At the Galerie St. Etienne, the first months of the New Year have lately been demarcated by the Outsider Art Fair (January 25-27) and the ADAA Art Show (February 21-25). On the face of it, no two fairs could seem more different: the first devoted to the work of unschooled artists, the second to "blue-chip" classics. However, since its founding in 1939, the Galerie St., Etienne has comfortably straddled both worlds, recognizing that it was the pioneer modernists who initially championed the work of self-taught artists and legitimized their endeavors. With this in mind, in 2006 we launched a series of exhibitions juxtaposing the work of trained and unschooled artists. That year, we revisited "Parallel Visions," the groundbreaking exhibition mounted by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992, to see how approaches to the field have changed in the interim. Last year, our subject was "Fairy Tale, Myth and Fantasy," themes that have always proved compelling to artists, regardless of their educational backgrounds. This year, our topic is the complex interplay between realism and abstract design.
Prior to the advent of modernism, realistic verisimilitude was more or less a given in Western art. To be sure, abstract aesthetic elements played a role in the deployment of form, color and brushstroke. And imaginative invention, religious teachings or historical idealization shaped content. But the finished work of art was unified by and depended upon the artist's ability to create a recognizable facsimile of the visible world. In the mid-nineteenth century, artists endeavored to make realism even more real by stripping it of stylistic artifice and idealization. This pseudo-scientific search for authenticity and objective truth led painters to create compositions that mimicked the seemingly artless spontaneity of photography and depicted, for the first time, unembellished subjects from the middle and lower classes. Eventually, the scientific approach spawned the optical formulae of the Impressionists, whose images of reality diverged decisively from those produced by the camera. The realist enterprise has never recovered from the revelation that there is no such thing as objective truth in art or, even in photography, a style-less style.
The elements that the nineteenth-century realists had tried to purg - abstract aesthetics and imaginative subjectivity - took on independent lives of their own in the twentieth century. Some artists and theorists proclaimed loudly that the only possible truth in painting entailed fidelity to its intrinsic nature: to form, color and the flatness of the picture plane. Others found their calling in the spiritual or the psychological. All agreed that modern life required a new pictorial language; conventional realism would no longer do. Not only was realism outmoded, but it was irredeemably tainted by its associations with bourgeois academicism. The realists' quest for authenticity was transmogrified into a search for artists uninfluenced by academic training. So the modernists attempted to emulate the creations of children and of tribal cultures, and for the first time trained painters began to take seriously the work of self-taught colleagues.
Vasily Kandinsky, the primary theorist of the German Blauer Reiter movement, was the first painter to formally lay out the rationale for bringing self-taught artists into the modernist fold. Unlike some later twentieth-century critics, who would seek to approach picture-making in purely formal terms, Kandinsky felt that all true art expressed inner spiritual content. He identified two possible means to achieve his artistic ideal: the "great realism" (by which he meant representational art devoid of conventional artifice) and the "great abstraction" (by which he meant non-objective art). He anointed the self-taught painter Henri Rousseau as the "father" of the new realism and identified numerous other examples of the genre, such as peasant votive paintings and Egyptian shadow puppets. Self-taught artists were not the only ones able to access the new realism (Kandinsky cited, among others, Henri Matisse, Franz Marc and Gabrielle Münter), but they had an advantage over trained artists because they had no academic preconceptions to overcome.
Although self-taught artists were hailed as paragons of anti-academicism, a good many of them had fairly conventional ambitions. Most of the self-taught artists "discovered" in the first half of the twentieth century - including André Bauchant, Camille Bombois, Morris Hirshfield, Lawrence Lebduska and Grandma Moses - favored traditional subjects such as landscapes, still lifes and portraits. They copied greeting cards and book illustrations, and usually admired exactly the sort of academic realism the modernists hated. Admittedly, self-taught painters were not very successful by academic standards, because the artists were unfamiliar with the techniques, like modeling, foreshortening and perspective, that are used to convincingly mimic reality. While most self-taught landscape painters knew, in a vague way, that objects in the foreground should appear larger than those in the background, the elements in their compositions were largely dispersed according to abstract formal considerations. Similarly, color could as easily be decorative as naturalistic. Because the artists were unable to effectively model shapes in the round, two-dimensional design was paramount in their work. Kandinsky's dichotomy notwithstanding, self-taught artists fashioned a type of realism that was strongly inflected by abstract elements.
In addition to looking at the work of their unschooled colleagues, modernists derived inspiration from a number of contemporary trends. Symbolism, a late-nineteenth-century reaction against "objective" realism, reestablished personal feelings as appropriate artistic subject matter. Art Nouveau - and especially its Germanic offshoots, Jugendstil and Secessionstil - provided a new formal vocabulary based on expressive line, color, pattern and negative space. In addition to influencing the Blauer Reiter artists, Jugendstil was paramount in shaping the work of the Austrians Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. Lyonel Feininger developed a feeling for two-dimensional form through his early experiences as a newspaper cartoonist. Japanese woodcuts, which fostered a similar aesthetic, were popular throughout Europe, but it was the German Expressionists who devoted the most attention to reviving the art of woodblock carving. Frequently choosing to work in monochrome, Expressionist printmakers juxtaposed flat slabs of black ink with stark white gougings to evoke everything from pseudo-primitive beach idylls to harsh poverty.
Modernists and self-taught artists in the early twentieth century created works that were remarkably similar in affect, if not in overt intention. Untethered from pedantic verisimilitude, the innate expressive qualities of form and color were allowed free reign, but the retention of recognizable subject matter established a communicative link between the artists' inner visions and the viewing public. This was indeed a new sort of realism, a realism with no pretensions to objective truth. The new realism could be bluntly confrontational in the hands of artists with a social agenda, such as Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz and later in the twentieth century, Leonard Baskin. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Schiele and others used a modernist aesthetic to give deeper emotional resonance to their subjects. Feininger and Paul Klee wielded semi-abstract forms with playful whimsy, yet their intent was profoundly serious: to make visible the invisible forces of the cosmos, to link the human to the eternal.
Self-taught artists were, in sometimes deceptively simple ways, no less concerned with the deeper forces behind human existence than the modernists. Grandma Moses's depictions of the farm landscape where she lived celebrate humankind's place in the natural environment, while her pictorial reminiscences affirm an abiding link between the past and the present. The Russian artist Vassilij Romanenkov specializes in scenes populated by highly stylized figures enmeshed in a skein of minute decorative corpuscles that represent an ongoing dialogue with the spirit world. The Serbian painter Ilija Boslij-Basicevic invented a parallel universe called "Ilijada," which he said contained everything to be found on earth except evil. Scottie Wilson created a complex cast of symbolic characters representing the forces of good and evil. All these artists manipulated images drawn from our shared reality to create windows into personal worlds endowed with rich existential significance. For schooled and unschooled artists alike, the elements of abstract design and pattern constituted an emotional language that transformed and transcended visible reality.
Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works.
Anna Mary Robertson ("Grandma") Moses