Visual Arts Review: British Folk Art Collection Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

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The Independent Culture
According to art-historical legend, it was while strolling through St Ives one late August afternoon in 1928 that the artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood "discovered" the septuagenarian Alfred Wallis, painting at the doorway of his tiny cottage. Wallis, entirely self-taught, painted simple, two-dimensional views of the harbour, of the fishing boats he knew from his life on the sea and the rural landscape around his home town. In his honest, untutored imagery, Nicholson and Wood saw the primitive influence for which they had both been searching.

It is significant that a small painted tray by Wallis is included in an exhibition of British folk art currently on view in Eastbourne. The British Folk Art Collection, formed over many years by London art-dealer Andras Kalman and his wife Dorothy, recently lost its home in Bath, has been rescued for the nation by the Peter Moores Foundation and is now on permanent tour around the country. It contains some of the most enduring images of British naive painting and, undoubtedly, many will enjoy these works on the strength of their instantly accessible charm. Such pieces as an 1870s painting of a prize ram and a pair of pigs from the 1850s would not look out of place in a Laura Ashley catalogue. With its painted shop signs and amusing vignettes - John Collier's sadistic dentist, for example, or J Clark's Royal Ratcatcher - this is both an important record of our social history and, on quite another level, evidence of a vital and unjustly neglected part of our art history.

While the rich and fortunate entered the academies, this was the art that, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, was being produced across the British Isles by naturally talented and for the most part anonymous artists. As such, it has a claim to being more representative of our national heritage than any Reynolds or Landseer, Stubbs or Frith.

Folk or "naive" art has long been evaluated principally for its influence on what we like to term "fine" art - in particular on the development of Modernism (it is significant that Kalman himself deals in 20th-century modern masters, including his late friend - that arch exploiter of "naivete" - LS Lowry).

The early Modernists prized folk art for its simple purity. It was apparently "uncontaminated" by 400 years of post-Renaissance sophistication. In particular the Russians Goncharova and Iarionov based their influential primitivism of the early 1900s on peasant woodblocks. What appealed to them was the ability of the artist to convey the spirit of an object, place or person without slavish verisimilitude. Certainly, at their best, these pictures approach the iconic directness and didacticism of Byzantium.

The paradox of such art today is that, from our cluttered, postmodern standpoint, it is far from simple to look at. If we are not careful, we are in danger not only of being patronising, but of turning this exhibition into a massive anachronism. What we need to understand, to paraphrase Herbert Read's still relevant interpretation of "peasant art", is that, whatever political and aesthetic implications we now choose to read into these works, their creators only ever had in their minds the thoroughly human, everyday aim of "brightening things up a bit".

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