By Candice Russell
Where would the mid-century Haitian art renaissance be without the discovery of Hector Hyppolite? Let us remember his unique contribution to raising up the visual culture of Haiti from the 1940s until today. The anniversary of his birth is almost upon us — September 16, 1894.
In his seminal book “Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, the First Forty Years” (1988), Selden Rodman devotes chapter two to the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Hyppolite. American conscientious objector De Witt Peters, who would open his Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince as part of his overseas service, noticed the doors of a bar painted with birds in red and green among detailed flowers during a trip to the coastal village of Mont Rouis.
That was in 1943. It would be a year later when Peters began to investigate the anonymous painter of the doors. He found him in St. Marc and learned he was a houngan or Vodou priest. He convinced Hyppolite to join him in the capital and paint for the center. The artist established himself in a waterfront hut andn set to work, delivering sixteen paintings made with furniture enamel.
The response to this first delivery was mixed. As Rodman writes: “Peters saw that the pictures were uneven and crude, with a sameness of trees and skies, bulging eyes, and grotesque anatomies, but he was astounded by their invention.”
Famous visitors to Haiti shared Peters’ enthusiasm for the paintings of Hyppolite. None other than Andre Breton, spokesman for French Surrealism, and Cuban painter Wifredo Lam became his first collectors. Breton, in fact, bought five Hyppolite paintings at eight dollars each.
Rodman brought then-young American novelist Truman Capote to Haiti to meet Hyppolite. The writer admired the painter “because there’s nothing in it that has been slyly transposed; he is using what lives inside him: his country’s spiritual history,its sayings, and worship.”
In fact, Hyppolite was torn between the time it took to create his paintings with Vodou personages like “Agoue and His Consort” and “Ogoun on His Charger” and the practice of Vodou to which he was called. Rodman cites the conflict as perhaps the reason why the artist’s output was uneven in consistency. He struggled with the age-old 20th and 21st century conundrum of finding balance between all the demands of a busy life.
But, at a certain point, he considered himself more of an artist than a priest (and priesthood was also the calling of his father and grandfather). Even so, Rodman writes: “His technique was never wholly adequate to translate his visions into effective plastic images.”
Folklore, zombis and black magic interested him in paintings, Rodman writes. So what that they lacked execution of conventional perspective? He died in 1948, too soon to see the profound effect he would have generations of Haitian artists eager to imitate his style or to achieve the pinnacle of fame he did within his lifetime (an achievement eluding too many Haitian artists).
Of course, in the decades since Hyppolite’s passing, he has become the poster child of high prices achieved at auction. No other Haitian artist comes close, though the works of Edouard Duval Carrie are getting there. Tens of thousands of dollars have been paid for Hyppolite paintings since the 1980s. It is rare to see one at auction or to even hear of one for sale from a collector.
This week, raise a toast to Hector Hyppolite and his impact on a country and a culture always worth celebrating.