Alfred Wallis’ (1855-1942) paintings seem to have emerged from an unknown, unexpected world, where nature is brutally neutral, where the sky is impenetrable and the headlands are brittle. They’re from a world focused around the subjectivity of the boat. Wallis’ boats are obscurely human, and yet also completely alien, and surrounded by hallucinatory seas that vary widely across Wallis’ oeuvre.
I remember looking at one of Alfred Wallis’ paintings in Kettle’s Yard last year, and my grandma saying ‘it’s so real’. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, and agreed, and we moved on. Sitting down to write this article, I wonder why we agreed that ‘real’ was a suitable word, of all words, to describe Wallis’ work. I think that the word ‘real’ doesn’t get to the bottom of these paintings, but our inclination to use it shows us something important about the way we see them.
Perhaps the word chimes with Wallis’ work because of his humble origins. These abstract and perspective bending images of the sea, the lighthouses, the sky, and the houses of Wallis’ home near Porthmeor beach in St Ives, were painted by someone who had ‘really’ spent his life in those boats and on those harbours. They were imagined by someone who ‘really’ knew a Cornish life unimaginable to those who have tried to find parking in today’s Tripadvisor hotspots.
They are painted by someone who was from the ‘real’ world, far removed from the pretension and theory of the city cognoscenti. Wallis started painting after the death of his wife. He worked during his first 8 years of painting without any desire for fame, simply saying he started painting ‘for company’. After this period of obscurity he was ‘discovered’ by a holidaying Nicholson and championed in the London art world.
These works are not by someone who rode out from the coffee house to lodge in a manor house, who took a turn after tea to a charming stream with an easel (with brushes sculpted like an exquisitely plucked brow), to paint Nature, thinking all the while of the Turners in the London galleries. They were painted from a ‘real’ place, we are tempted to say.
And, as well as my grandma and me, this sense captivated those in the art world of London. For bourgeois artists like Nicholson and Wood, Wallis represented the ‘naive’ style, the ability to see things as they ‘really’ were, to capture their exact essence in an undesigned and spontaneous abstraction; Wallis’ work had an authenticity that these artists were desperate for. They fetished the world they saw in his paintings, as if they somehow gave them access to a ‘real’ world. Wallis’ abstractions justified theirs. His paintings were admired in an uncomfortably performative way. ‘Look!’, you can almost hear them say, ‘Bear in mind; completely untrained! And a fisherman!’
Looking back, I think that using the word ‘real’ does Wallis a disservice. It is overly focussed on his biography. Wallis’ paintings should not be consigned to some extra-territorial ‘real’, outside the domain of the bourgeois avant-garde art of the city. They should be considered in their own right. Wallis was an inspiring person, deserving of praise and admiration, but it seems wrong that appreciation of Wallis always has to be contextualised in this way, as it implicitly alienates him from the community of ‘normal’ artists. It smacks of the bourgeois fetish for the working class, born from an anxious realisation of privilege and ignorance. Admiration for Wallis always seems to be prefaced by a reminder that he was untrained and poor, and the fetishisation of his paintings always seems to be inextricably linked to this demographic.
In fact, Wallis was painting the world of his dreams, drawing on his memories of the age of the sailboat in a time in which the steamship was dominant. His paintings were nostalgic, odes to the world he knew when he completed his journeys from Cornwall to Newfoundland. In them so much is obscure – enormous fish encircle boats, the carapace of life is surrounded by murky and illegible landscapes. Streets are stacked on top of one another, and boats in the harbour find their orientation not from the perspective of the eye, but, in one painting, from their orientation to their place of mooring. Their perspective is decided by their functional existence and not from the place of the observer.
But what the boat meant to Wallis I can never pretend to know – we can never seek to grasp how real it was for him by looking in his paintings and describing them as ‘real’. The filter of his medium – his five colors – the driftwood and cardboard he gathered from the debris on the streets of St Ives used as a canvas, are fragments of an existence that we can only admire from the other side of a boundary, one that we cannot pretend to see through.
It is how unreal his works seem, works that hold some knowledge that they cannot disclose, rather than how real, that makes them so tantalising. Wallis was a unique and inspiring artist, whose influence on abstract painting in the early 20th century was significant. That is all the information that should be necessary to appreciate his work.