Toward the mark of a deeper experience
Looking at an exhibition of children's drawings one day, Picasso is supposed to have remarked: ''When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.''
Why would an artist want to draw like a child?
Picasso is far from being the only twentieth-century artist who has found stimulus or inspiration by looking at child's art. And similarly there have been painters who have gone to the art of primitive cultures or tribal art, comparatively unspoiled by contact with Western civilization, to help them abandon sophisticated procedures, or to paintings like those of the St. Ives artist Alfred Wallis - the kind of untrained art rather crudely labelled ''naive.''
Perhaps it is a process of unlearning that some artists look for: a need to revitalize their means of translating experience into image by more direct, less complicated, and above all less stylized approaches.
Wallis was literally discovered in the Cornish town of St. Ives in 1928, by two artists, Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson. It was their fascination with his paintings that is mainly responsible for his reputation. Without their appreciation, the 73-year-old, semi-literate farmer and scrap-dealer, who had started to paint only three years earlier, would probably have worked away on his tabletop in happy obscurity. He painted to ''pass away time,'' and ''for company,'' ships and boats and harbours, porpoises and land-sharks and lighthouses, dark forests and rows of houses. He decorated anything with them, but mostly scraps of cardboard given him by the grocer. Once he had begun he continued to paint for the rest of his life, apparently out of an inner compulsion.
He worked swiftly and unevenly: his art shared with that of children a striking unconcern for artistic self-criticism. He painted with no sense of making ''real art.'' Other people were ''real artists.'' His reasons for painting seem to have been primarily to do with evoking the old days, particularly the time when the Cornish coast was an intensely busy centre of the fishing industry. His pictures came out of his memories. In this respect his ''naive'' art is not at all like children's. But he is like a child in the way he treats his subjects as present happenings even though they are, as he wrote, ''what use to Been.''
Wood and Nicholson not only respected Wallis's activity, they greatly admired the best of his pictures. They found that he unwittingly confirmed certain growing convictions in their own sophisticated art. Nicholson wrote: ''Wallis's motive: creating 'for company,' and his method: using materials nearest to hand is the motive and method of the first creative artist.''
An increasing circle of artists and others have gradually seen in Wallis's work not the disadvantages of primitivism, which seem so obvious to the ''civilized,'' but its score for natural imaginativeness, for direct expression and for vital, unselfconscious originality.
Nicholson himself was a witty, supersensitive artist precisely, aware of every mark and move, every relationship of colour, line, shape. It must have been a stimulating surprise for him to come across this old man painting away with nothing but intuition to guide him. Arriving without deliberation at such a strong vision, Nicholson of all artists knew that his own action with pencil or brush depended not on accumulated skills, but at root, on intuition. Without the intuitive leap, art can become unthinking dexterity scarcely alive.
To Wallis (according to Nicholson,) a picture was an actual event: He made little break between his thoughts, his experiences, and his paintings. ''Certainly his vision is a remarkable thing with an intensity and depth of experience which makes it much more than merely childlike,'' Nicholson wrote, and describing the ''formidable organization,'' the ''rhythm,'' and the imagination of one of Wallis's paintings of ships and a harbour with vivid pleasure.
The ''Ship and Harbour'' shown here, belonging to the Pier Gallery, Stromness , Orkney, is also an excellent example of Wallis's intuitive art, every part of it is sharply realized: the energetic ship, large and important, its sail billowing, is the fast-moving centre of the whole ''event.'' Land, sea, lighthouse, and the other deliberately smaller ships all contribute to this experience of a ship sailing to its push and speed. Edwin Mullins has compared Wallis's method of working on his pictures from all angles to primitive mapmaking. He saw them lying horizontally on the table - not up on an easel or wall - and would change his viewpoint at will.
In this picture it seems that he also visualized himself as actually witnessing the event from that central ship, and so it is perfectly sensible for him to see the ships in the harbour as sideways or upside-down. It is only our conventional viewpoint that sees this as wrong. But Wallis, in the urgency of his imagination and memory, perhaps unknowingly broke conventions so that his picture could be a full and felt experience rather than merely a ''view.''