Important Art by Alfred Wallis
Curiously proportioned rows of houses dominate this early landscape work, showing Wallis's hometown of St. Ives. The houses are enclosed on three sides by a bay, the sweep of water around the harbor emphasized by scratched, painterly strokes. In the background, small ships are moored, while in the foreground a figure emerges from one of the houses. The shape of the cardboard on which the painting is produced echoes the curvaceous sweep of the harbor. This, along with the simple blue-and-brown color palette, gives the piece a subtle sense of visual harmony and energy.
While many of Wallis's paintings were produced from memory, and recall his former life at sea, he also produced a number of townscapes and harbor scenes. Though many have viewed Wallis as a mere naïf, there is an important element of thematic stylization in works such as St. Ives. The painting is not a true depiction of the town in the early-twentieth century, but an evocation of how Wallis remembered and idealized it. For Wallis, St. Ives was a community where a simple, self-sufficient life was possible. The idea - already waning in accuracy - that his prosperity as well as the town's was tied solely to the fishing industry is emphasized by the fact that Wallis has surrounded the scene with water. In the foreground the houses and figures even appear to be floating in the ocean. According to artist and biograher Sven Berlin, Wallis's St. Ives paintings tell the story "of men working in a well ordered community until it was squeezed out of existence by the gradual progress of modern politics and finance." Here Wallis has preserved his sense of the St. Ives that once was before modernization caused the local fishing industry to die away.
These images are therefore works of conscious imaginative construction, which sought to embody the kind of life that Wallis treasured. For Berlin, "Wallis' naïveté is not something just personal to himself; it is characteristic of the people he grew from." We might rather say that naivety was a quality he tried to cling to.
Alfred Wallis's crucifixion scene is divided into two halves, possibly by a fold in the found material on which it was created. In the top half of the work, set against a dark landscape of trees, two figures in different shades of gray stand with arms outstretched, one behind the other - though they might also seem to be stacked into a column. On either side of the two cruciform figures white dogs are rendered mid-stride. In the bottom half of the painting, a man in white clothing with a dark grey hat, perhaps the owner of the dogs, walks past, seemingly oblivious to the scene above.
This painting partly evokes Wallis's religious beliefs. A devout Christian, he became completely absorbed in his faith after his marriage to Susan Ward in 1875, joining her in her allegiance to the Salvation Army. Wallis would read aloud from the family Bible in the evenings, and he refused to sell paintings on Sundays, seeing it as an act of sacrilege. At the same time, the image begs as many questions as it answers regarding both the content of Wallis's faith and the comfort that it brought him. The two figures in crucifixion shape, in combination with the presence of three figures overall, refers to the Holy Trinity, while the sense of emotional disconnect between the humdrum character below and the scene above suggests some sense of detachment from the salvation that faith might offer. Another interpretation might focus on the dark color scheme and the sense of foreboding generated by the circling, uncannily identical dogs. By this reading the painting could express Wallis's deteriorating mental health, characterized by the fear that he was being pursued by agents of the devil.
Whether it presents a positive or a negative expression of religious faith, Sven Berlin notes that "[Wallis's] paintings came into being from no other source than his own creative soul." The sense of mystery and doubt that the work generates is therefore an expression of the hope, loss, and confusion that shaped Wallis's own character and life.
The most arresting elements of this painting from the 1930s are the two enormous fish that circle around the motorized fishing vessel to the right. In the background is a stripe of green land, with barely visible trees rendered in light, feathery, white brushstrokes. The cliff face in the center of the picture appears to have been painted in two pigments which have not mixed, creating a mottled, marbled quality typical of Wallis's unusual textural effects.
This painting exemplifies Wallis's intuitive, expressionistic approach to form and composition. Classified as a "naïve" painter, he certainly lacked any institutional training, and was unhindered by a conventional sense of perspective. As such, objects seem to assume a size and position relative to their emotional or thematic significance, while perspective is specific to individual objects or sections within the frame. The fish thus assume the proportions appropriate to their importance for a mariner and member of a regional fishing community, and are presented front on rather than in accordance with the aerial perspective on the ocean. The apparent lack of distance between ship and shore, and the way that the flat landscape behind the water seems more vertical than horizontal, add to the overall impression of formal play.
The element of personal memory in these paintings is also significant. Wallis's paintings were drawn from his recollections of early life at sea, so what is glimpsed here is perhaps the relative scale with which objects and scenes loom in his retrospective imagining of that life. The large fish evoke something of the vast, prodigal, non-human life of the ocean, while the land may suggest the promise of return after each trip. In Wallis's case, then, lack of formal training in no way equates to a lack of depth or profundity.