The many masks of modern art

I have had a soft spot in my heart for "primitive," or "naive," painting ever since I first saw Henri Rousseau's magnificent "The Sleeping Gypsy" many years ago. It was so simply and directly painted, so all-of-a-piece, so honest, uncluttered, and "magical," that I decided then and there to get to know his work better -- and to investigate the work of other "primitive" painters.

I quickly discovered, however, that most works of this sort lack art -- even though they may have a certain charm and wit. The vast majority of "naive" paintings are either embarrassingly clumsy and inept (and little else), or calculatingly and cloyingly commercial. For every Rousseau, Vivin, Bombois, Kane, Grandma Moses (at her best), there are hundreds of "primitive" artists whose only claim to fame is their ineptness and naivete -- or their shrewd business sense in making and selling fake primitive art.

On the other hand, excellent examples pop up in the oddest places. I found (and bought -- off the wall of a Wisconsin farmhouse) a most wonderful red and green watercolor of a sly and happy fox. And I stumbled upon a huge oil of "Moby Dick" in Maine, as well as dozens of "correct" and stiff ancestor portraits in various homes. Obviously, "primitive" art will be around as long as man -- or as long as people put their hearts and souls into portraying something they love, and are not deterred by lack of training or what is generally known as skill.

My interest in this area led me to the pleasant discovery that a whole school and tradition of "naive" art has sprung up in Yugoslavia. Not merely a loosely organized group of individual talents, but a carefully nurtured movement with a distinctive style all its own, specific social objectives, and a tradition of addressing itself directly to the population through the portrayal of folk tales , legends, and myths translated into the present.

Most interesting of all, this is a grass-roots art taken up by peasants and workers in their spare time or old age. An informal estimate puts the probable number of such "naive" artists at well over a thousand, although no more than roughly 5 percent of them deserve serious attention.

I'm particularly fascinated by how basic to everyday life, how comprehensible , and how much fun this art is. Every one of its artists paints a shared portion of the general culture in terms of what he or she has experienced: activities at the country fair, the daily chores of farming, cooking, or logging -- or whatever occupies time. There are hunting, wedding, and fishing scenes, paintings of witches astride cows flying through the air, giant roosters holding flowers in their beaks while riding stiffly in a small boat, masquerade dances in the snow. And there are any number of depictions of more ordinary activities: going to church, feeding the chickens, plowing and harvesting, as well as landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of family pets and farm animals.

And if the painterly attitude and approach is simple, warm, and direct -- well, so is our response to what we see. We enter directly into the activity depicted without concern for any of the complex formal theories we must take into account when looking at so much other contemporary art.

Now I realize that, in reality, this art is not as warmhearted and simple minded as I make it appear. I have seen enough of this work to note an increasing amount of professional calculation in it, with the result that slickness and predictability are becoming more and more apparent. One hopes, however, the grass-roots base upon which this art rests will continually supply fresh native talent, and thus prevent commercial opportunism from taking over.

The current tradition of Yugoslav "naive" art dates to the early years of this century, and to the work of peasant- painters Ivan Generalic and Franjo Mraz, from the village of Hlebine in northern Croatia. Serious recognition first came to these artists in 1931 in an exhibition in Zagreb. Other shows followed in Belgrade and Sofia, and in 1936 these two, together with another peasant-painter from Hlebine, Mirko Virius, organized their own exhibition in a Zagreb gallery.

From then on the movement slowly but surely gained adherents. Even so, it wasn't until well after the end of World War II that it was able to establish itself as a dominant force in Yugoslav cultural life.

Talented peasants and workers began studying the basic fundamentals of painting and sculpture under the guidance of professionals at village art clubs and amateur associations. Cultural societies were formed, skills and ideas were taught and exchanged, and before long, interest in this form of art had spread throughout the country.

Internationally, Yugoslavian "naive" art was also making its mark, with a 1953 exhibition of Generalic's paintings in Paris. This was followed by a representative showing of the Hlebine School at the 1955 Sao Paulo Biennale and other major exhibitions in Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Paris, and London. It was also, by the early 1970s, becoming fairly well known and popular in the United States.

To no one's surprise, Yugoslav "naive" painting became a commercial success. Television teams from several countries filmed programs devoted to it. And armies of dealers descended upon the peasants, the workers, and the retired to scoop up everything they painted as quickly as they could finish it.

Weeding out the genuine and the good from the hack and the inept became a major problem, one I'm not at all certain has been solved. There is a slickness and a sameness to some of the works that discourage enthusiasm. On the other hand, care and caution, and a sharp eye, can lead us away from the strictly commercial pieces to the authentic and excellent ones.

I am too much of a novice in this area to know all its representative artists , let alone which are the best. However, I do have a few favorites. Among them are Martin Dukin, Stjepan Vecenaj, Josip Horvat-Joska, Milan Generalic (nephew of the famous Ivan), and Ivka Matina- Marinkovic. All these have a frank and lively quality that reminds me somewhat of the earthy realism of Bruegel. This is a vital and fascinating art -- even though a minor one.

The next article in this series appears on August 18.m

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