What we talk about when we talk about naive art

Editorial Staff Art

Late in the 1970s, sailing in the Grenadines, my wife Brigitte and I stopped at the small island of Bequia—an Arawak name meaning “is­land of the clouds.” It has now become a tourist stop. Port Elizabeth, its principal town, today advertises a “charming waterfront; take a stroll from the vegetable market, follow ‘front street’ with its many shops, boutiques and restaurants, keep going along the beach walkway, maybe stop for a drink at the Frangipani or Gingerbread.” Passing time has not erased the memory of walking that waterfront, stopping in the manner of meandering tourists at a stationer’s shop and coming upon, piled in a bin, a small stack of paintings by Canute Caliste, six dollars apiece. We bought them all.

Fig. 1. Ruby C. by Caliste, c. 1975. Gouache on fiberboard, 11 ¾ by 13 ¾ inches. All paintings illustrated are in the collection of Bliss and Brigitte Carnochan; except as noted, photographs are by Brigitte Carnochan.  

A fisherman and a musician who had been recorded in the early 1960s by the folklorist Alan Lomax, Caliste was born in 1914 and began painting early in life.1 On his native island of Carriacou, not far from Bequia, a Canadian lay religious order had established a mission in the 1960s. One of the sisters, the anthropolo­gist Donald Hill reports, noticed Caliste’s paintings and, uncertain whether they were “childlike” or “good,” sent one to a museum curator in Saskatchewan.

Fig. 2. Caliste was an accomplished musician as well as a painter. Photograph by Kit Kittle.

The curator answered that, far from being “childlike,” they were excellent examples of “primitive” art and that the sisters should not try to change his style. The sisters encouraged Caliste, who had worked originally on wood and scrap, to use pressboard. They sold his new paintings at their mission, accepted checks made out to him, and taught him to write his name.2  Some years later an American named Jim Rudin opened a gallery in Grenada called the Yellow Poui (named after a native tree that blooms in the dry season, described by a friend who grew up in Trinidad as the island’s “most exquisite of flowering trees”). Rudin exhibited Ca­liste’s work and, in an interview years later with a friend, described some advice he had given the painter: “‘Canute used to divide his canvas or board in two, paint the sky with a few clouds and the occasional bird, but all his action was below the line, below the horizon. I encouraged him to put in a palm tree, or something to connect the bottom to the top.’”3  There are occa­sional palm trees in Caliste’s island scenes, though not in those represented here.

Fig. 3. Canute Caliste (1914-2005) with an official acknowledgment from former president George H. W. Bush of the gift of a painting, 1996. Photograph by Tessa Frootko Gordon.

What made the paintings in that stationer’s shop in Bequia so irresistible?References to Caliste invariably invoke the roster of timeworn epithets and categories. In his obituary in the Guardian on November 24, 2005, he is “naïve,” “idiosyncratic,” “fascinating,” “quirky,” and “charming.”4  In a Caribbean guidebook: “colorful,” “primitive,” “charming,” and “childlike.”5 These epithets overlook Caliste’s passion­ate images of the Grenada Revolution in 1979, images that no one would call “charming.”6  They overlook the African sensibility and spirituality that saturate his work, as described in Donald Hill’s study of African influence on him. Above all, they overlook the question that Sister Trudy put to the curator in Saskatchewan: are the paintings “good?” If they are, why and how? That question is hardly unique to naïve art. The criteria of goodness are everywhere elusive. But lest anyone raise the postmodernist view that criteria of universal value are beyond reach, I counter that, while art can never be valued without reference to its context, applying measures derived from one culture to the art of another can be reciprocally useful. That is what I want to try to do in the case of those six paintings hanging on my wall for some thirty-­five years now.

Fig. 4. The Shark in Temper, Fishing Boat by Caliste, c. 1975.  Gouache on fiberboard, 10 ¾ by 13 ½ inches.

What emerges from a thoughtful look at Caliste’s paintings is, in fact, their reliance on stylistic features of traditional art, conspicuous among them strong impressions of movement, whether the agitations of the sea in the ocean scenes of whales and of a shark “in temper” (Figs. 4, 5); the suspended moment as the cricket ball leaves the bowler’s hand (Fig. 8); the impending downward stroke of women “weding corn” in a field (Fig. 7); the crossed legs of a male dancer and the swirling skirt of a female dancer in the Big Drum ceremony that Caliste calls African Dance, Big Drump (Fig. 6)7; and, most pronounced of all, the billowing white sails of the “Ruby C,” cunningly tinted with blue so that the viewer seems to see the sea behind them and the air that fills them (Fig. 1).

Fig. 5. Shirting Whale in Myrow by Caliste, c. 1975. Gouache on fiberboard, 11 ½ by 14 ¼ inches.

In contrast to the arrested motion of the women’s hoes in This is Weding Corn in Carriacou, undulating rhythms run through the whole, as if a wind were blow­ing in the field. The top three rows of corn, all seen at a distance, are a small masterpiece of variation. The top row, consisting of seventeen plants, flows gently downward to the middle (reading left to right), then rises slightly toward the right margin. The middle row, consisting of twenty smaller plants, is almost straight. The bottom row of sixteen plants at first rises sharply to the right, levels off when it reaches the color horizon between earth tones and blue sky until, finally, the last plant sits atop the horizon between earth and sky. Taken to­gether, the three lines converge toward a distant point beyond the frame. The work of the women stretches out before them.

Broad diagonals intensify the impression of movement in Shirting Whale in Myrow and African Dance. Shirting Whale in Myrow is a title I’ve puzzled over. “Myrow” is Caliste’s spelling of Mayreau, the small­est inhabited island in the Grenadines, population about three hundred, with some of the world’s most unspoiled and memorable beaches. But “shirting”? The word could refer either to the whales spouting or the action of the hunters. Could “shirting” be “shooting”? That would be curious usage. Caliste’s spellings can be wildly eccentric: if not for the scene before our eyes on the pitch in Figure 8, we’d not guess that “criting” could mean cricketing.8

Fig. 6. African Dance, Big Drump by Caliste, c. 1975. Gouache on fiberboard, 10 ¾ by 13 ½ inches.

But set the title aside and the composition in Shirting Whale is a minor dramatic triumph. A curving diagonal channel runs from lower left, carrying the eye through the corridor of boats on the left and whales on the right, then narrowing as it reaches the horizon between the island and two outlying rocks. In African Dance the result is more homely but still effective. The channel begins at lower left, starting at the table and chairs, then runs upward past drummers to the left, dancers to the right, ending at the juncture between the drummers and a crowd of onlookers. We enter the performance from stage left. In Shirting Whale, the long run to the horizon and the dangers of the scene evoke Burke’s sublime distances. African Dance invites us to come around the corner and join in.

Many of Caliste’s stylistic effects depend on symmetrical variation. Criting in Grenada is a good example. As a realistic representa­tion of a cricket match or a practice session, which it probably is since no umpire is on the field, much is wanting.  The wicket­ keeper would normally wear large gloves, the other players would not wear gloves at all; fielders are oddly placed—there should only be a single player batting at a time on the pitch—and so on. But realism is not the point, symmetries are (as is, equally, the mood: in the words of Arnold Rampersad, my Trinidadian-­born, cricket-­loving friend who helped me with the rules of the game, “the painting captures beautifully something of the easy elegance of cricket, and its deep meaning in a Caribbean cultural context”). Caliste certainly knew that having two players batting simultaneously on the pitch did not happen in a match.9  But how well the two figures balance each other, as if in a mirror. Most prominent of the many symmetries on which the painting is built is the pentagonal arrangement of five players, three fielders and two batsmen, framed by an outlying bowler and wicket­keeper on either side. Draw a connecting line between the five players and you have a pentagon slightly skewed off center, interesting rather than mechanical. Caliste surely knew nothing of the “rule of thirds” but he knew what he was doing.

Fig. 7. This is Weding Corn in Carriacou by Caliste, c.1975. Gouache on fiberboard, 10 ½ by 13 ¾ inches.

To these characteristics of movement and symmetric variation can be added Caliste’s latent sense of human character and identity. The five women in Weding Corn are distinguished not only by the different colors of their dresses but by variations in skin color and even in attitude and expression. The two women to the left are light­skinned, the two to the right, especially the last of the group, are darker; the tops of all their heads form the slightest suggestion of an ellipse. The tilt of their heads varies, as does the angle of their arms. Despite their initial ap­pearance of uniformity, we know when looking closer that these are individuals. Could they even represent people Caliste knew? That may be a stretch, but, once again, he is not painting by number.

Caliste once recounted a visionary experience that he had when he was nine years old. Crossing a bridge on a lagoon near his house, he looked around and saw a mermaid sitting on a rock combing her hair: “So when I peak, you see, I think it’s a spirit and then I screech out and when I screech out she just like so, pum­ joomp, she go down in the water … So I’m running and I see she was coming behind me.” Not long after, he sees the mermaid again in a dream. She tells him that she is “Queen of the Sea,” gives him a Bible and says, “‘You will live by this until you die.’”10  In his paintings, visions of the mermaid recur—once she is giving her comb as a present to children on a beach, once she is “in her Gardain” with masses of flowers behind her.11  Perhaps every artist has his or her own mermaid. That is a more useful proposition, to my mind, than all the unavailing struggles about overarching nomenclature. Catego­ries like “folk,” “naïve” and “primitive” tell us little about the individual artists who have fallen into these convenient boxes. Formalism and its permutations are less in favor now than categories of social analysis, whether of gender or class or any other, but those of us who grew up in an older tradition will protest that sociology provides a spare framework for understanding the individual work of an individual artist. It’s a matter of interest that Caliste’s mermaids are white. Some­ thing could be made of that, but it would take us into realms beyond that of the image itself.

Fig. 8. Criting in Grenada by Caliste, c. 1975. Gouache on fiberboard, 11 ¾ by 12 ½ inches.

In the 1940s and 1950s, famously in the annals of literary criticism, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley argued that the author’s “intention” is not the proper standard for judging a work of liter­ary art—or artistic creation in general.12 The argument, in twenty-­first-­century-­speak, went viral, at least in critical circles. Looking back, however, it’s fair to wonder whether the argument is not addressed to something of a straw opponent: of necessity, criticism starts with a text or image as it stands. Prec­edent “intention” may be inferred if the creator (alive or dead) has talked about what he or she had in mind, but even then, in any self-­analysis, it is possible to get things wrong or only partially right. The “intentional fal­lacy” usefully focused attention on the text or image itself. Caliste’s images are his inten­tion. And, in our encounters with art that is naïve or primitive or childlike or charming or folksy or idiosyncratic or quirky or ver­nacular or whatever, we do better to look and see what’s actually happening rather than succumbing to the easy vagaries of terminology.


1 the Lomax archive, is available on YouTube. 2 Donald A 1962 recording of Canute Caliste and his group, from R. Hill, “A Carriacouan View of the African Diaspora: ‘African’ Themes in the Paintings of Canute Caliste,” Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters, vol. 3 (Fall­Winter 2005), p. 3, at nyu.edu/calabash. 3 A nar­rative history of the gallery, “A Gallery Called Povi,” by Suelin Low Chew Tung is available at nowgrenada.com. 4 See “Canute Caliste,” theguardian.com. 5 See Fodor’s Caribbean 2010, p. 477, available at books/google.com. 6 One painting of the revolution is reproduced on the inside back cover of Lora Berg, The Mermaid Wakes: Paintings of a Caribbean Isle by Mr. Canute Caliste of Carriacou, Grenada (Macmillan, London, 1989). Others are reproduced in Shalini Puri, The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory (Pal­ grave MacMillan, New York, 2014). 7 For more on the Big Drum ceremony in Carriacou, see lameca.org/dos­ siers/bigdrum/musiq_eng.html. 8 Another image (I think less winning) of “criting in Grenada” is illustrated in Berg,The Mermaid Wakes,p.23. 9 Two players bat­ting simultaneously are also depicted in the image cited in note 8. 10 Quoted in Hill, “A Carriacouan View of the African Diaspora,” p. 149. 11 See Berg, The Mermaid Wakes, inside front cover and p. 69. 12 The article is avail­able at faculty.smu.edu/nschwart/seminar/fallacy.htm

BLISS CARNOCHAN is the Richard W. Lyman Professor of Humanities, Emeritus at Stanford University and was director of the Stanford Humanities Center from 1985 to 1991.