From the wilder shores of naivety

What united a drug-taking socialite and a Cornish fisherman? Christophe r Wood and Alfred Wallis pioneered naive English art
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The Independent Culture
IN COMMON with other hard drugs, opium reduces the sexual activity of its adherents and addicts. How much so, I do not know. Neither does Richard Ingleby, who thought of having a dabble while writing his biography of Christopher Wood (Allison & Busby pounds 20) and preparing Wood's exhibition now at the Fine Art Society. The wicked poppy didn't come his way, but Ingleby's admirable researches have established that Wood was enslaved to the drug during his short career as a painter and that we can't understand his life without thinking of its effects.

My guess is that it was opium that made Wood so asexual. Not that he appeared that way. From the outside his life looks not only febrile but that of a boy who consents to be kept for other people's pleasures. The son of a distant father and a doting mother, he got out of Liverpool in 1920 aged 19 and arrived in London with the vague intention of becoming an artist. He didn't stay long. Soon he was in Paris, first taken there by the connoisseur Alphonse Kahn and later maintained in French fashionable life by the Chilean playboy Tony Gandarillas. Fabulously well-connected, endlessly rich - or so it seemed - Gandarillas formed Wood's adult existence, not least in the matter of opium, and made him stylish, knowing, and utterly dependent on other people.

Some of these patrons I'd heard of. Madame Errazuriz of Biarritz, Tony's aunt, was the friend of both Picasso and Stravinsky. Then there's the famous lesbian and drug addict Princess Violet Murat, whom Proust had memorably described as "more of a truffle than a violet". And then there's Augustus John, who was often at Tony's London house in Cheyne Walk. Also in the English circuit were the Sitwells, Iris Tree, Lady Diana Manners, Nina Hamnett and Alvaro Guevara, who was later to be Wood's rival for the hand of the heiress Meraud Guinness. But there are dozens more, so many that I found it hard to keep track of them. Not the least of Ingleby's achievements is to have tracked the movements of such scented creatures, in Chelsea, Paris, Florence, the Riviera and Tunisia, and to have then traced Wood's involvement in their affairs.

Fond of his subject, Ingleby doesn't state the obvious truth about Wood - which is that, having gained an entree to European society by living with Gandarillas, he imagined that he could be successful in art with equal ease. That he accomplished anything at all in the artistic line is remarkable. Wood had no training to speak of, little application and only a feeble understanding of the movements of modern painting. Had he known more about serious art he might have given up. But he often said with apparent sincerity that he wished to become the greatest painter who had ever lived. Such an ambition excused the way that he lived off other people, with the usual concomitant drawbacks. He painted as he conducted his social affairs, to please.

In his Parisian circumstances Wood evolved a singularly crummy philosophy of art. "Do you know," he wrote - significantly, to his mother - "that all the great modern painters, whom we may not quite understand through their pictures, are not trying to see things and paint them through the eyes of a man of forty or fifty or whatever they may be, but through the eyes of the smallest child who sees nothing except the things that would strike him as being the most important? To the childish drawing they add the beauty and refinement of their own experience - this is the explanation of modern painting."

More likely it's an explanation of the way that Wood tried to form his own style. Cer-tainly he had a clever and winning way of being gauche. It's when he's most portentous about his own character that he most thoroughly fails. At the Fine Art Society is the self portrait he painted in Paris in 1927. It's distantly related to Picasso's Harlequin paintings but has none of their verve and poise. Wood confronts us with palette, brush and paint box, Paris below his balcony and a look of determination on his face. The picture announces that he is about to conquer. And yet it's just not competent enough for anyone to believe that a major artist was in the making.

He conquered in other ways. Wood couldn't do demanding things or work with other people. Diaghilev sacked him from a ballet project. But "Kit" could charm and win friends by the disarming nature of his approach. He's one of those artists who always looks as if he needs personal help. This may be an English speciality, and it's important that Wood never became a continental painter. When he had his first one-man exhibition in London in 1927 Jean Cocteau wrote a rather wonderful piece of faint praise about his Englishness. "If I was not Wood's friend, I would want to be having seen his paintings ... There is a frankness, a naivety - the goodness of a young dog that has not yet had the illness of the time ... Wood is an English painter. His painting speaks little, it takes exercise in the fresh air, it has the red cheeks and the huge hands of a sportsman ..."

Needless to say that Wood was no sportsman at all and badly needed fresh air. Opium soon had both Cocteau and Tony Gandarillas shuddering their way into clinics. The cheapest form of the drug did for them. Wood was cracking up too but escaped to healthy Cornwall. There he was befriended by Ben and Winifred Nicholson and had the advantage of artistic camaraderie. For a short while before his suicide in 1930 he was genuinely a part of the St Ives modern movement. His port and beach scenes are nicely done. Everybody likes his Nude Boy in a Bedroom. I am more struck by the Zebra and Parachute, probably his last work. One senses that he might have become a surrealist. Or he might have gone mad. This painting belongs to a private collection, but has been willed to the Tate.

IN ST IVES in 1928 Nicholson and Wood made one of those discoveries in modern art that now have the ring of legend. They chanced upon Alfred Wallis, an old, half-literate fisherman and scrap merchant who had taken up painting to "keep himself company" when he was widowed in the mid-1920s. The younger painters immediately sensed the validity of his work and Wood probably felt that Wallis's odd but moving paintings justified his own experiments with "naive" and childlike art. As for Wallis himself, he accepted their encouragement and the shillings they gave him for his work. His paintings soon began to circulate among sophisticated St Ives artists and their families (for it seems that they were often given as presents to children). There are Wallis fakes in existence, but we can be sure of the authenticity of paintings with this sort of provenance.

Thus there's an added interest to three unusual paintings in the Wallis exhibition at the Crane Kalman Gallery. They have not previously been exhibited. Curiosities they may be, but each enlarges our knowledge of a remarkable artist. The first is a deep green picture of cows in a field, perhaps his only attempt at such a subject. I would not have recognised this painting to have come from his hand. Then there's his only work on canvas rather than board. Apparently the original canvas was found outside the local art school. The top half had been worked by someone else. Wallis's additions of trees and houses make the painting his own. Even more weird is a picture painted over a voluptuous photograph of a woman from a fashion magazine. To judge from this photo the painting belongs to the late Thirties. Not a suitable subject for a convinced member of the Salvation Army, as Wallis was, shortly to meet his Maker.

Most of the exhibition is of the marine paintings and townscapes with which we are already familiar. Naturally enough, their quality is varied. The best of them aren't too big. I like his more casual paintings done on ripped-up cardboard. Many naive painters feel an obligation to cover every part of their surfaces with equal pressue and attention. Wallis didn't need to impose such a rule upon himself. He knew that the larger rules belong to God. Wallis was much aware of death, and that is little wonder in a man who began his creative life at the age of 70. His pictures are doom-laden yet have their own happiness. Surely this is proper in a salvationist, and I fancy that, beyond the grave, he hears faint hymns to Jesus and the stronger oompahs and bumps-bumps of the Sally Army's cornets and drums.

! Christopher Wood: Fine Art Society, W1 (0171 629 5116) to 30 June. Alfred Wallis: Crane Kalman Gallery, SW3 (0171 584 7586) to 10 June.

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