It is with great regret that news comes of the passing of Haitian painter Wilson Bigaud. He died on March 22, 2010 at 2 a.m., according to an email I received. His death follows the destruction of a major work by Bigaud, who was one of several contributors to the Biblical murals of Episcopal Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. The church and its visual legacy dating back to the 1940s crumbled during the January 12 earthquake, which also decimated Le Centre d’Art, the personal collection of Georges Nader’s home/museum totaling many thousands of paintings, and who knows how many irreplaceable paintings and other artworks in galleries, offices, museums and private homes throughout the nation’s capital, suburbs and beyond.
Bigaud’s rise to fame began at the behest of the magnificent painter Hector Hyppolite, who brought him to Le Centre d’Art in 1946. A titan in the first generation of Haitian artists, Bigaud warranted a full chapter in Selden Rodman’s seminal book “Where Art is Joy: The First Forty Years of Haitian Art.” Rodman conceived the idea of the Biblical murals at the cathedral and oversaw their execution. Bigaud painted “The Marriage Feast at Cana” during which Christ turns water into wine at a country wedding, when he was only twenty years old. Sadly, vandals ruined the original mural before it was almost finished, so the artist had to begin again on this special creation.
Some people, including Rodman believed that Bigaud’s nervous breakdowns, which occurred between 1957 and 1961, had a deleterious effect on his art, meaning that he never painted as well after these episodes. I disagree. His paintings continued to be popular with collectors for decades afterward with no marked toll on his evocative artwork, including scenes of family and leisure as well as Vodou personages.
In the recent exhibition “Allegories of Haitian Life from the Jonathan Demme Collection” at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, Florida and accompanying book, which I co-authored with Axelle Liautaud, there were five paintings by Bigaud, an indication of his place in Haitian art. They included the peaceful “Beach Scene” (c. 1949), the riotously energetic “Carnival Costumes” (1954), and “Zombie” (c. 1965), of a person without a soul or a will being led from the graveyard. Bigaud returned to this last theme again and again in his artwork. In my personal collection is a painting of this same theme by the renowned artist, who is included in every published overview of the history of Haitian art. With soft colors reflecting the dead of night, the scene of a kind of resurrection takes place in a rural landscape. It is one of my favorite paintings.
The loss of Bigaud is enough to make one wonder who will future generations of scholars and art collectors be talking about in Haitian art 100 years from now. Will others reach the heights achieved by this remarkable man?