Hector Hyppolite

1894-1948

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Hector Hyppolite is the most legendary figure in Haitian art.  He achieved world recognition thanks to Andre Breton, who wrote about him, bought his work, and exhibited his paintings in Europe with great success.  Breton sensed that Hyppolite "had an important message to communicate, that he was the guardian of a secret."  Like his father and grandfather, Hyppolite was a houngan.  An air of mysticism pervaded his extravagant appearance.  Tall and extremely thin, he moved with imperial dignity and grace; a mane of shoulder-length hair surrounded his fine features.  

 

His stories about a five-year pilgrimage to Africa were probably no more than an indication of his great desire to know the land of his spiritual and racial origins.  Hyppolite's decoration of the doors of a little bar in Montrounis, near St. Marc, led to his discovery.  He joined the Centre d'Art in 1945.  During the remaining three years of his life he produced between two hundred fifty and six hundred works; about one hundred of these can be located today.

 

Most if not all of Hyppolite's works were born out his religious convictions.  Historical heroes, for example, are represented in their reincarnations as loas rather than as individuals.  Objects of secular meaning are transformed into symbols of religious significance.  Flowers become metaphors for perpetual life, flags turn into wings, the void of the background symbolizes the beyond.  Depictions of various loas, performances of magic, and birds all belong to the supernatural world.  The entire effect is summarized in the hypnotic power of the eyes, which evoke the serpent eyes of Damballah.

 

Hyppolite's personifications of gods are crude, even ugly.  Combined with the sensuousness and richness of his colors, however, this crudeness contributes to the expressive power of his images.  Hyppolite, who was connected with La Sirene through the bonds of mystical marriage, especially enjoyed the ambiguous nature of female spirits.

 

Characteristic of Hyppolite's style is a free and bold handling of both color and form.  His palette consists mostly  of warm, sensuous tones carrying symbolic meaning.  He used brushes, chicken feathers, and his fingers to achieve the desired texture.  He is said to have worked on more than one painting at a time, often finishing several in one day.  Not all of his work is of high quality, but an astonishingly high percentage fully justifies his reputation.

 

His work is included in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Smithsonian Institution, the Musee d'Art Haitien du College Saint Pierre in Port-au-Prince, Milwaukee Museum of Art, the Waterloo Museum of Art in Iowa, and the Museum of Everything (London, UK).

 

Stebich, Ute.  Haitian Art.  Brooklyn:  The Brooklyn Museum, 1978