01 Dec 2019


Apples & Leaves, Séraphine Louis
Apples & Leaves, Séraphine Louis

By the third quarter of the 19th century, a new movement was launched — initially in Paris, then rapidly spreading all over Europe — that would dominate artistic creations for the next nearly seven decades.

Led by Henri Rousseau, a wave of artists such as André Bauchant, Camille Bombois, Ferdinand Desnos, Jean Ève, René Rimbert, Dominiqaue Peyronnet and Louis Vivin decided to do away with the classical mode of painting landscapes, nudes, national monuments and historical figures and concentrated instead on everyday life scenes to express their creativity in a deliberately childish fashion.

The man first to see through this revolutionary aspect was Wilhelm Uhde, a German art collector and critic who had settled down near Paris. He organised their first exhibition in 1928, naming it the Naive Art Show. One unusual participant was Séraphine Louis, a rare woman painter of the time.

Though the Naïves have been known ever since, the Maillol Museum in Paris has currently put together more than a 100 of their works in a single exhibition for the first time ever. Called “dreamy and untamed primitive works” by art enthusiasts, these paintings, with their exploding hues, bring to light not only all the forgotten painters named above, but the details of a revolt as well that had shaken up the reigning classical artistic traditions of their age.

Maillol Museum in Paris exhibits the diverse works of artists who formed part of the ‘Naive Revolution’

Henri Rousseau, originally a customs officer (hence his nickname ‘le Douanier’) was so inspired by the idea of creating a new art form that he resigned his comfortable job at the age of 49 and devoted the remaining years of his life exclusively to painting. The creations of the self-taught genius left an indelible influence on successive generations of artists.

Sacred Heart Church, Montmartre, Louis Vivin
Sacred Heart Church, Montmartre, Louis Vivin

The other main figure of the Naive Revolution undoubtedly remains Louis. Inspired by stained-glass church windows, and other art techniques that were part of her early life as a child raised in a faithful Christian family, she concentrated on the intensity of her images using frenzied colours and often replicated motifs. It was, once again, no one else but Uhde who was the first person to recognise her talent and promote her work.

Uhde described Louis’ creations as “wild fantasies” of intensely repeated and embellished floral arrangements with colours and pigments that the artist had prepared using exotic ingredients, that would remain a personal secret till the end of her life in 1942.

However, the majority of art experts of the time never agreed with Uhde. They kept calling Henri Rousseau, the customs officer instead of a painter and described his followers as “modern primitives” or “illiterate pretenders.”

Not well-received in the traditional art areas of Paris such as the Latin Quarter and not possessing their own studios, many Naïves, such as Louis Vivin and Camille Bombois, would work day after day under the open sky in front of the Sacred Heart Church in the relatively modest Montmartre neighbourhood.

Girl With Doll, Camille Bombois
Girl With Doll, Camille Bombois

Jeanne-Bathilde Lacourt, an art historian and one of the organisers of the Maillol show, says, “Most of the Naives were strangers to each other and hence cannot be described as members of a group. But their common point, nevertheless, remained the fact that none of them had been trained professionally and all were self-taught, many beginning their artistic careers following retirements from regular jobs at advanced ages.”

All art experts today are unanimous that the Maillol Museum has taken an unusually courageous step by raising the curtain off the subversive image of the Naives — these artists who were regarded as “childish and non-professionals” by their contemporary art critics.

“The Great Naives” is being displayed at Maillol Museum in Paris from September 11, 2019 to January 19, 2020

The writer is an art critic based in Paris.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 1st, 2019