Haitian Art; Old Schools versus New Trends, By Fred Thomas
Old Schools versus New Trends
By Fred Thomas
Painting by Philome Obin
Haitian art, in its diversity and originality, presents a colorful and multifaceted panorama of the Haitian culture, the country enchanting tropical landscapes and mystery as well, its aspirations toward perfection, universality, idealism, and the sublime. We deliberately limit our writing to the prevailing art styles and movements: The Primitive Painters and “The Moderns”. We stress, furthermore, the characteristics and contributions of both sides as far as objectives, styles and techniques are concerned. Our aim is to show that the so called Haitian art is not the offspring of one group in particular, but rather a mixture of all kinds of styles and tendencies running the gamut from the early naïve experience to the most sophisticated approach of our time.
It all started with the “Ecole Indigeniste” comprising mostly of an array of primitive artists such as Castera Bazile, Pétion Savain, George Remponneau, Hector Hyppolite, Philome Obin and many others. Most of the time, with little or no formal training in art, these artists made it a point to record, in their paintings, aspects of Haitian life and culture while making the “Centre d’Art”, their meeting point.
With his great talent, charisma, and Christian faith, Philome Obin went on to create The School of Cap-Haitien (L’Ecole du Cap-Haitien), with his brothers Sénèque Obin, many of his sons, such as Telemaque Obin, Antoine Obin, Henry-Claude Obin as well as his grandsons, nephew (Michel Obin), other family members, neighbors and others like Max Gerbier, Buffon Thermidor, etc. If Philome Obin’s affiliation to Protestantism did not allow him to paint voodoo scenes, he and his followers, had a continuous source of inspiration in their immediate surrounding. The North Department’s picturesque sites, local and historical events, as well as their personal lives were limitless sources of inspiration. As a result, their paintings seem to convey to the onlooker a sense of serenity and decency, decorum, truthfulness and measure, thereby hope for the future.
Vaudou in Palace. Gérard Valcin 1964
Girl with Dove,1974,Jean-Rene-Jerome
But some artists, dubbed “The Moderns”, such as Antonio Joseph, Gesner Armand, Favrange Valcin, Luce Turnier, Bernard Wha, Lionel Saint-Eloi, Tiga and many others adopted a completely different view. To this list one must add the proponents of the “Ecole de la Beauté”. This group includes painters like Jean-Rene Gerome, Bernard Séjourné, Sibil, Lyonel Laurenceau, Jean-Claude Legagneur, Philippe Dodard, and, later on, Albert Desmangues. Mostly educated abroad, or coming from the elite, these artists were armed with their talents, enthusiasm, and knowledge of modern techniques that they learned in art schools, art books and museums all over the world.
They took umbrage at the Primitives’ vision and opted to show a more sophisticated side of Haitian art, which was more attractive to a bourgeois taste. These artists were willing to take chances and experiment with modern techniques and styles such as abstraction, collage, mixed media, dripping, dabbing, controlled textures and so forth. They produce works appealing to the eye by consciously eschewing whatever was susceptible to suggest the misery of the Haitian people brought about by decades of short sided administrations and political corruption.
Painting by Philippe Dodard
The idea was to create an idyllic world where everything appears to be perfect and everyone happy. Their paintings depict a surreal world where nothing was completely defined. Thus People could interpret their work the way they want while closing their eyes to the abject reality around them and opting for a world of deception where a bird is not really a bird; a chair is not a chair but the symbol of or an illusion to something else. This way no one felt threaten or guilty and the delusion could go on unabated, forever. As in music, every song was about women, nostalgia, poetry the sun, the moon and the stars. Art for Art’s sake. Life is beautiful in the best of world.
Both schools appeared to have reached their goals. The “Indigenistes” with their lack or limited formal training strove to show a true image of Haiti by depicting local scenes, historical events, and daily activities of rural life, popular legends, religious ceremonies, and so forth. The “Moderns”, on the other hand, exhibited their talents of colorists by presenting an ideal world which, if not representative of Haiti, showed, however, to the world that Haitian art was not limited to naïve art but was able to compete with contemporary artists all over the world by their mastery of modern techniques and gimmicks whether the aims were avant-gardism, expressionism, or art for art’s sake.
A concise analysis cannot evidently describe and explain the vast landscape of Haitian art from the outset of its exciting history to now. It would, however, force critics and whomever, interested to look with an open mind and see both sides of the same coin. It represents seemingly two different poles: the “Indigeniste School” (Primitive Art) with The “Cap-Haitien School” versus “The Moderns” represented by “L’Ecole de la Beauté” while providing some crucial insights on the meaning of the interpellation. Haitian art is not only about naïve art but also all the educated and formally trained other artists who choose their subject matters for their aesthetical potential rather than anecdotal or realistic contents.
The questions remain, however:
Does the relevance of art depend on whether it is geared toward realism, being socially engaged or concerned with only aesthetical pursuits?
Since Haitian art seems to be at a crossroad where primitive and modern artists share the art market, where do we go from now?
Painting by Bernard Séjourné