An Essay in Paintings by Candice Russell
Whether your taste runs to sophisticated and modern or primitive and child-like, Haitian art will appeal to you. The abundance of different genres within Haitian painting is a plus, whether you’re decorating a bedroom, an office, or a child’s room.
How to decide what works for you depends foremost on personal taste even more than financial resources. While some people prefer to collect blue chip art created by the famous, others are content with equally worthy art painted by those who haven’ had museum shows or images of their works published in books. One well-known collector, filmmaker Jonathan Demme, has built a substantial body of Haitian art for himself by buying work of the famous as well as the lesser-known. For a while, Demme only wanted paintings that depicted daily life, from children walking to school to people surviving the ravages of a flooding rainstorm. Building a collection around a theme such as this is a worthy way to go.
Is it racial memory from the homeland of Africa that inspires Haitian painters to create canvases populated by zebras and tigers, lions and giraffes? No one can say for sure. But whether the inspiration is genetically embedded within artists or taken from pictures seen in books or magazines, the artistry is authentic and uplifting. If you want to see a demonstration of joy, look for the reaction of small children to a painting of jungle animals by a master likeGabriel Alix. Taking the jungle animal genre to a higher plateau are artists like Jasmin Joseph, known for his anthropomorphic paintings, and Phileton La Tortue, whose masterful painting “The Admonishment of the Dandy” is an animal painting with gun-toting rabbits, a subtle commentary on Haiti’s political problems.
Despite rampant deforestation, Haiti (which means land of high mountains) is still an incredibly beautiful place. One knows this by getting out of Port-au-Prince and taking the seaside road south to Leogane, for example, or by driving over the mountains to the picturesque town ofJacmel. Both comparatively sleepy compared to the teeming capital, these towns move to a different rhythm. Leogane is surrounded by banana plantations and other agricultural fields, while the approach to Jacmel affords a vantage point unparalleled within the country of misty mountain ranges and colorful roadside houses.
For those artists born around the middle of the 20th century, their memories of Haiti as a place of idealized perfection are strongly communicated in the genre of fantasy landscape painting. One key exponent in this genre is Serge Labbe, known for his symmetrical compositions of green rounded hills, neat rows of growing crops, fields of flowers, and faceless field workers.Mario Montilus, Mecene Brunis, and Guy Joseph are also devoted to breathtaking images of Haiti as a place of serenity and beauty. Within this genre are other artists who concentrate on the rain forest with its shafts of sunlight emboldening dark green leafy places.Abbott Bonhomme, Claudy Boucicaut and J.R. Bresil are the name artists who paint the rain forest, often adding brightly colored parrots to their canvases. Both Bonhomme and Bresil were invited to Japan in the early 1990s by Japanese collectors who found that these artists depicted nature in a consonant way with the Japanese temperament.
The semi-abstract paintings of the Saint Soleil school warranted a chapter in Selden Rodman’s book “Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, the First Forty Years” (Ruggles de la Tour, 1988). There’s even a painting by the late Saint Soleil master Prospere Pierre Louis on the book’s cover -- a characteristically energetic group of women with overly long arms surrounding a sun. As in all of his paintings, the artist abhors an undecorated centimeter of canvas. Every space is filled with humans, animals, birds, and leaf-like or geometric design.
Though each of the core group of five Saint Soleil artists has a distinct style, they share the same philosophy that women are the source of creation and the forces of nature are to be respected. Voodoo-inspired, the Saint Soleil artists seem to paint figures not quite earthly and not quite divine, as if they were straddling some middle ground between the two akin to spirit possession.
With the death of Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil has emerged as the group’s best-known current painter. The deceleration of the gallery scene in Haiti, along with the rampant political problems and absence of tourism, has made life hard for all artists in the country, including Exil. But he continues to paint beautifully and consistently. Other Saint Soleil artists continue to chug along, including Dieuseul Paul and Denis Smith. The sole woman in the group is Louisiane Saint Fleurant, who also happens to be the mother of painters Ramphis Magloire and the late great Stivenson Magloire. Eye problems have affected Saint Fleurant in recent years, giving her paintings a haphazard quality. Her best work was done earlier, when she was in full control. Her favorite subjects are women and children, often portrayed near houses with flowers. She is also the most figurative of the artists in this group.
Other Saint Soleil artists have come and gone including Richard Antilhomme, recently deceased, St. Jacques Smith and Antoine Smith. The vitality of Saint Soleil in the next generation depends upon the collecting acumen of sophisticated buyers from around the world, who know their work from museum shows in Canada, Europe and elsewhere.
The surname Obin is synonymous with the Cap-Haitien school of painters, though certainly not limited to them. Seneque and Philome Obin were brothers who came to prominence in the late 1940s. Religious and historical scenes from centuries ago, along with street life such as children playing against a backdrop of colonial buildings in ice cream colors with tall shutters and ironwork balconies reminiscent of New Orleans, are the subjects that attract Cap-Haitien artists including all the Obins who came after these brothers including Telemaque andHenri-Claude.
Another Cap-Haitien painter of note is the great Jean Baptiste Jean, now deceased. Different from all other artists, he is known for densely populated paintings of all angels or all devils, sometimes with a political theme. I have one painting by Jean of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in his priestly robes surrounded by angels in the sky carrying burning tire.
Buffon Thermidor, a superb painter of quiet scenes like a boy with his dog outside an elegant traditional colonial home, and Jonas Profil, known for scenes of daily life like a couple walking in the countryside or children helping their sick mother at home, are other Cap-Haitien artists with fine reputations. Etienne Chavannes’ paintings of Masonic parades, crowds at a wedding, soccer games and other activities make him another collectible Cap-Haitien artist.
As a concession to the value in which Selden Rodman held La Fortune Felix, Rodman devoted one chapter in “Where Art is Joy” to the paintings of La Fortune Felix. Known for his Gauguinesque colors and exclusively voodoo imagery, the artist from St. Marc was discovered by Rodman and Pierre Monosiet in the late 1970s. The author was attracted by the exterior wall paintings on a voodoo temple and learned they had been done by La Fortune Felix.
In later years, Dr. Carlos Jara was the exclusive dealer in the artist’s paintings, an unusual relationship forged out of mutual respect. Many of the paintings that the late Dr. Jara owned are being sold via this website. They represent the best output of La Fortune Felix.
Andre Pierre, featured prominently in the recent traveling exhibition “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou,”is another painter committed only to painting voodoo spirits. In his view, they are royal creatures wearing flowing gowns and tuxedoes or vaguely military garb. Whether Pierre paintsBaron Samedi, who haunts cemeteries, or Erzulie, the goddess of love, the intention is always the same -- to pay homage to the traditions of his beloved voodoo and the ancestral line that gave birth to him. Pierre is an original and one of the greatest Haitian artists ever.
ADVICE TO COLLECTORS
On the last full day of my first trip to Haiti in 1985, I took a tap-tap with a man selling masks outside the Oloffson Hotel to go in search of the home of Salnave Philippe-Auguste. Two hours later, as darkness fell, we finally found the home of Haiti’s own version of Rousseau. Though in the midst of dinner with his family, the artist kindly invited us inside his studio. On the easel was a nearly finished painting of a woman seated under a flowering tree. At roughly 20 inches by 24 inches, it was absolutely lovely and completely characteristic of Philippe-Auguste’s paintings.
When I asked the price of the painting, the artist said $1,000. I hesitated to say anything, knowing the meager state of my finances at the end of the trip. Certainly a credit card wouldn’t do. My friend and I looked around the studio, making small talk with the famous artist. Philippe-Auguste made his final offer: “You can have the painting for $700.”
I wish I could have cinched the deal and walked away the beautiful painting. In the few Petionville galleries where I had seen Philippe-Auguste’s paintings, they were several thousand dollars -- well out of my price range. To pay $700 was indeed a bargain. But I didn’t have the money and had to walk away.
This anecdote, the art collector’s version of the fish story, illustrates a point worth remembering -- you’ll regret the painting, the flag, or the sculpture that you wanted but got away, especially when it is something so special. Buy what you love. I have felt bad even recalling this story over the years. Had I been more clever and creative, I could have arranged to send a check or money order to the artist and have him send me the painting later.
Since Haitian art is largely so affordable to many people, it is possible to buy art by famous artists without going bankrupt! This is a very good thing for collectors, who can amass important art collections over time. Enjoy the outpourings of art from a Caribbean country with an unparalleled reputation for excellence.