By Candice Russell
The opening last weekend of an airport in Cap-Haitien, Haiti — construction that was decades in the making — is a reminder of the wonderful artists in the unofficial Cap-Haitien school of Haitian art. Sparked by Philome Obin and his relatives, this school has painters who work under the same principles — representing history and daily life in straightforward fashion, uncluttered and orderly scenes (unlike the teeming crowds found in works by Port-au-Prince painters), and inclusion of colonial architecture like tall-shuttered buildings with balconies in ice cream colors.
Jean Baptiste Jean is one of the most remarkable artists who ever lived. As part of the Cap-Haitien school, he created a body of work that falls into two distinct categories — the spiritual and the real. In the former category, he was fond of populating 20-inch by 24-inch canvases with tiny angels, the hands of God, oversized doves symbolizing peace, and even pitchfork-toting devils. He even made a political painting with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, as the focal point, but within a spiritual context.
During recent lectures I’ve done in Broward County, Florida, through the generous auspices of the Life Long Learning Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, I include two paintings by Jean as part of the visual portion of my talk. “School Children at Play” shows nuns at a table handing out toys to children, who are peaceably gathered in groups. They stand in front of colonial era buildings. Tiny hands are held by siblings and parents as a sign of love and protection. The painting is a perfect evocation of life in the town.
The other painting, “The Flood,” is unusual in several respects. It marks a distinct departure from the oeuvre of Jean Baptiste Jean. It is also rare to see tragedy portrayed in this form because the vast majority of Haitian art is about joy, getting on with the job, working hard and triumphing over circumstance. But here it is — people clinging to the roofs of flooded homes in fear of losing their lives and children climbing trees for the same reason. Even the trees in the background are stripped of all their leaves in this scene of terrible devastation.
Both paintings are pictured in my book, “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” along with others by Jean. He remains one of the best artists Haiti ever produced, though he is far less lionized than most artists of the first and second generations. I cannot account for this.
In my view, Jean had a delicacy of hand perhaps unparalleled among his peers. How else could he populate his paintings with dozens of tiny angels? His sense of color — the dreaminess and subtlety of his blue tones in the sky, for instance — is worthy of admiration and contemplation. He also could create clouds that look divinely inspired in their puffy perfection.
But just think of the range Jean Baptiste Jean had, moving easily from the realm of Christian-influenced angels to the dailiness of life, like a bicycle race through the streets of Cap-Haitien. If you want to know how distinctive and special he was and is, he has no imitators, no one with the talent and patience to copy his style or even take that style to another level.
There was only one Jean Baptiste Jean in Haitian art. If you have a painting by this artist, treasure it.