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7076: Review of PEINTRES HAITIENS: Review by LeGrace Benson (fwd)

Peintres Haitiens
Grald Alexis
Paris: ditions Cercle d'Art
French; English  English version reviewed.

About two meters of shelving will hold all the books about Haitian
art on any list of known works, many now out of print. For those seriously
interested in Haitian art, whether as collectors, as students and
scholars, or simply as a means for understanding the country, there has
been only one comprehensive history, the two volume work, Hati et ses
peintres de 1804  nos jours, by the Haitian art historian, Michel Philippe
Lerebours. This latter is invaluable, but often hard to find. Other
studies, such as Haitian Art, Ute Stebich's  catalogue for the Brooklyn
Art Museum's important exhibition in 1978; Larry G. Hoffman's Haitian Art;
The Legend and Legacy of the Nive Tradition, and the several titles by
Selden Rodman deal almost exclusively with the  self-taught artists whose
works amazed the art world from 1946 onward. La Peinture Hatienne /Haitian
Arts, by Marie-Jos Nadal-Gardre and Grald Bloncourt  introduced viewers to
the broader group of artists of that period, including many hitherto
little noted but excellent women painters and modernists. There are some
well-produced catalogues in German, French, English and even Finnish and
Japanese, clear indication of world-wide appreciation of the art.  

Gerald Alexis now makes an essential addition to the library,
reaching back to the beginning of the  Republic, fetching images from city
and country, schooled and unschooled artists,  cosmopolitans and
traditionalists.  With over 300 color plates in large format, an extensive
bibliography, and an index of artists with brief biographies of each and
photographs of many, this volume must be applauded for its
comprehensiveness, its scholarly underpinnings, and the sheer beauty of
the multiplicity of images.

As organizing principle, Alexis uses genre categories coupled with an
insightful heeding of certain consequential themes that continually
reappear in Haiti. His chapter headings present the genres: "The tradition
of portrait and historical painting;" "Nature and daily life; "Voodoo[sic]
rhythm and structure;" "Saint-Soleil;" finally, "Figuration and
abstraction." The motifs and themes thread in and out of these types like
tapestry filaments over and under the supporting warp. Thus Alexis binds
the structure of the book to its subject with a secure congruence. And
thus he sets himself a dare. Because he ventures beyond enumerating
artists and works and localities in a chronology; he must deal with the
tangle of themes, sources, motives and motifs, social, religious,
political and economic circumstances that form the rich stuff of Haiti's
painting. He is able to take the risks of such a project in part out of
his detailed, wide-ranging and orderly knowledge of the subject of this
book; able to do it also because he comes at the subject from inside the
native environment. It is a Haitian's story of Haitian art, informed not
only by research and study, but also from subtleties and nuances of
experience scarcely to be put directly into words, yet powerfully
informing the words. 

Alexis recognizes that Haitian art did not spring full-grown from the brow
of Dewitt Peters in 1944, although he accords full measure of respect for
the importance of that moment.   Moreover, he fully elucidates the truth
that the arts of Haiti are truly Haitian.  That it, none of the many
styles, types or themes in the arts of Haiti are dependent either on one
or another of the African heritages, one or another of the European
heritages, or on some eclectic syncretism of the two. Haitian painting is
not "Africa in the New World," nor is it a provincial version of the
international styles generated out of that "capital of the art world,"
Paris.  What this newest book about the painting of Haiti does it to
present the nearly intractable complexity of it, the diversity of
expressions, and the fact that it is Made in Haiti.  All the Haitian
paintings, whatsoever materials the artist may use from whatsoever
sources, is a distinctive effect that could only have arisen out of
Haitian place and time and people. 

Perhaps other authors have made much of the weight of influences coming in
from outside because Haiti is the locus for so many of these. The country
from its beginnings is a case study in what some scholars call creolit.
Even in pre-Columbian times, the island was a Caribbean crossroads, and
there may have been, even then, some few adventurers from North America
and Africa.  Subsequent history shows such a concatenation of ideas,
technologies, religious practices, eating habits, musics, and stories that
anyone attempting to study the cultural history can easily be overcome
with the elaborate ramifications.  It is also true that many writers
followed the excellent advice of Jean Price-Mars  in valorizing the
African heritage, found every possible link to Ngritude of the period when
the Centre d'Art came into being. The importance of this movement and of
its impact on Haitian art must be recognized, and Alexis does so here and
in other of his writings.  But those viewing the art from outside, for
various reasons tended to so strongly emphasize the African element in
Haitian culture that they were usually rather negligent about how such
elements were re-worked and often given radically different cultural
presence.  In other words, they saw the African rather than the Haitian.
Alexis fully corrects this inadequacy of vision.

In taking on the challenges of such a major corrective relocation, Alexis
sometimes tries to weave too many threads at once. This is particularly
the case in his chapter on nature and daily life.  It is an overwhelming
chapter to read. Either nature or daily life are sufficiently intricate in
Haiti and in Haitian art to merit separate chapters.  On the other hand,
the two are bound and rebound together in fact as well as in art, and in
turn are separately and ensemble laced with themes and motifs from
religious heritages.  Any separation into discrete chapters would have to
be arbitrary. And it must be said, that although Alexis summons his
readers to engage in a piece of work, he provides the sustenance for this

Haitian painting is a large enough venture for a single book, or
more, but some readers will regret the absence of Haitian sculpture.
Alexis in "Les ferriers de la Croix-des-Bouquets et la cration
artistique," [Conjonction , No. 199, 1995 pp. 15-21] perceptively
discusses this significant aspect of Haitian art, hence one can hope that
another volume  will bring knowledge of  Haiti's sculptors to a wider
range of readers.  
The publishers, ditions Cercle d'Art, should be congratulated on
the quality of the 308 color reproductions. The match with originals is
excellent, so that it is possible to study the variations in the uses of
color, and even of handling, from the large, fine-screened illustrations.
There are additional illustrations in the useful section on artists'
biographies. There is an extensive bibliography as well. The book is thus
well-suited for teaching about Haitian painting as well as for the
delights of just looking at it. This volume would be impressive on your
living room table, but don't let it just lie there. It is saturated with
historical, cultural, and visual information and something of a work of
art in its own right.  

Other writings on art by Grald Alexis:	   

"Les origines de l'art moderne hatien, son volution: La priode de 1930
1950." 50 annes de Peinture en Haiti 1930-1980, Tome I 1930-1950.
Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps, 1995. Pp. 13-70.

"Les ferriers de la Croix-des-Bouquets et la cration artistique,"
Conjonction , No. 199, 1995 pp. 15-21.

"Lucien Price et son oeuvre," Conjonction, No.l. 201, 1996 pp. 21-36
L'abstraction dans l'art hatien," Conjonction, No.l. 201, 1996. pp. 37-62
	(Special issue of  Conjonction devoted to articles on or by Lucien

Alexis has taught at Universit Kiskeya, the Institut National des Arts,
and is former Director of the Muse de l'art hatien, College St. Pierre.