History of SELF-TAUGHT

Matthew Gale, "Artistry, Authenticity and the Work of James Dixon and Alfred Wallis" in Two Painters: Works by Alfred Wallis and James Dixon, exhibition catalogue (1999)

James Dixon
Portrait of Wallace Clarke, n.d.
oil on paper

... The encounters between artists and primitives resulted in an unlearning of conventions by the trained in the face of these personal views of reality, independently expressed. In essence, this reflected the prevailing concerns and currents of industrialized society, which ensured that authenticity was valued over artistry. The apparent simplicity of this value system belies the complexity of the relationship born of encounters between professional artists and such painters as Alfred Wallis and James Dixon. Aspects of these relationships between the participants will be examined here.

So seductive was the call of the simple life that a number of artists sought to become ‘primitive’ themselves. The example of Paul Gauguin is often cited, although his primitivizing art is recognizably based on a whole swath of learned sources. In the twentieth century there were also artists within the mainstream of Modernism – such as Marc Chagall – whose work was at various times considered primitive. Christopher Wood is another of these, as his painting is often described as Naïve. This exposes the inadequacy of the terms, as he (who trained briefly as an architect and was encouraged to study art in Paris by Augustus John and Alphonse Kahn) and Wallis (the retired rag-and-bone dealer from St. Ives) clearly enjoyed different circumstances. It is telling how the badge of untrained artist was proudly worn by professionals, reflecting the view of art education as a crushing weight. It was in these circumstances that the search for authenticity was undertaken....

The promotion of Rousseau’s work by avant-garde artists before and after his death in 1910 is echoed in comparable situations across the Western world.[1] Thus, when Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood ‘discovered’ Wallis in 1928, and Derek Hill ‘discovered’ Dixon around 1960, all were participating in a well-established pattern. Its repetition across the years exposes these discoveries as, in effect, meaning ‘introduced into the system’. The Modernists brought the primitives to a wider public by establishing the climate for the acceptance of such work. Whether or not they stood to gain materially, the Modernists established their association with this raw creativity.

[1] See Kenneth Coutts-Smith, "Some General Observations on the Problem of Cultural Colonialism," (1976; reprint London and New York: Routledge, 1991).

Excerpt source:
Matthew Gale, "Artistry, Authenticity and the Work of James Dixon and Alfred Wallis" in Two Painters: Works by Alfred Wallis and James Dixon, exhibition catalogue (London: Merrell Holberton Publishers Limited in association with Irish Museum of Modern Art and Tate Gallery St. Ives, 1999) 16-17.

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