Naïve art comes of age

Tel Aviv’s Gallery of International Naïve Art will showcase 100 local works in Poland.

'Meeting for coffee' (photo credit: Courtesy (Tirza Horin Karagulla))
'Meeting for coffee'
(photo credit: Courtesy (Tirza Horin Karagulla))
Dan Chill had a life-changing epiphany one late afternoon in 1983. A highly successful corporate lawyer, Chill was in the midst of a visit to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on behalf of Israel Aircraft Industries. Returning to his hotel after a particularly rough day of contract negotiations, Chill happened to notice some very unusual paintings in the window of an art gallery across the street. Even from a distance, he could see the almost riotous splashes of color and feel something stirring in his heart. He wandered over, stepped inside, and began the love affair with naïve art that continues to drive him today.
Since that first encounter, Dan Chill has been a man with a mission: to share his devotion to naïve art with the world, and to popularize it here in Israel. After some 20 years of acquiring a major collection of naïve art and showing it mostly to friends and family, he opened the Gallery of International Naïve Art (GINA) in Tel Aviv in 2003, featuring the work of naïve artists from all over the world.
And now, after years of showing the world’s naïve art to Israelis, Chill has decided that the time has come to show the works of Israeli naïve artists to the world. Following a successful six-week preliminary exhibition at GINA in Tel Aviv that ended on May 18, the works of some 30 local artists will form the feature exhibit, called “Naïve Art of Israel,” at the International Naïve Art Festival in Katowice, Poland.
What is naïve art? Like Impressionism or Expressionism, naïvism is a genre of painting, initially popularized by artists like Henri Rousseau and Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses. Unlike other genres, however, which have had their set periods of time before yielding to newer styles in art, naïvism is a timeless genre that maintains its appeal from one generation to the next. One of its defining characteristics, according to Chill, is an enchanting innocence and use of childlike perspective and scale. Another is an idealized view of the world – life not as it is, but as it should be. Nowhere, perhaps, is this feature more evident than in the works of naïve artists from South America, who produce lavishly colored paintings of people planting gardens, picking coffee and feeding chickens, in which everyone is smiling, including the chickens.
Another defining characteristic is what Chill calls “a punctilious attention to detail,” in which the artist seems to believe that his or her painting of a tree is not complete without a clear rendering of each of its 1,614 very green leaves. And a final characteristic – more a norm than a requirement – is that the artist is self-taught or, at least artistically, “naïve.”
The conceptual problem that Chill has had to face in curating this exhibition of Israeli naïve art is that the words “Israel” and “naïve” are rarely if ever uttered in the same sentence.
While it is easy to ascribe the word “naïve” to an unschooled, unsophisticated farmer living along the Orinoco River in Brazil who one day decides to pick up a brush and paint, it is not so easy to affix this term to very nonnaïve people painting pictures in a very non-naïve country. For example, one of the artists in this exhibition, Ruth Ben-Israel, holds a PhD in law, had a long and illustrious career, and won the Israel Prize in 2001 for legal research. She is, however, self-taught in art.
“I have found that a person does not have to come from a naïve land to be a naïve artist,” Chill says. “One would not call Sweden a naïve land, but there are Swedish naïves. Although we don’t associate naïve with Israel as a country, the naïveté, in my opinion, comes from the heart of the artist. We believe that a naïve artist dips her brush in her heart. We feel that in many of these paintings. Not in all, of course. In some, we feel a more intellectual exercise going on. But we do see a lot of heart-oriented, heart-generated painting in this exhibition.”
ASKED IF there anything special about naïve art from Israel, and whether it has its own unique statement to make or merely imitates the work of naïve artists elsewhere, Chill replies, “Naïve art celebrates the human narrative.
And each country has its own narrative.
“And we see that reflected very strongly in the naïve art of France, Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and so on. But we also see it reflected in the naïve art of Israel. And what is that narrative? Just like the United States was considered a melting pot for people from all over the world to come and join in raising the United States to the level it has become, Israel is also known for its many different cultures, and its many different traditions from all over the world. And that, along with a common love of the land, is something we find reflected in the paintings. There are artists who return us to pre-state days, where we are reminded of the days when Israel was a more innocent land. Where children play together outdoors and adults share the latest gossip from one balcony to the next, where hot corn is sold on street corners, and Egged buses have luggage racks on their roofs for families spending holidays with relatives on a distant kibbutz.
“There are others who lead us to an Israel that’s not at all in the past, an Israel that is right here in front of us today. We are looking at an Israel that maybe we don’t think about so much, but one that we should realize exists. A young country, with forward vision, that’s bubbling with excitement. A country that is striving to move forward rapidly. We see freedom reflected in these paintings. We see a blossoming country, with joie de vivre, inspiration and love. We see a lot of imagination and humor in these paintings, and these are all reflective of an Israel that, because of all the problems, we fail to step back and appreciate. I think we should look upon these paintings as a celebration of the Israel that really is – deep down inside – the true Israel, with the burst of colors, and the blossoming of the imagination, and the innocence that is maybe covered over perhaps and hardened by war, politics, and the difficulties of everyday life.”
The fifth annual Katowice International Naïve Art Festival will run this summer from June 15 to August 17. Around 25 countries participate every year, and each year a special “guest country” is featured, invited by the festival to display around 100 works of art. The third annual Katowice festival showcased naïve artists from Mongolia. Cuba was honored last year, and the guest country next year will be Argentina. This year the spotlight is on Israel.
“It’s a very nice honor for Israel, a country not known for its naïve art,” Chill says. “And yet we do have a lot of quite nice, quite successful naïve artists, and this is an opportunity for them to be exposed to an international naïve art festival that attracts more than 10,000 visitors over a nine week period.”
Along with Adi Lev, founding director of a group called Naïve Artists in Israel, Chill spent six months touring the length and breadth of the country, visiting naïve artists in their homes and studios, to select what he says is “the best of the best.”
Finally, he observes, “Katowice is located about three quarters of an hour from Auschwitz. People who are visiting Poland, going to places associated with great sadness and tragedy in the history of the Jewish people, will have an opportunity to lighten the mood somewhat by visiting Katowice. It will be a very heartwarming experience, and a happy time.”
The Fifth International Naïve Art Festival in Katowice will run from June 16 to August 17 at the Szyb Wilson Gallery, ul. Oswobodzenia 1, Katowice, Poland.

The festival is open every day from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. Admission is free. Paintings can be viewed on the GINA website,