Books: Eye of the beholder: Why isn't naive art - on the canvas or the page - a fashionable genre for criticism? The answer may lie in our over-educated gaze, our unwillingness to surrender to nature

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The Independent Culture
PERHAPS primitive art holds more appeal for writers and the general public than it does for professional art historians? Dickens, Melville, Hardy, Lawrence, Ted Hughes and Elizabeth Bishop - as her recently published letters (reviewed on page 32) copiously confirm - all draw on the primitive, the magically and strangely untutored, as one of their richest imaginative resources.

The mystical and devout Alfred Wallis is the inspiration behind Christopher Reid's subtle exercise in the nave, 'Memres of Alfred Stoker', while Paul Muldoon in a tender early poem celebrates that renowned Irish primitive painter, James Dixon, who spent his life on wind-scoured Tory Island off Donegal:

These representative lives

Steered between the rocks of sea and land.

And these other uncluttered journeys

The Wild Goose leaving after

A good dance in Tory Island hall,

The Queen on her Royal Yacht Britannia

Miss Rodgers driving the cattle home.

The easy telling of these endings

The Weep wrecked on back of the lighthouse

The Rothy Bay of Greenock

On the rocks near the east end,

The Fairholm on the rocks beside Alarin.

Ninety people have been drowned

Under the weight of this oil and canvas

Though one survived by clinging to the brush.

Nave painters love maritime subjects, often painting ships in glazed, static, exquisite detail so that they appear more like tiny models preserved in bottles than wooden or metal craft straining against the elements. Such artists also place, as Muldoon implies, a delicate and very spiritual stress on survival, on the rescue from oblivion of individual, local lives. For them the provincial and the parochial is the land of milk and honey, immune to metropolitan values. They have a salving delight in what Thomas Hardy termed 'the beauty of association' - the wear on a threshold and a beloved ancestor's battered old tankard are his examples - and they often infuse the work with what a Native American might term the Great Spirit. As small children's drawings do, these paintings suggest an animist vision of natural and man-made objects that sometimes gives them a mute and haunting sanctity.

American Nave Painting comprises the works in the great collection in the National Gallery in Washington: in Britain there is only the tiny but distinguished collection of English nave art in Bath to represent what ought to be regarded as a major, indeed primary, aesthetic category. British art historians, with their aroma of country houses, their pervasive snobbery and sporadic treachery, tend to ignore such art, while their American counterparts appear to suffer from a sort of floundering embarrassment when confronted by it. They admire, for example, the fruity profusion of Chipman's Melons and Grapes, while criticising the composition for the 'skewed perspective' that creates the illusion that the fruit is 'slipping toward the view'. Worse, the vine's 'outsized' leaves are 'more appropriate' to squash or melon.

Again and again, the experts who have compiled this magnificent volume criticise the paintings for their 'awkward anatomy', 'simplified shading', stiff overdone poses and 'loose, clumsy' handling of paint. Thus a bold, stark, but also delicate and tapestry-like painting, Mahantango Valley Farm by 'Unknown', is criticised for its occasional 'crude passages' and deployment of 'a primitive perspective with no single vanishing point'. This response is both tautological and entirely beside the point - a primitive painting is a primitive painting and we can no more rebuke it for being one than we can dismiss a ballad for being a ballad.

What is surely needed, in art criticism and literary criticism alike, is a genuinely autonomous category of Nave art that rises above the negative connotations the term currently shares with 'primitive'. When this category is properly established - and also celebrated - we will perhaps recognise the inappropriateness of the word 'awkward' as it is applied to the artists in this book. An instinctive, but also acquired deftness only seems like clumsiness when seen from a conventional, limited, even perhaps over-educated point of view. Once we accept this, perhaps art historians too will begin to understand that these paintings are the product of a humanist aesthetic. They arose, like street songs and ballads, out of the life of the American people. They are the visual equivalent of vernacular verse, a popular and democratic art form whose sometimes gawky figures turn their intense, direct gazes on us and challenge us to patronise them.

From famous artists like Edward Hicks and Ammi Phillips to the Beardsley Limner, the Conant Limner and the itinerent, ubiquitous Unknown, these painters comprise a family, all of whose members understand how to memorialise both living contemporaries and the newly dead (there are some scary, intensely moving posthumous portraits of children) as well as how to flatter, exaggerate, tantalise and introduce a pervasive tone of pure wonder.

Hicks's 'painted sermons' are acknowledged masterpieces, but many other paintings express a religious sense far older than Christianity. It is this unified, perspectiveless, all-of- a-piece quality - a quality they share with cave paintings - that makes these works seem like tunnels that take us into a prehistoric lost world of light, profuse wild vegetation and gentle animals. They release us into Hicks's 'peaceable kingdom'.

How daring it was of Charles Bond to introduce a perched bird flapping its wings into his Still Life: Fruit, Bird and Dwarf Pear Tree. He wanted to redeem nature morte, unlike Horace Bundy, who aimed for naturalism in his portrait of a Vermont lawyer, but succeeded in brilliantly evoking the claustrophobic oppressiveness: a dry office where a tight-lipped lawyer in a dark suit looks at us through mean, slightly narrowed eyes; behind him is a pillar whose parched colour is matched by some heavy morocco volumes, a few leaning untidily in a manner that abets the powerful sense of threat that gongs out from this composition. Like oral tradition's view of the print world - all deadness and ecriture - this painting confronts the punitively sterile and then overcomes it.

It is this atmosphere of the uncanny or bizarre, that makes any criticism of a painter's failure to be fully naturalistic so wide of the

mark. In addition to paintings of surpassing beauty and character, there are pumped-up prize bulls, cheerful steam trains, half-bitten sugar lumps, ear trumpets, Aphia Salisbury Rich and Baby Edward - here are meek lives and quietly proud lives, portraits with wild birds and cherished pets that concentrate the love and cherishing that makes these works such permanently fascinating icons of the vividly human. Their often precise draughtsmanship and elaborate detail builds an enchanted, metaphysical realism that is sometimes reminiscent of Chirico and dissolves the distinction between this world and the other. Like fiddlers' reels, they summon the dead and, as Hardy recognises in these subtly primitivist lines, cast an ecstatic spell:

Here is the ancient floor,

Footworn and hollowed and thin,

Here was the former door

Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,

Smiling into the fire;

He who played stood there,

Bowing it higher and higher,

Childlike, I danced in a dream;

Blessings emblazoned that day;

Everything glowed with a gleam;

Yet we were looking away]

Yes, we have been looking away from these immortal works of art.

'American Nave Painting', ed D Chotner, is published by Cambridge University Press at pounds 90.