Breton returned to France early, taking seven Hyppolite canvases with him. But he wasn’t the only white tastemaker seduced by Haitian art. The Centre d’Art became a go-to destination for American tourists in the late 1950s and ’60s, and Haitian painting became all the rage with sophisticated New York collectors (including Jackie Kennedy-Onassis). Yet as it increased in popularity, Haitian art began to lose what made it special in the first place. “Haitian painters began creating works that slipped into kitsch,” Brett reflected. “Fair enough: They were trying to satisfy demand. But the paintings lost something.” This, perhaps, is why Haitian art fell from grace so dramatically after the ’60s. The market has never quite recovered.
A reappraisal of this work comes at a moment in time when black art movements are being rediscovered and treated with the seriousness they are due. But regardless of categorization, the work on show at The Gallery of Everything is entirely stunning on its own terms. Most of these images depict aspects of Vodou ritual—sacrifices, vevers (symbolic designs traced on the ground with powder), and the distinctive drums that provide a rhythm for ceremonies. They are packed with unusual, often unsettling details: One scene by Sénèque Obin
(Philomé’s brother) contains a particularly graphic depiction of a woman in childbirth, while another painting by Wilson Bigaud shows a waterlogged corpse washing up on the shore of a densely populated fishing village. Masked paramedics run to retrieve it; you can almost smell the putrid honk of decay.
Haiti’s contradictions, culture, and history have created a modern country like no other. It’s often said of the Magical Realism authors who came to prominence there in the mid-20th century that it was unclear where the “realist” side of the equation came to an end and lapsed into the “magical.” Similarly, its art of the era defied any easy alignment with what we generally understand as Surrealism. Breton, for one, was well-aware of this. “He was completely affected by his trip,” Brett said, “but he wasn’t arrogant enough to say, ‘I’ve anointed this country with Surrealism.’” What Breton had identified was something different: a style that was inherently, distinctly Haitian.