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naive art

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Term applied to painting (and to a much lesser degree sculpture) produced in more or less sophisticated societies but lacking conventional expertise in representational skills. Colours are characteristically bright and unnaturalistic, perspective non-scientific, and the vision childlike or literal-minded. The term ‘primitive’ is sometimes used more or less synonymously with naive, but this can be confusing, as ‘primitive’ is also applied loosely to paintings of the pre-Renaissance era as well as to art of ‘uncivilized’ societies. Other terms that are sometimes used in a similar way are ‘folk art’, ‘popular art’, or ‘Sunday painter’, but these too have their pitfalls, not least ‘Sunday painter’, for many amateurs do not paint in a naive style, and naive artists (at least the successful ones) often paint as a full-time job. As the term is now generally understood, naive art developed in the 19th century (before then, pictures that have a naive quality might more reasonably be classified as folk art or simply as amateurish works) and the first notable exponent was perhaps the American Edward Hicks. It was not until the early years of the 20th century, however, that a vogue for naive art developed. Henri Rousseau was the first naive painter to win serious critical recognition and he remains the only one who is regarded as a great master, but many others have won an honourable place in modern art. The critic Wilhelm Uhde was chiefly responsible for putting naive painters on the map in the years after the First World War. At first their freshness and directness of vision appealed mainly to fellow artists, but a number of major group exhibitions in the 1920s and 1930s helped to develop public taste for them, notably ‘Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1938. Most of the early naive painters to make reputations were French (mainly because Uhde was active in discovering and promoting them in France): they included Bombois and Séraphine. In Britain the best-known figures include Beryl Cook and Alfred Wallis (two painters who show the huge difference of approach and style that can exist between artists given the same label). L. S. Lowry is also often claimed as a naive painter, but his many years of study at art school place him outside the normal classification. In the USA Grandma Moses is especially well known. The richest crop of naive painters, however, has been in Croatia, with Ivan Generalić outstanding. Haiti is also particularly noteworthy in that naive painting has been the country's central tradition in modern art; the leading figures include Hector Hyppolite (1894–1948) and Wilson Bigaud (b1931).

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