Sun, soul and samba – an art that smiles

Dan Chill's gallery in Tel Aviv is showing an exhibit of Brazilian naïve art that he calls ‘the creme de la creme.’

311_naive art (photo credit: Barbara Rochiltz)
311_naive art
(photo credit: Barbara Rochiltz)
Dan Chill probably knows as well as anyone how the road of life can take a sudden and completely unexpected turn. In 1983, Chill was a high-powered, take-no-prisoners attorney enjoying a successful career in Israeli corporate law. His trajectory through life seemed to be fully mapped – until a business trip took him to Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
At the end of a day of tough contract negotiations on behalf of Israeli Aircraft Industries, he and Moshe Keret, Israeli Aircraft’s CEO, happened to notice a small art gallery across the street from their hotel. The two wandered over and found themselves staring at works of art unlike anything they had ever seen before – paintings that seemed to explode in a riot of breathtaking colors, depicting happy scenes of people and nature, all done with an innocent and almost childlike view of life.
Though unaware of it at that moment, the two were looking at their first examples of a genre of painting once called “primitive” and today known as “naïve art.”
Keret was mildly amused, but Chill was amazed at how much the warm-hearted, unabashed happiness of the paintings seemed to resonate inside him and speak to his heart.
Today Chill, 64, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on naïve art and owner of the Gallery of International Naïve Art (GINA) in Tel Aviv. GINA is presently in the midst of one of its most ambitious efforts to date: an exhibition of Brazilian naïve art called “Sun, Soul and Samba: The Brazilian Naïves.”
Chill explains, “This exhibition is special in that it presents a reflection of the world of naïve art from Brazil. And the reason why that is so special is that the Brazilians, amongst all of the naïves, are considered the finest of the naïves, at the highest plateau. And amongst the Brazilians, these 12 artists are considered the crème de la crème.”
WHAT IS it that makes naïve art from Brazil so special? Says Chill, “The Brazilians’ artworks display the essence of what naïve art is all about: the enchanting innocence, the heartwarming colors, the connection between the artist and both the common man and Mother Nature, the punctilious detail, the scene that sort of invites you in, that grabs your heart and makes you want to just jump into that wonderful activity that’s taking place and join the fun.
“The Brazilians have this wonderful quality of celebrating the human narrative, but looking at the world in a sense through rose-colored glasses. They look at life in a way that you and I do not, but in a way in which when you’re allowing your heart to sing, that song is reflected on the canvas.”
While all naïve art is characterized by what Chill refers to as “punctilious detail,” perhaps no one beats the Brazilians.
“Some of the artworks take weeks and weeks and weeks to complete, because the detail they insist upon having is incredible. For them, if they don’t have all 3,200 leaves on that tree or 7,000 blades of grass in that meadow, then for them it’s not a tree, and it’s not a meadow.”
And whereas most of the artists are self-taught, with little or no formal training – another normative characteristic of naïve art in general – they accompany this obsessive detail with a lack of interest in the formal rules of perspective and scale. Instead, the perspective is childlike and the scale is idiosyncratic.
On hand for the opening of the exhibition was Jacques Ardies, 60, a Belgian who went to Brazil 35 years ago, fell in love with the place, and then made what he calls “the completely absurd decision” of opening an art gallery in São Paulo. Today, he is an expert and promoter of Brazilian naïve art and author of the subject’s most authoritative book, Naïve Art in Brazil.
“Brazil is an enormous country, with an incredible mixture of different peoples and cultures,” Ardies says. “Brazilians have already shown that they are very good at music. They make the best music in the world, really."
“I think also that Brazilian people – more than German people, or English people, or whatever – are more sensitive. They feel more. I think they have more and stronger human emotion. They are sometimes childlike."
“If you go to a football game in Brazil, the spectacle is not the game, but the people. If you go to the Carnival simply doesn’t exist in Europe anymore, this childlike ability to have fun and be happy.”
On the off-chance that anyone is not yet convinced, Ardies presents one more example.
“You go to Brazil. You’re driving with the traffic along a road, and you suddenly enter a tunnel. All at once, you hear honking. You wonder why all of the drivers in the other cars are honking their horns. They’re doing this simply because they are enjoying the echo! And all of that wonderful, childlike emotion – and all that happiness – is reflected in their art.”
The proof is in the paintings, however, and it is not hard to find. Each work seems about to burst with the colors of Brazil’s lush landscapes, rainbow-hued tropical birds, and almost absurdly happy people. These people pick coffee, work in gardens, do laundry and other day-to-day chores, and live lives that most of us would consider to be burdened with toil.
No one in these paintings, however, is bent by overwork, beaten by drudgery or battling inner emotional demons. Everyone is smiling. Women feed chickens, and even the chickens appear happy. Each scene presents a place you would love to visit, and people you would enjoy spending time with.
Ardies says, “Art critics look at works by Brazilian naïve art painters and say that they have incredible technique. But this technical richness is not coming from formal study. Most of the artists in this exhibition, for example, have been painting for more than 30 years – every day, eight or 10 hours a day, for 30 years. Of course they have acquired their own technique and quality, and they know what they are doing when they paint.
“When you start a conversation with one of these artists, you don’t ask, ‘How are you?’ You ask, ‘Are you painting?’”
OF COURSE, although they may not have had formal training in art, it would be wrong to imagine that these naïve artists are necessarily peasants or even rustics themselves. As full-time artists, these are not people out in the fields picking coffee by day and coming home to paint at night, after supper.
“Not usually,” Chill agrees, “but many of them as children picked coffee, or their parents picked coffee. And in places like Serbia and Rumania, some naïve artists still live in farming societies.”
Interestingly, Chill is not only one of the world’s leading experts on naïve art, he is probably also the genre’s most passionate advocate, a role he assumes with almost missionary zeal.
He says, “We have coined the term ‘Naïvism’ because we believe that it is a legitimate genre of fine art that deserves pride of place right alongside Expressionism, Impressionism and all of the other ‘isms.’ And we believe that Naïvism’s best artists deserve a place right up there in the pantheon of the art world.”
Casting an eye at the paintings on display, the viewer can only wonder why this genre hasn’t already claimed its “pride of place.” Chill minces no words about what he thinks is the reason.
“The art world enjoys being exclusionary. It enjoys the idea of taking its golden scepter and putting it on the heads of certain movements and saying, ‘This movement is wonderful, but that movement is not good.’"
“That was done in 1890 to some people who were considered ‘not good’ at that time, like Van Gogh, Seurat, Toulouse Lautrec, Renoir and Cézanne. These artists were considered ‘no good’ by the wise critics of the art world at that time.
“It’s nice to be exclusionary, but I think there’s also a degree of charlatanism in that attitude. I think it’s important for the art world to be inclusionary, embracing all of the different streams of art – including the wonderful world of naïve art.
“Naïve art paintings should not have to apologize for the fact that they are heartwarming, beautiful, and cause a lot of joy.”
As our eyes alight on a painting of two smiling toucans, apparently enjoying the shade of some lush tropical foliage and perhaps having fun being toucans, Chill’s voice rises as he concludes: “Tevye sings in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, ‘Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?’ “I say, ‘Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if the art world were to finally embrace naïve art?’ – along with the naïve artist, who dips her brush in her heart and creates a work that speaks to our hearts.”
“Sun, Soul and Samba: The Brazilian Naïves” is showing until August 13 at the Gallery of International Naïve Art, 255 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv. Monday – Thursday 12:00-21:00, Friday and holiday eves 10:00-14:00. Tel. 03-544-4150.