Séraphine and Modern Primitive Paintings

Séraphine (Courtesy to Wiki Commons)
Séraphine (Courtesy to Wiki Commons)

The movie “Séraphine” started eerily: A swollen hand with large fingers combs the algae in a creek of waist deep. It reminded me of the beginning of the movie “The Mirror” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1975, in which the aquatic plants drift like a Monet painting accompanied by “Chromatic Fantasy.” Here, the scene has more urgency and press. The character is certainly searching, although what could be found is unclear. Without a single shot of her face, the director Martin Provost instills a seemingly poetic scene with the ominous mental disturbance foretelling Séraphine’s tragic ending. The motion in her flora paintings has some resemblance in the flow of algae that she touched at the dawn, or the shudders of the leaves in the breeze which she hears before seeing.

But the identity of the artist is revealed much later. We follow her for the rest of the day and find nothing unusual about the lowly. Séraphine Louis is a cleaning lady whose days are filled with drudgery. Scrubbing the floor, punching the laundry and cooking the dishes wears her out before her time. She looks bent and stooped, with round shoulders from lifting a basket wherever she gos. Who would expect a painting not to mention a masterpiece from her large, plump hands?

grabonelargeMuch of the real story of Séraphine is known to the public through the art critics and collector Wilhelm Uhde who happened to rent the house she served. Wilhelm refused the word of “naive” and coined the term of “modern primitive” for the art of Le Douanier Rousseau. It is in this category that he discovered the talent of Séraphine Louis and brought her wealth, yet he could neither keep funding her with the arrival of the Great Depression, nor could he help her from falling into the abyss of metal illness.

The movie faithfully tells the story of Séraphine from the first encounter between the artist and her proponent to her final settlement in a psychiatric ward. But there are a few points where the movie drifts away for the sake of storytelling. Based on the Wikipedia entry, Uhde organized an exhibition “Painters of the Sacred Heart” that featured Séraphine’s art in 1929. But the movie projected a fate-doomed artist whose solo exhibition came only posthumously. Her unsolved secrets of paintings were invented in the movie probably purely conjectural (which I dare not challenge since I have no experience in oil-painting): The ochre is from the creek where she wades in the early morning. The red is from the chicken blood that she steals from the kitchen. And the matte surface of her paintings is caused by the free wax from the church candles. She painted with knives, brushes and fingers, the last seem to be appropriate in the movie to portrait a fervent yet penniless painter thus showing excessively.

There is a tremendous sense of revelation and relief when Séraphine stands beside her two-meter long canvas. The dense and controlled decorative pattern of flora has a wilderness of jungles and labyrinth. When such clarity in flowers, leaves and fruits is multiplied in hundreds of folds, a simple tree grows and intertwines into a world that defies verbal even logic analysis. Thus the modern primitive, by avoiding the mind play of scholarly connoisseurship, reaches our heart in a direct and express way.

Séraphine Louis from Wiki Commons
Séraphine Louis from Wiki Commons

But in my mind, the movie of Séraphine is not just about art or an artist. It is a hymn of extraordinary nature of human beings. Out of mundane-looking and humble background is the unlimited possibility of beauty and novelty that redefine the boundaries of human capability. Here it is the art that teach us to tolerate, respect and appreciate human differences. Only when we free our mindsets from the social rigidity of the artist’s identity and the traditional aesthetics of how paintings should look could we truly SEE the art and the world.

“Séraphine” can be seen at Cinema Village.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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