History of SELF-TAUGHT

Alfred H. Barr, Jr., foreword to They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century (1942; reprinted 1999)

Each generation creates art. It also discovers art. It discovers art both of the more remote past and of the very recent past which we call the present....

Primitive is a term which has been stretched to include a great variety of art from Paleolithic sculpture to Alaskan totem poles, and from Italian "primitives" of the 13th century to the modern "primitives," the "popular" or "self-taught" painters, which are the subject of this study. All this immense range of art has one extraordinary thing in common: it has been discovered esthetically and revalued within the past hundred years and mostly in the last fifty.

In fact it was just about fifty years ago that the greatest modern primitive, Henri Rousseau of France, was first given some appreciative recognition. Rousseau was not entirely self-taught but his psychological and pictorial innocence, his naïve realism and fantasy and his independence of tradition have made him the archetype of all painters of his kind. It is this last characteristic, independence of school or tradition, which distinguishes these painters psychologically and genetically from all other kinds of primitives, even from children who work in schools and often imitate each other. Their independence and isolation is revealed not only in their art but in their biographies so interestingly presented in this book.

Perhaps it is imprudent to try to evaluate the importance of the self-taught artists in comparison with other schools or kinds of living artists. Some of the painters in this book seem to me so obviously superior to others that I wish Mr. Janis had not been quite so generously inclusive. But it is by its finest artists that a school or movement should be judged and I for one think that, just as Rousseau now seems one of the foremost French painters of his generation, certain of our self-taught painters can hold their own in the company of their best professionally trained compatriots. Among 20th century American paintings I do not know a finer landscape than Joseph Pickett’s Manchester Valley, a more unforgettable animal picture than Hirshfield’s Tiger, a more original metaphysical composition than Sullivan’s Fourth Dimension, or a more moving portrait than John Kane’s painting of himself.

Excerpt source:

Alfred H. Barr, Jr., foreword to They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century (1942; reprint, New York: Hudson River Press and Sanford L. Smith and Associates, 1999).

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