Art Styles in 20th century Art Map




see also:

Edward Hicks
Ammi Phillips
Erastus Salisbury Field
Henri Rousseau
Grandma Moses
John Kane
Niko Pirosmani
Henry Darger
Maud Lewis
Nina Barka
Ivan Generalic
Ivan Rabuzin
Charles Wysocki
Josip Generalic
Adrie Martens



I. Birth of Naive Art

II. Back to the Sources: From the Primitives to Modern Art

III. Discoveries in the East

Conclusion: Is Naive Art Really Naive?




III. Discoveries in the East

Pirosmani's Case

In 1904 the Russian artist Mikhail Larionov began to take an interest in the painted shop-signs that adorned the outsides of the shops of the city in which he lived. He incorporated some of them in a number of the urban landscapes he produced, and by doing so, 'invented' a new facet of art. He had discovered that pictorial representation even of such a casual kind as on shop-signs - generally ignored by everyone and certainly never seriously studied, 'invisible' details of everyday life - nonetheless added colour to an urban landscape and in many ways actually determined the face of that landscape.

At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, another Russian artist,
Boris Kustodiev; took the notion one stage further. Similarly finding inspiration in shop-signs, he not only incorporated them in his paintings but tried to learn from their uninhibited (and often garish) vividness and their utter directness of style. You could say that in deliberately searching out the unexpectedly interesting from within the familiarly ordinary, Kustodiev was the first person to make a study of what we now think of as kitsch. Before Kustodiev it would have been impossible to imagine that commonplace household carpets decorated by rustic hands with rustic patterns and rustic lack of skill, or clay cat-shaped money-boxes, could ever have been thought to have anything to do with folk art, let alone high art. Kustodiev's paintings of tradesmen's wives are full of such details. His stock characters and scenery are those of the Russian bazaar.

Boris Kustodiev, Moscow Tavern, 1916

One form of rustic but very popular folk art, available in all Russian bazaars of the time and part of everyday life in the Russian countryside for centuries before, was the lubok. It now suddenly acquired a value and status equal to those of works by professional artists. In February 1913 the first-ever exhibition dedicated to the lubok opened at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, organised by Mikhail Larionov and Nikolai Vinogradov. Exhibits other than folk prints included decorated household trays, pieces of cooper-work, and carefully-moulded pryaniki - spiced biscuits. In his preface to the exhibition's catalogue Larionov wrote: "All this is lubok in the broadest sense of the term, and it is all high art."

Such an 'official' enthusiasm for standard objects of rural culture produced for the most part by untaught amateurs who had never bothered to sign their work created a veritable fever among the young people of Russia. It caused the 'discovery' of several important naive artists, of which one was Niko Pirosmanashvili (Pirosmani).

It was summer in 1912 when the poet Ilya Zdanevich and his brother, the artist Kyrill Zdanevich, came to the capital city of Georgia, Tbilisi, to visit their parents. In the evenings they used sometimes to stroll together around the streets of the old city, and it was on one occasion of this kind that they found their attention held by a sign above a cheap restaurant called Varyag. "The cruiser after which this establishment was named", Kyrill Zdanevich wrote in his memoirs, "was painted as if it was searing at high speed through the choppy water. Its funnels were belching smoke, and its flags of St Andrew were stretched out in the breeze. Flames gushed out of its guns. Clouds of smoke billowed into the sky. Rough waves smacked against the frame of the sign."

Ivan Rabuzin, Three Flowers with Branches, 1972

The Zdaneviches entered the restaurant, to find more paintings on the walls. "We had never seen anything like those paintings!" wrote Kyrill Zdanevich. "Incredibly original, the paintings were just the kind of miracle we were looking for. Our first impression was so strong that we could do nothing but stand there in silence to marvel... The artist was self-taught, but his technique and his understanding of the medium he was using testified to his skill and the originality of what he was doing. Looking at the pictures more closely, we realised that they were painted on black oilcloth, and that the black in the pictures was where the oilcloth had been left unpainted... We raised our glasses to the artist and his pictures, and asked who this genius was, where he lived, and what his name was. Everybody in the room reacted with animated astonishment that we had never heard of Niko the house-decorator." The newspapers of the Georgian capital were shortly afterwards to publish the first appreciative articles on the paintings of
Niko Pirosmani.

'It turned out', Zdanevich carried on, 'that many in Tbilisi knew about Pirosmani's paintings but dismissed the idea that they might be true art because they were painted on oilcloth. They looked nothing like pictures you might see at an art exhibition, and above all, they were hanging only in some of the lowest dives in the city.' It was true. The only people who were really familiar with Niko's work were the customers of some of the cheapest restaurants in the outlying districts of Tbilisi. Hardly any of Tbilisi's cultural nobility - the intelligentsia of the city - had ever heard of him, let alone knew of his work. It was only after his death - which occurred in 1918 - that Pirosmani became renowned among his friends and acquaintances as something of a 'martyr of art'.

Niko Pirosmani, Feast at Vintage Time

The same was not true, however, in Russia. In March 1913 no fewer than four of Piromani's works were put on display in an exhibition in Moscow entitled Mishen ('Target'). Several of his 'signs' were also put on display there for the first time.

To be the 'discoverer' of a naive artist suddenly became extremely important for Russian avant-garde artists. Larionov determined to find a 'Russian Pirosmani', and eventually unearthed a certain mineworker T. Pavlyuchenko and a Sergeant Bogomazov whose works he displayed at the Mishen exhibition. Their productions have since been lost, but the fact that they appeared alongside the works of professional artists meant that naive artists could turn up just about anywhere. It has to be said, though, that there was one grave disadvantage against naive pictures of this kind when they were put on display: they were not considered true art.
In this way, the 'Rousseau banquet' may well be thought of as the symbolic beginning of the nascent group of naive artists. And from that beginning the doctrine was spreading.

In Croatia during the 1920s the artist Kristo Hegedusic formed a group known as Zemlya ('Earth') with the specific purpose of finding the roots of national art. In a village called Hlebin he discovered some extraordinary paintings by a sixteen-year-old peasant boy named
Ivan Generalic. The lad later himself became the leader of a group of local artists.

In Switzerland, a museum in the town of Sankt Gallen (Saint-Gall) started collecting pictures painted by the rural folk who lived in the mountains around. Many such paintings were then displayed in a large exhibition of Swiss folk art in Basel in 1921.

Fernando De Angelis, Winter's Day, 1973

But tor the most part, talented self-taught artists tended to crop up in cities where, quite naturally, it was easier for them to come into contact with professionals. Back in France, that very same Wilhelm Uhde who had enraged Gustave Coquiot by 'discovering' Henri Rousseau mounted an exhibition of the works of naive artists in the Galerie des Quatre Chemins in Paris in 1928. It featured several paintings by Rousseau, but there were also works there by Seraphine Louis, Uhde's housemaid, by Louis Vivin (who had been 'discovered' by professional artists in Montmartre), by Camille Bombois (who had been 'discovered' by a Parisian journalist) and by Andre Bauchant (who had been picked out by the architect and designer Le Corbusier at the Salon d'automne in 1921).

But naive art was not the sole preserve of Europe. The United States and the countries of Latin America, countries of the Middle East and the Orient all found their own Henri Rousseaus living in their midsts, and duly presented them to the world.

When the Zdanevich brothers saw the paintings of
Niko Pirosmani, they reminded them immediately of the work of Henri Rousseau - although they were very different indeed. Whereas Rousseau's work was a product of the cosmopolitan city of Paris, Pirosmani's could only be Georgian and from nowhere else. He lived in Tbilisi, a fascinating city, the capital of Georgia and cultural centre of the entire TransCaucasian region. In Tbilisi the feudal Georgian way of life tended to complement the otherwise foreign European stratum of culture.

His use of black oilcloth was determined by the general rule that signs should be painted within a black border. This colour, however, plays a highly specific role in Georgian culture. It is the standard colour of the clothing of both city and rural dwellers. Nothing in the world resembles the black pottery of Georgian ceramics. So black oilcloth was a godsend to a painter so subtle as
Niko Pirosmani - it helped to create unearthly decorative effects, to enhance the romantic mood in moonlit night scenes, and finally to produce those large forms of which the only analogues are to be found in Spanish painting of the seventeenth century.

Naive Painting in Romania

Popular art in Romania, and particularly rural art, has been largely of one and the same style across the centuries, although differing in regional aspects.
Documents that have come down to us from the nineteenth century and the period immediately before then - from the seventeenth and, especially, from the eighteenth centuries demonstrate more or less directly (in prints and in water-colours) the wide-ranging artistic enthusiasm of the middle classes in contemporary provincial Romania. Additional evidence for this is provided by the carefully carved wooden ornamentation on architectural features, the elaborate painting of household furniture, the hand-embroidered tapestry wall-hangings, and the highly decorative ceramics. All these practical applications of the arts together exhibit a distinctive character that was no less profound for being the product of non-professional craftspeople, and constitute works of the precursors of what today are known as the naive artists.
At a European level, the representation of popular artistic sensibilities by people who had not been professionally taught and who, indeed, were outside of the mainstream of the applied arts - the so-called naive artists, sometimes held to produce 'secular iconography' in painting or sculpture - received proper recognition only after a considerable time had elapsed. In Romania it was to have its echoes during the 1960s.

Ion Gheorge Grigorescu, The Street Organ Prayer

It was the work of the naive painters of what used to be Yugoslavia that caught the interest of Romanian art critics, who then took upon themselves the difficult task of discovering 'naive art' in Romania. And to their own huge amazement, by scouring the dusty nooks and crannies of houses and entire villages, by dusting over just about anywhere that such artistic works of amateurs might have been .stored out of sight, they actually did come across incontrovertible evidence of Romanian naive art dating from a time well before it had been acknowledged to exist.

Two pieces of artwork, both of great significance, came to light in 1968 and 1969 and revealed a new approach to art to a surprised general public.
Ion Nita Nicodin - a rural painter from Brusturi (in the Arad area of western Romania) - with the assistance of the art critics Petru Comarnescu and George Macovescu, became the first of the 'naives' to have his own exhibition at the Institute of Writers in Bucharest in 1969. Almost simultaneously, the Regional Museum at Pitesti (in Walachia) again with the help of specialists, on this occasion Vasile Savonea, Mihail Diaconescu and Roland Anceanu -established the first permanent Gallery of Naive Art in the country. Given a new authority in this way, Romanian naive art consolidated its position at an international level by being the focus of a good many more exhibitions. And the names of such artists as Ion Nita Nicodin, Ion Stan Patras of Sapanta (Maramures), Gheorghe Mitrachita of Barca (in the Dolj area), Vasile Filip of Baie Mare (in Maramures), Alexandru Savu of Poenari (in the Dambrovitza area), Ion Gheorghe Grigorescu of Campulung Muscel (Arges), and Neculai Popa of Tarpesti (Neamt) became known to a much wider audience as they were awarded various prestigious prizes and medallions. The triennial Naive Art Exhibitions at Bratislava and Zagreb, and other exhibitions in Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Germany, Denmark, Norway, the Indian subcontinent, Egypt, Morocco, the United States, Canada and elsewhere were all locations at which the sensitivity, the naturalness and the purity of expression displayed by the Romanian naive artists came close to overwhelming the appreciative faculties of art lovers. Best known through these international events were the artists Gheorghe Sturza, Viorel Cristea, Gheorghe Babet, and Constantin Stanica.

Catinca Popescu, Winter in the Country

Among publications devoted to the subject, mention should be made of Naive Art in Romania, produced in 1981 by the painter Vasile Savonea who devoted no less than thirty years to the subject, and who - despite the obfuscation of the contemporary cultural authorities - managed to impress the term 'naive art' on the general consciousness, and to give it a comprehensible definition as a genre. Another important work to place the genre in the international context was Naive Art, edited by the critic Victor Ernest Masek and published in 1989.

The enormous changes in Romania following the historic events of 1989 opened people's eyes to new perspectives. Even though the old art salons continued as they always had, from 1991 onwards the biennial Exhibition of Naive Art took place in Bucharest and likewise became the focus of interest for both artists and critics. Thanks to a new approach on the part of the civic authorities and to special efforts on the part of cultural organisations to promote this form of art, many previously closed avenues of progress were opened to Romanian naive artists (by way both of national and international exhibitions and of individual and group display).
The resulting vivacity of art and artistic expression was soon apparent to all, as evidenced by the prizes awarded it. The works of Romanian naive painters were to be found hanging at exhibitions, featured in specialist catalogues, and on view at the most prestigious of art salerooms. Famous - not to say celebrated - artists included Paula Jacob (of Vaslui, Moldavia), Camelia Ciobanu, Mihai Vintila, Mihai Dascalu (of Resita, western Romania), Ion Marie (of Bacau, Moldavia), Gheorghe Ciobanu, Calistrat Robu (of lasi, Moldavia), and Emil Pavelescu (of Bucharest).

Michail Dascalu, The Violin Player

The first published catalogue of the Bucharest International Salon for Naive Art (1997) clearly demonstrated the creative vigour of Romanian artists and showed too that they were more than happy for their work to be compared with the work of artists from any other country. The travelling exhibitions of Romanian naive art on view in Madrid (1993), New York {1994), Venice (1995), Vienna (1996), Bangkok (1997), Thessaloniki (1997) and Paris (1998) all contributed to affirming the existence of an artistic mode that was individually Romanian. Meanwhile, the annual art courses organised for the national and international 'summer universities' attended by a country-wide student population have done much to promote the exchange of ideas and of working techniques.
All these new opportunities are bound also to have repercussions on the overall quality of naive paintings produced. The subject matter, until current times virtually uncensured in any way, has recently been exposed to a critical disposition hardly known before 1990. New techniques have gradually infiltrated until they parallel traditional methods - so that, for example, the more vivid acrylic colours permit an artist to treat (more and) different subjects in a different manner. The lifting of cultural barriers has also granted artists direct access to displays, exhibitions and international galleries where their merit has afforded them commensurate financial reward.

Over almost forty years of being recognised, Romanian naive art through its individuality, its originality and its sensitivity - has attained an important place in the hearts of art lovers.

Ion Pencea, "...and with the Sergeant It Makes Ten"


Conclusion: Is Naive Art Really Naive?

Once when I was in a small town in Estonia during the mid-1960s, I was lucky enough to meet an elderly landscape painter. With a small brush he was making neat strokes with oil-paint on specially prepared cardboard. In the foreground he was establishing a pattern of lacy foliage, while clusters of trees in the background created large circles. He was building up spatial perspective according to the classic method - with a transition from warm to cold colours -although the contrasts between yellow, green and blue tonal values in the foliage were transforming what was an overgrown park into a magical forest.

Anonymous, Rouinan Painting

The artist told me that he had created his first works way back during his childhood. There then followed a gap of many decades during which he was employed at the local match factory. He returned to painting only upon his retirement. He insisted that he had never been outside Estonia, had never seen works of art at the Hermitage - the nearest large art museum (in St Petersburg, Russia) - had no knowledge about other European art or artists, had never himself attended any kind of formal art training, and was not acquainted even with any other 'Sunday artists'. It was difficult to believe him, for his work was distinctly reminiscent of the landscapes of Jacob Van Ruisdael, Meindert Hobbema and Paul Cezanne. If he was telling the truth, how can such a likeness he explained? If he was not telling the truth - why not?
Not only did Naive Artist Number One, Henri Rousseau, make no attempt to conceal his admiration for professional art - on the contrary - he made it evident on every possible occasion. He idolised those professional artists who received awards at the salons and whose works were despised as academic banalities by the avant-garde artists. In his autobiographical jottings he loved to name-drop, mentioning particularly advice given to him by Clement and Gerome. When he received permission from the authorities in 1884 to make copies of paintings in the national galleries such as the Louvre, the Musee du Luxembourg and Versailles, Rousseau told others (including Henri Salmon, who repeated it later) that he was going to the Louvre 'in order to seek the Masters' advice'. His pictures thereafter testify that he knew how to put this advice into practice. The most diligent of Academy graduates might have been envious of hi.s working method. He made many drawings and sketches in situ, paid close attention to his painting technique, and thoroughly worked the canvas surface. The condition of Rousseau's paintings today is much better than that of many of the professional artists of the time. His work was never spontaneous, details were never an end in themselves, and each picture has an overall integrity of composition. His virtuoso brushwork inspired admiration, and the refinement evident in his technique is reminiscent of the paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

Paula Jacob, Ship with Batterflies and Flowers

It is in Rousseau's attempts to render perspective that his limitations become obvious. The lines often do not converge at the correct angle, and instead of receding into the distance his paths tended to climb up the canvas. Perhaps we ought to remember, however, that Rousseau himself said in one of his letters that 'If I have preserved my naivete, it is because M. Gerome... and M. Clement... always insisted that I should hang on to it. But in view of the imperfections of his painting it is difficult to believe that they all stem from the deliberate rejection of the scientific principles of perspective laid down by Leonardo da Vinci and Leon Battista Alberti.
The history of art affords us a number of excellent examples of artists who became professional only at a mature age and managed nonetheless to master that science of painting that comes much easier to those who are younger. The number is, however, not large. Only a few outstanding individuals - like Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh - are capable of such achievement. For all that, striving for the 'correct' way to paint and endeavouring to follow methods taught in art schools and practised by the great masters is a trait present in almost every naive artist.

Although Niko Pirosmani had no Hermitage or Louvre to visit, he was familiar with the works of other artists in contemporary Tbilisi, and tried to follow the professional 'rules' as far as he could. Perspectives in his landscapes, however, the anatomical proportions of his models and the positioning of human figures within his pictures were all prone to the errors also to be seen in the works of the Douanier Rousseau. They reveal that characteristic awkwardness common to artists who start painting as adults. But like Rousseau, Pirosmani took great pride in his own individuality Despite the amazing diversity of naive artists, then, their relationship with professional art is basically the same. It would, after all, be extremely difficult to find a person who took up a brush and just started creating oil paintings without any previous knowledge of painting and without ever having seen the pictures of the great masters even by way of reproductions on postcards.

Moreover, the seeds of this knowledge has fallen on to many different sorts of ground. The landscapes of Ivan Generalic, for example, are remarkable for their classical construction and spatial perspective. His figures move with such expression that those of Claude Lorrain and Pieter Bruegel spring to mind. He most probably owed these qualities to his mentor, Hegedusic. The other Croatian rural artists of Hlebin quite often established perspective in stages up the canvas, and their portrayals of the human figure were little or no more than childish.
Analysis of naive art against professional criteria points to the conclusion that French and German, Polish and Russian, Latin American and Haitian artists all have some qualities in common. On the one hand all of them have a fairly clear idea of art as taught in art schools, and strive towards it. On the other hand they all possess that clumsiness which results in a characteristic manner of expression and which is itself responsible for the lack of balance in their works, resulting in outlandishly bold exaggeration or, conversely, in painstaking attention to detail. These, though, are the very qualities for which naive artists have become best known.
At the same time, if an adult person finds himself or herself striving earnestly towards an artistic goal and yet comes to the realisation that his or her limitations make the goal unattainable, he or she might well be tempted to conceal any familiarity with the basics of art. Indeed, Andre Malraux once described Rousseau as being "able to get what he wants like a child, and slightly devious with it".

Adolf Dietrich, Hunting Dog, 1934



Milan Rasic (Donje Stiplje, Serbia 1931 - )

Milan Rasic was discovered in the 1960s and typically symbolises the characteristics of Serbian naive art. He situates his paintings in the country of his origin, Serbia. He always represents customs and traditions, while he surprisingly conserves a universal value. A taste for childhood, folklore, and nostalgia for paradise lost, etc., all these feelings make his painting a lyrical, sensitive and fragile work. He reveals sentiments indirectly rather than stating them in a striking way. He will say about himself: "I paint to give back to Nature, to liberate my soul and not to feel alone." His overloaded, detailed and very colourful paintings ostensibly show his love of nature and his trust in man. A contagious optimism radiates through his highly coloured work.

Milan Rasic,
My Village in Spring


Milan Rasic,
Brandy-Making in my Village


Shalom Moscovitz, also called Shalom of Safed (Safed, Israel 1887 - 1980)

Shalom of Safed is the best known Israelian naive artist. His humorous work finds its inspiration in the sacred texts and cultural folklore. Beginning as a simple clockmaker, his work represents popular art crafts and the different rites underline the traditions that are dear to him, although certain scenes are sometimes bordering on caricatures. The figures are easily recognised because they are very often bearded and wearing the kippah. His works, are generally composed of different scenes on the same canvas, and remind us of the horizontal sequences of gravestones of the past or in a more modern way of comic strips. They are a testimony to the Jewish culture and its secular transmission at a time when modernity triumphs. His numerous and varied works, in different media such as paintings, tapestries and lithographs have been exhibited in more than twenty museums across the world, some of which are in permanent collections including The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Musee national d'art moderne, Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris.

Shalom Moscovitz, Levites Playing Music, 1972


Shalom Moscovitz, Noah's Ark, 1970


Shalom Moscovitz,
The Garden of Eden


Shalom Moscovitz, Scenes from the Book of Ruth, 1960


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