With its relaxed interiors stuffed full of modernist gems by the likes of Ben and Winifred Nicholson and their ‘primitive’ protégé Alfred Wallis, Kettle’s Yard house and gallery in Cambridge makes for a dream art day out. Don’t go there, though, at least not for a couple of years: it’s closed for renovations. Instead, go to Modern Art in Old Street, where 39 paintings by Wallis, an untrained artist and former fisherman and scrap merchant whose work Kettle’s Yard founder Jim Ede amassed for a few bob in the 1930s, are on temporary display. Not that this smart commercial gallery has tried to echo the casual charm of Kettle’s Yard. Here, the crisp whiteness of a cool contemporary art showroom accentuates the homespun, knocked-about quality of Wallis’s work. He painted on whatever was to hand – scraps of board, torn-up boxes. In fact he only took up painting ‘for company’ in 1922, after the death of his wife. And, using dark browns, oily blacks, off-whites and greys and strident blue-greens, he painted what he knew – the capricious sea, storm-tossed boats and wrecks. The paintings show little understanding of linear perspective but there’s a sophisticated grasp of storytelling and a directness of expression that startles even today. They have a vitality that jumps off the walls.
It was this, as much as the sight of a tiny bearded man in his seventies, that stopped artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in their tracks as they passed by Wallis’s open front door in St Ives in 1928. They championed him, yet Wallis’s art didn’t change in either content or style. Sometimes a harbour wall curves into the picture plane like a consoling arm, but mostly he paints a world in which there’s plenty to be frightened of. It’s always about the land against the terrifying ambiguity of the sea.
Wallis is hardly an outsider. Thanks to his connections with the St Ives art circle, he has slipped comfortably into the grand narrative of twentieth-century British art history. But, in removing him from that company and showing him like a contemporary artist, this show reminds us how singular – and how extraordinary – his work truly is.