Sunday, 20 September 2009

   

 

REALISM IN THE CARIBBEAN

 

Art in the Caribbean is culturally of great complexity. This complexity reflects the intricacies of the colonial history of the region, with the different islands and territories divided between many different European powers. Artists in each territory tended to mesh into a different education system and a different set of preconceptions about art.

 

Another facet of this complexity was that Caribbean societies had no great indigenous civilisations to look back to. The native tribal cultures never reached the level they reached on the mainland - in Mexico and in Peru. When they rejected colonial models, the only alternative seemed to be the culture of Africa. This had a romantic attraction for many of the artists of the region, but was very little understood.

 

One result of the cultural confusion imposed by the history of the region, and also by the fact that Caribbean societies were also societies that had felt the deep wound of slavery, was a rejection of art that seemed over-sophisticated. Artistic sophistication was equated with the tastes and standards of the colonial ruling class. Hence the tendency to promote styles of art that seemed free of any European taint - which were in fact a form of folk-expression. The best known example of this is the prolific school of naďve painting that has come to dominate Haitian art, to the exclusion of any other kind of painting. Painting of this kind has also played a role in Cuba, though not to the exclusion of other kinds of art; and it has been heavily promoted in recent years in Jamaica, under the label of 'Intuitive Art'.

 

Art of this type is politically convenient but also, it must be said, culturally limited. Because it puts stress on spontaneity and intuition, it cannot progress. Signs of increasing technical sophistication also become signs of corruption and loss of authenticity.

 

It is not surprising that a number of artists of Caribbean origin have rebelled against this situation. Surprisingly often they have taken refuge in a form of art that has become unfashionable both in Europe and in the United States, though it survives stubbornly in both locations. I am of course speaking of realism. Realism has been the choice made by the three artists I want to talk about here - one from Cuba, and the other two from Jamaica, which is my own country of origin.

 

The mainland of South America has of course produced a small scattering of realist artists in the current era. Some, like the gifted painter Santiago Cardenas, who is present at this conference, come from Colombia. The best-known of them internationally, however, is almost certainly the Chilean painter Claudio Bravo. Claudio Bravo's attitudes towards his native country are, to put it mildly, ambiguous. He has spent most of his career living and working in Morocco. However, his art does show influences that link it closely to the Spanish colonial tradition in Latin America. In particular, he is a disciple of Zurbaran who, of all the leading Golden Age masters in Spain was the one who had most impact on art in the Spanish colonies. Pictures from Zurbaran's studio, if not necessarily from his own hand, were frequently exported to the Spanish vice-royalties in Latin America and provided influential models for the artists who were resident there.

 

Julio Larraz, who comes from Cuba, is also an exile, but not by choice. He belongs to the great Cuban diaspora. Though he emigrated to America when he was still only a teenager, before he began his career as an artist, he still retains a strong feeling of Cuban identity. His work, however, is clearly influenced by an experience of North American realist art - to some extent, perhaps, by Edward Hopper, but also, and more crucially, by that of Winslow Homer. Homer, in addition to painting his now-iconic genre scenes, such as 'Snap the Whip', made many paintings and - especially - watercolours inspired by regular visits to the Caribbean. These watercolours offer expert renditions of the special qualities of Caribbean light - a quality that Larraz emulates in his dazzlingly skilful oil-paintings. He has an particular affection for the white-washed forts that protected many Caribbean shores against endemic piracy, and is expert at rendering the way that light, filtered through narrow windows, suffuses their interiors.

 

Larraz began his career as a professional caricaturist, and a number of his compositions are sharp-edged political satires. However these never step over the border that divides reality from fantasy.  The fantastic element does, perhaps surprisingly, enter into some of his still life paintings, where, for instance, some unexpected objet will be added to the fruit piled in a basket, making the whole assemblage suddenly resemble a ship. These touches are a reminder that as an artist from the Spanish-speaking world that produced Salvador Dalí and Miró, Larraz remains in touch with the heritage of Surrealism that has been so important to Latin American art.

 

The other two artists I wish to discuss both come from Jamaica. Because Jamaica forms part of the English-speaking Caribbean, its artists are little, if at all, known to Latin American specialists. Jamaica is in any case best known for its impact on world music, rather than for its achievements in the visual arts. Despite this the island supports quite a large number of artists.

 

Basically modern Jamaican art can be divided in three. First, there are the so-called 'Intuitives', whom I have already briefly described. Secondly, there are followers of various established versions of 20th century Modernism, often with an 'Africanising' accent. This has very little to do with the art that is actually being made in Africa today, but much to do with the African tribal art reproduced in art books made for the western market. And finally there is a strong current of realism.

 

The 'father' of this kind of art in Jamaica is Albert Huie, now 83 years old. Hue was born during the epoch of colonial rule, in very poor circumstances. He grew up in the little town of Falmouth, moved to Kingston, the capital. When he was sixteen, and originally earned his living as a china painter - like the Great French Impressionist painter Renoir. His art began to attract attention in Jamaica, and he was drawn into the circle that surrounded the sculptor Edna Manley, who was married to the politician Norman Manley, one of the two political leaders responsible for winning Jamaican independence. In 1944, with a scholarship from the British Council, he went to Canada, to study at the Ontario College of Art, later studying aesthetics at the University of Toronto. Two of his teachers in Canada, J.E.H. McDonald and Frank Carmichael, had been founder member in 1920 of the Group of Seven, the first organised grouping of modernists to appear on the Canadian art scene. The concern of this group was chiefly with landscape. The authoritative Grove Dictionary of Art notes their "belief in their capacity to give expression to a national and independent artistic image through the painting of the northern Canadian landscape." Huie was to take a similar attitude towards the very different landscape of Jamaica.

 

In 1947 Huie moved to Britain - he obtained another British Council scholarship to study at the Leicester College of Art, and, finding this too provincial, moved to the Camberwell School of Art in London. A Camberwell he studied under Victor Pasmore, who had not yet fully entered his abstract phase, and Claude Rogers. In 1938 both en had been founder-members of the Euston Road School, which placed much emphasis on the close observation of nature.

 

The pattern of Huie's early career was in broad outline not unlike that of many leading Latin American artists who went to North America or to Europe to study. However, the results were very different. A large part of this difference was due to the more conservative climate in the visual arts that then existed in Britain. But much of it can be attributed to the situation in Jamaica itself. No formative cultural tradition existed of the kind that had grown up for example in Mexico. A Jamaican painter was simply confronted with his island as a physical entity. Of course Huie did from time to time produce folkloric genre pieces such as 'Mount of Prayer' [1975], a representation of a revivalist ceremony, but his main concern was with the rich landscape of the island and the physical beauty of its people,

 

Huie's chief follower in Jamaica has been JudyAnn Macmillan, also primarily a landscape painter. Her first contact with art and with the idea of making art was in fact through a visit to Huie's studio when she was still a small child. She says now: "I first saw him when I was four years old. He was the first adult I had seen who was covered in paint. Then I was taken to his studio, and I thought it was the most wonderful thing I ever saw." After studying at the Jamaica School of Art, she went to Britain to continue her studies at the Dundee School of Art. In Scotland she came in contact with a technical tradition perhaps even more conservative than the one that Huie had encountered many years earlier at Camberwell. And she too returned to Jamaica determined to find a way to render its unique physical qualities.

 

Like Huie, she immediately encountered a curious obstacle, which is that there is very little in the way of a coherent tropical landscape tradition. The jungle scenes painted in South and Central America by 19th century artists not native to these regions, such as the American Frederic Edwin Church, who also painted at least one picture of Jamaican scenery, have something deliberately melodramatic about them - they exaggerate the artists' feeling of wonder, and at the same time their sense of alienation.

 

A stage beyond this are paintings made by artists who had never visited the tropics at all, but who recreated them from their own imaginations. The most celebrated of those who created a fictional tropical realm in art is of course the Douanier Rousseau. Rousseau claimed that he had fought in Mexico, as a soldier in the army of the unfortunate Emperor Maximilian, but this was pure fantasy. His jungle scenes have had an enormous impact nevertheless, because they have been so widely reproduced. To this day they influence perceptions about what the tropics look like. It even seems as if traces of Rousseau's work can be found in the paintings of Jamaican Intuitives. The resemblance is too close to be purely coincidental.

 

This led Macmillan to look at some unexpected source material for inspiration.

Apart from the work of Albert Huie, the most obvious influences to be found in her landscape paintings are early prints of Jamaica scenery. These belong to a widespread genre, not confined to the Caribbean but found throughout the British colonial empire. There are strong stylistic resemblances, for example, to the prints and drawings produced by the brothers William and Thomas Daniell in India. The best known artists who produced work of this type in Jamaica were James Hakewill, whose 'Picturesque Tour through the Island of Jamaica' was published in 1825; James Kidd, whose 'West Indian Scenery, Illustrations of Jamaica' dates from 1833-40; and Isaac Belisario, whose 'Sketches of Character' appeared in 1837. The National Library of Jamaica possesses a good collection of prints and drawings by all these artists.

 

There are in fact at least four elements that a painter of Jamaican landscape has to deal with. One is the variety and complexity of actual landscape forms. Columbus’s image – that Jamaica was like a crumpled sheet of paper – already implies this. It also implies that the forms are often abrupt and tightly pressed together. Another is the equal complexity and variety of Jamaican weather. The beach scenes that are the staple illustrations to tourist brochures tell only a very small part of the story. The Jamaican sky is not always blue. Storms build up very quickly, and burst with savage violence. Often the sky is full of leaden clouds. This kind of weather is common in the hills, especially on the wetter side of the island. The storminess of the weather often seems to offer a metaphor for Jamaican history, with its hurricanes, earthquakes and slave-revolts. It abets the idea that life in the tropics is essentially precarious. The landscape painter has to find fixed forms for situations that are rebelliously fluid and unfixed.

 

It is this heritage that both Albert Huie and JudyAnn Macmillan have tried to come to terms with, and the result has been a kind of art that is very different in appearance from anything that is being produced in other parts of the region.

 

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