Haitian Painting: Reflections on Naïfs and Moderns

Haitian painting is often perceived as the work of “naif” painters, celebrated by Breton and Malraux and promoted on art markets by North American art merchants and collectors too eager to make a profit, thus hiding from the public, especially in Europe, the other trends in which abound the likes of Albert Mangonès, Geo Remponeau, James Petersen, Maurice Borno, Gérald Bloncourt – who in 1944 founded with Dewitt Peters the Centre d’Art – and Lucien Price, Pétion Savain, Luce Turnier, Antonio Joseph, Tamara Baussan, Andree Naude, Luckner Lazard, Xavier Amiama, Dieudonné Cédor, Pierre Paillière, Jacques Enguerrand-Gourgue, etc.

Later on, they were joined by Gesner Armand, Roland Dorcely, Elzire Malebranche, Néhemy Jean, Georges Hector, Rose-Marie Déruisseau, Bernard Wah, Angel Botello-Barros, Emilcar Simil, Jean-René Jérome, Philippe Dodard, Jean Pierre Théard, Ronald Mevs, and so many others that it is impossible for me to name them all here. In tallying these Haitian painters called “modern,” who carved for themselves a more than honorable place even on the American market, one would be surprised to note that they are more numerous than the “naïf” painters, at least those who left their mark on the saga of Haitian painting during the last 40 years.

One should not, however, minimize the role played by these extraordinary “naïfs,” most notably those in the dynasty of Obin, Guy Dorcin, Eugene and Jean-Baptiste Jean, Etienne Chavannes, Bottex, and others, who were the sparks that triggered the fabulous adventure of “the painters of the marvelous.”

They have been–one must stress that fact–at the genesis of this extraordinary harvest of Haitian painters of all schools that abound in the country. They in truth opened the breach through which rushed in their wake all these “other” painters.

Furthermore, one should keep from pitting naïfs against moderns as do some jounalists longing for folklore, because their work constitutes “Haitian painting” marked with the seal of the same culture.

The adjective “naïf,” put in quotation marks on purpose, has never been clearly defined; yielding to a comfortable and above all blamable quickness under the pressure of the “market,” many of the so-called “critiques” so characterized a group of artists that should have been defined differently. I am speaking of the “humorist” painters, of those of “Vodou,” of all those “painters of dreams,” whose artistic output is not envious of the genius of so many painters in the world whom nobody in his or her right mind would call “naïfs!” Unfortunately, the larger public and even some well informed amateurs were caught up in this deep and deplorable confusion! This confusion has become so deeply entrenched over the years, that a large majority of the French public thinks even today that Haitian painting is strictly “naïf.”

Is not the term “naïf” in painting too often used to designate in a simplistic manner the person who paints from instinct scenes embellished with detailed minutiae, without prior knowledge of the so-called rules governing perspective and composition? “Naïf” in painting should signify purity — original purity. Did the custom officer Rousseau not create in solitude, without any vital reference for this work to painters or trends of his era? To be “naïf” should not, furthermore, imply non-mastery of features, material, or proportions, but to be sure should refer to this authentic purity, practically virginal, necessary for the non-polluted transcription of the “interior me.” A “me” expressed through a true copy, one that is paradoxically conformist of a vision offered at the primary level, both primitive and elementary, of creation. The non-digestion of the teachings of “schools” that, in the case of the Haitian “naïfs,” abound around them and from which they have protected themselves [represents] the possible arbitrariness of their free expression.

In order to understand Haitian painting, one must know that this country has been an authentic cultural crucible, in which were mixed the Carib Indians, the Spanish invaders, the fearsome Brothers of the Coast, flibustiers, and pirates of all kinds from France, the English and more than 30 African tribes. Also mixed in it were their languages, customs, [and] religions. Also in it fought Napoléon’s armies with the marooned slaves who then revolted to conquer their independence in 1804. Haiti, the land of mountains in the original Indian language, and of rites, of myths, and rhythms, land of violence, land of Vodou, has always been the land of poets, painters, sculptors, and musicians. The whole of Haitian history displays this unflagging activity, pre-Columbian history reveals the art of the Carib and Taïno Indians. The slaves who came from Africa have left us sculpted traces of their cultures. The anonymous creators are without numbers, such as the Vodou priests who decorated their temples with drawings to the glory of their gods. Among them also, the blacksmiths of Vodou, the first in any event to adorn the cemeteries with “vèvès” (drawings) made of metal, without forgetting those ephemeral vèvès drawn on the ground on the occasion of Vodou ceremonies that were wiped out under the steps of “possessed” dancers. This continues to our day.

King Henry Christophe encouraged cultural activities since 1807. Two English artists taught at the Royal Academy of Milot. Around 1820, at the invitation of Aléxandre Pétion, the French artist Barincourt founded a school of art in Port-au-Prince. From 1830 until 1860, we know that about 30 Haitian artists, some of whom were trained in France, worked in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian. Between 1850 and 1859, the Emperor Soulouque sustained an academy of painting and drawing. In 1860, President Geffrard founded an academy of painting and sculpture. In 1880, the Haitian artist Archibald Lochard opened an academy of painting and sculpture. In 1915, with Normil Charles, he founded a new academy of painting and sculpture. The American artist William Scott encouraged Pétion Savain to paint in 1930. In 1943, Dewitt Peters arrived in Haiti and became the prime mover behind the Centre d’Art that was the spark that set the powder off and detonated this formidable explosion of Haitian Art.

Gérald Bloncourt

Artist and Art Historian

* Translated by Max Blanchet, Berkeley, C.A., Courtesy of Studio Wah (www.studiowah.com)