Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau was greatly admired by early 20th-century modern artists - particularly Picasso. Rousseau's self-taught paintings had a striking authenticity. He was uncluttered by the pretensions of academic art - or by false modesty. He told Picasso, "You and I are the greatest painters of our time, you in the Egyptian style, I in the modern."

The seriousness with which Rousseau's art has been admired is, in fact, closely linked to his perceived modernity. So-called modern artists frequently tapped what has been variously known as the naive, the primitive, the untaught.

In the early 1980s, London's Portal Gallery compiled a book of its artists and called them "idiosyncratic." It was an apt title for a multitude of individualistic visions. The book showed how acceptable "the naive" had become as serious art.

One of the painters illustrated was Reg Cartwright. He had turned to full-time painting in 1974, when he and his family moved out of the city and settled in a Victorian house in a small country village. It was like going back to the 1950s. He felt he had become his father.

Cartwright had been a commercial artist and art director, so he couldn't be described as unpracticed with a brush. But his first paintings didn't hide the inspiration he discovered in the naive Rousseau. He translated this style, however, into something indelibly English and rural of his own.

His first paintings, like "The Allotment," were derived from local places and people, presented as types. His gardener stands stiffly with bicycle and brassicas as if posing for an old photograph. He painted these familiarities with frontal directness as if they were strangely detailed memories very precisely recalled.

An exhibition of Mr. Cartwright's recent still lifes is at Cambridge (England) Contemporary Art from Oct. 11 to 24.

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