The Enduring Power of Landscapes

By Candice Russell

Who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a landscape painting? This genre within Haitian art attracts people of all ages, even young children, to depictions of the real world and imaginative re-interpretations of the sea, mountains, streams and fields. In fact, landscape painting goes beyond borders, attracting people in other countries to these often other-worldly snapshots of the island country. These works have staying power and a wider audience than other genres, like the modern abstracts.

Sometimes, landscape paintings are symphonies of color and mood, like Jean E. Cadet’s “Dreamscape” — a misty re-creation of fields suffused in soothing shades of green and blue. It is a triumph of subtle color manipulation. A painting of a waterfall with wading birds in the rain forest is typical of the Zen-like works by H.R. Bresil. He was an artist sought after by Japanese collectors in the early 1990s, when he travelled to Japan as a special guest and even made a label for a Japanese wine.

With Bresil’s passing, there are low-cost imitators of his style and peaceful imagery. While these artists may not have his felicitous touch, they continue a tradition that is popular with collectors.

“River Scene” by J.A. Bernang is another twist on the landscape. It depicts women washing clothes in the river in the foreground. But the dominant element is the field in the background, through which the river runs. Looked at from afar, that field looks like the sea.

Other paintings in this genre are the product of creative genius in manipulating reality. No one does this better than Prefete Duffaut. His architectural masterpieces on canvas convey the topography of Haiti (the original name of Haiti is Ayiti, meaning land of high mountains). Duffaut is known for piling mountain on top of mountain, where human activity is bustling.

But the artist doesn’t stop there. He includes a pantheon of Vodou (voodoo) spirits and ceremonial staples. In “Visions of Ezekiel,” measuring 40 inches by 30 inches, mermaids or versions of La Sirene swim in pools of water, near the drums essential to Vodou ceremonies. Duffaut not only elevates the fantasy landscape genre, he turns it inside out with embellishments that incorporate the religion of Haiti.

Another exponent of the genre is Mario Montilus, whose small paintings I discovered at Galerie Issa in Port-au-Prince in the 1980s. The artist wields paintbrushes with tiny bristles, achieving exquisite details. “Wedding” (1994), measuring eight inches by ten inches, features a bride and groom on a mound in the sky, like lovers carried high on the wings of their happy emotions. In “Mystical Islands” (1989), the same size, the flowering islands look as soft as pillows floating in a placid sea.

Joel Lucien is also a painter of fantasy landscapes, but his are even smaller than those of Montilus. Some are only five inches by fives inches on masonite. But their small size proves no deterrent to his creativity. Lucien’s paintings picture flowering islands in blues and greens, floating in space or heaven, sometimes with people in the verdant mix.

These idealized visions may owe a partial debt to places that artists in Haiti have actually seen. Anyone who has driven high up in the mountains of Haiti knows how awe-inspiring the views are. From that perspective, maybe adjoining small islands do look as pristine and untouched as the artists make them seem.