Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) and James Dixon (1887-1970) are two artists from different generations who lived and worked at different ends of the British Isles – Wallis in Cornwall; Dixon in the Tory Islands. However, there are similarities between their backgrounds, artistic principles and position within the art world that make a joint exhibition both relevant and timely.
Both artists were fishermen by trade who took up painting late in life and managed to become important figures within the history of 20th-century art with works in many major collections. Neither received any official art training and were frequently described as ‘primitives’. Both had close relationships with professional artists who introduced their work to the contemporary art world and helped secured their place within art history.
Alfred Wallis and James Dixon both lived in remote, rugged seascapes and this has played an important part in the way their work has been perceived. Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, who ‘discovered’ Wallis in the 1930s, were both in Cornwall because of its’ romantic, ‘unspoiled’ connotations and their interest in Wallis was intensified by his intrinsic relationship to this environment. Tory Island equally presented a romantic retreat for Derek Hill, the British artist who has promoted Dixon. Again, this association with the romanticism of the place has led to certain aspects of the artists works being celebrated above others, in particular their portrayal of the sea and boats.
With the recent questioning of modernist cultural imperialism, a reassessment of the attitudes and perceptions held about these artists has begun, and in particular their introduction to the systems of the art world. This exhibition aims to show the work of James Dixon and Alfred Wallis in the light of these changes of approach to their work and take them out of the bracket of ‘primitive’. The exhibition will also raise interesting questions around the definition of an artist, the systems of the art world and urban perceptions of the sea and remote communities, as well as providing an opportunity to look in detail at the work of two of the most interesting artists of the British and Irish 20th-century art.
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