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Art Brut and Outsider Art - History and Concepts

Art Brut and Outsider Art Collage

Started: 1923

Ended: Present

History and Concepts

Beginnings

Early Interest in the Art of the Mentally Ill

<i>Der Blaue Reiter Almanach</i>

The first noted case of interest by artists in the art of the mentally ill is traced back to the Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group who were active in Germany from 1911 to 1914. Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter, Lyonel Feininger, and Albert Bloch, believed in the expression of spiritual values through color and form. In this quest, these artists were interested in the linkages between music and painting, as well as the concept of synaesthesia, whereby the stimulation of one sense can cause an involuntary reaction in one or more other senses. In 1912, the group published their Almanac, Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, which included theoretical essays by Kandinsky and Marc, as well as over 140 reproductions of artworks, the majority of which were classified as "primitive" art, folk art, children's art, and art of the mentally ill. In this way, they demonstrated their belief that the traditional Western Art Historical canon was suffering a particular lack that could be remedied by turning to sources outside of its purview.

In 1921, Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his book Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) about Adolf Wölfli, a psychotic mental patient in his care who had turned to art making (particularly drawing), which seemed to have the effect of calming him down.

Hans Prinzhorn's <i>Bildnerei der Geisteskranken</i> (<i>Artistry of the Mentally Ill</i>) (1922)

Then, in 1922, Prinzhorn published Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill). This book included formal analyses based on thousands of artworks by mentally ill patients at various European institutions, which Prinzhorn also amassed into a great collection (now housed at the University of Heidelberg). Both the book and the art collection received a great deal of interest from avant-garde artists of the time, including Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and Jean Dubuffet. The book remains even today one of the seminal and most important works published on this subject.

Dubuffet and Art Brut

After reading Bildnerei der Geisteskranken in 1923 (although he was unable to read German so the book's main influence upon him came from the images themselves), French artist Jean Dubuffet began his own collection of such art. However, Dubuffet expanded the scope of his collection to also include works by other eccentrics and social misfits making art on the fringes of society, not just those suffering from mental health issues. The collection grew to include about 5,000 works by 133 creators, including Aloïse Corbaz and Adolf Wölfli. He named this type of art Art Brut (which literally translates as "raw art"). He defined Art Brut as "the works executed by people untouched by artistic culture, works in which imitation - contrary to what occurs among intellectuals - has little or no part, so that their makers derive everything (subjects, choice of materials used, means of transportation, rhythms, ways of patterning, etc.) from their own resources and not from the conventions of classic art or the art that happens to be fashionable. Here we find art at its crudest; we see it being wholly reinvented at every stage of the operation by its maker's knack of invention and not, as always in cultural art, from his power of aping others or changing like a chameleon."

In 1948, Dubuffet and other artists (including Jean Paulhan, André Breton, Charles Ratton, Michel Tapie, and Henri-Pierre Roche) formed the Compagnie de l'Art Brut, with artist Slavko Kopač designated as the collection's curator. The organization was intended to serve as a center point for further research and curatorial activities. In 1949, the first exhibition of Art Brut was held at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris, and included over 200 works. In 1951, just before the Compagnie's dissolution (due in part to a disagreement wherein Dubuffet accused Breton of attempting to co-opt Art Brut into the "huge cultural machine" of Surrealism), painter Alfonso Ossorio offered to house the collection in his home in East Hampton, near New York. While visiting the United States, Dubuffet delivered a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, titled "Anti-cultural Positions," in which he accused Western culture of suppressing true creativity. The collection remained in New York for ten years, before being repatriated to Paris where Kopač once again served as its curator and archivist. In 1962 the Compagnie de l'Art Brut was reformed, with over 100 members dedicating themselves to the discovery and collection of works of Art Brut. In 1964, Dubuffet began publishing the first eight editions of Art Brut booklets, which continue to be produced today. In 1967, another major exhibition of over 700 Art Brut works by 75 different creators was mounted at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. In 1971 Dubuffet donated his collection of Art Brut to the city of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Dubuffet found Art Brut to be an important inspiration for his own art, as he believed it to be a more pure, sincere, and authentic expression of emotion, immune to the assimilating influences of mainstream culture. He attempted to emulate the childlike naiveté that he saw in Art Brut, however his training in painting at an arts academy as well as his self-awareness as an artist and his knowledge of the mainstream art world mean that he should not be considered himself as an Art Brut / Outsider Artist (as a number of art historians assert). Instead, his work is better defined within primitivism, pseudo-naïve art, and faux naïve art.

Mainstream Artists' Growing Interest in Art Brut

There are a variety of factors that contributed to the interest in Art Brut in the first half of the twentieth century. Many mainstream artists were attracted to Art Brut in what they saw as the "Primitive" art of faraway cultures. This may have come about because of growing dissatisfaction with the mainstream art world, and more broadly speaking with a distrust of mainstream society in the period surrounding the two World Wars. Artists in the Western world at this time witnessed the utter devastation and upheaval that had resulted from widespread ideologies centered upon technological, industrial, and rational routes of "progress". People living during this period also saw the tragic and inhumane implementation of social philosophies, including Eugenics, which claimed to improve quality of life for the general public by eliminating undesirable traits such as mental illness, disability, and criminal tendencies. The multiple atrocities carried out for the duration of World Waw II caused many people, especially artists, to become skeptical and wary of grand theories and ideologies, both beyond and within the art world itself. Many artists hoped that a celebration of the irrational and a turning for help to individuals on the margins of society could offer new sources of inspiration regarding different ways of understanding, relating to, and representing other people and the world around us. In this way, celebrating Outsider Art was an alternative way for artists to "fight" against political injustice. As artist and author David Maclagan asserts, "Art Brut can be seen as the continuation and intensification of a widespread and typical feature of Modernism: the quest for new and original forms of creativity in areas considered immune from conventional culture."

At the same time, many within the art world continued to operate with the romantic notion of the "mad genius". Commonly referred to as the "genius-insanity" theory, the idea that (as German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expressed) "genius is nearer to madness than the average intelligence" can be traced back to Aristotle. The idea began to pervade common thought during the Renaissance, peaked during the Romantic period, and, MacGregor wrote in 1989, "has not yet been laid to rest". The result of this preoccupation with the insane genius during the Romantic period led artists to turn their attention toward madhouses, making frequent visits and recording their observations of insane artists at work, in order to answer the question "could the madman give birth to art?" Indeed, as MacGregor writes, "artists were beginning to note that under the impact of mental disturbance individuals who had never displayed any involvement with art developed an unexplained inclination to make images, to draw." Into and throughout the twentieth century, this notion of the insanity of genius endured, contributing to the popular notion of the creative artist as social outcast. This is perhaps a misguided line of enquiry, because it is so often wrongs committed by society that ultimately cause mental illness.

The rise in interest in Art Brut, particularly of the "mentally imbalanced", was aided by simultaneous developments in the field of psychiatry, and later the realms of Art Therapy. Medical professionals who worked with mentally ill and cognitively disabled patients (such as Dr. Walter Morgenthaler and Dr. Hans Prinzhorn) began to turn to patients' artworks as potential clues that could grant them insight into the nature of their ailments and disturbances, or, at the very least, into ways in which these afflictions could be differentiated and categorized. This led many doctors to begin collecting and analyzing patient artwork rather than merely discarding it, and many of these artistic samples eventually found their way into the public sphere and the hands of mainstream artists who hoped to find inspiration from these works. As art historian John MacGregor writes, "The role of the physician as interpreter of this new type of image was very influential, determining to some extent the way in which it was received at first by the lay public. Nevertheless, as was the case with Primitive Art, the creative artist saw these images in his own unique way."

Roger Cardinal and Outsider Art

<i>Outsider Art</i> by Roger Cardinal, 1972

The term Outsider Art was coined in 1972 by Roger Cardinal (professor emeritus of literary and visual studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury), who sought an appropriate English equivalent for the French term Art Brut. Just as Dubuffet described Art Brut, Cardinal described Outsider Art as creative works produced by self-taught artists (that is, artists with no formal arts training), that do not follow traditional or academic artistic conventions and that convey "a strong sense of individuality". Both Dubuffet and Cardinal have specified that while Outsider Art and Art Brut tend to be associated with artists who are mentally ill (such as schizophrenics), it also includes art "by individuals who are quite capable of handling their social lives but who recoil, consciously or unconsciously, from the notion of art being necessarily a publicly defined activity with communally recognized standards," including children, and social recluses.

According to Cardinal, Outsider Art's "ambit of use rests on the notion that art making is a widespread human activity reaching far beyond the world of public galleries, teaching institutions and culturally marked art production." He insists that an artist's work's status as "Outsider" must be centred upon the "anti-conventional nature of the art making itself, its idiosyncrasy, its often unworldly distance from artistic norms as well as from commonplace experience," in addition to the "thrilling visual experience" it offers to its audience.

Art Brut is not a movement with which artists self-identify, but rather a label assigned, often posthumously, by historians, critics, and collectors to self-taught creators with little or no contact with the mainstream art world and its institutions. MacGregor explains, "It is a totally heterogeneous collection of images and artists, with no underlying unity or common purpose." Likewise, artist and author David Maclagan writes that "The spectrum of Outsider Art is now so broad that it is hard to find any obvious common feature, except that it is something that strikes us as extraordinary, both in the choice of materials [...] and in its content [...] and that it seems to have been created out of the blue." Indeed, this work is believed to be the expression of an individualized psyche, possessing a uniquely innate authenticity or "purity". One way that we can subcategorize Art Brut / Outsider Art is based on type of media (painting/drawing, sculpture, visionary environments). However, there are other terms commonly linked to Art Brut / Outsider Art which differentiate between types of creator (Folk art, International art, and Neuve Invention). These terms often overlap, and are at times incorrectly used synonymously. To say that the art is disparate and not unifiable is correct, although Outsider Artists do share a tendency to certain themes and motifs. For example, there is an interest in portraits, fish, birds, repetition, binding, linking, and entirely filling a given space.

Art Brut and Painting/Drawing

As said, there is no one style or aesthetic that defines Art Brut / Outsider Art works. Many artists, like Gaston Duf, Adolf Wolfli, Heinrich Anton Müller, and Jeroen Pomp, create fantastical images derived from their vivid imaginations (including cities, people, animals, all often incased within geometrical shapes). However, there are other Outsider Artists, like Stephen Wiltshire, Gregory Blackstock, and James Castle, whose images offer extremely realistic reproductions of existing things or places. What sets these latter artists apart is that they do not follow any pre-existing artistic style or movement, such as Cubism or Expressionism (although coincidentally, similarities sometimes exist). They also, despite making more "realistic" pictures on first glance, like the more classic outsiders (Wolfli) do fill designated space, and do attempt to create order by using art. As Colin Rhodes, Professor of Art, writes, "One of the most striking features of Outsider Art is its general tendency to present the world in transcendent or metaphysical terms [...] Almost invariably artists develop a structured cosmology that underpins the 'reality' of their worlds, although the viewer does not always have access to the language of their articulation. Indeed, individuals often deliberately engage in obscurantism or develop complicated iconographies in order to protect themselves and their ideas from perceived threats."

Art Brut and Sculpture

As with painting and drawing, Art Brut / Outsider sculpture can take many forms and styles. However, as many of these artists create(d) their works inside the confines of institutions (such as mental asylums and prisons), the materials to which they had access tended to be more limited. Thus Art Brut / Outsider sculptures often demonstrate resourcefulness on the part of the artist, who uses whatever found objects and materials they can get their hands on, including animal teeth, bones, and pelts found in asylum farms, and other sorts of refuse such as string, cord, and wire. Outside of institutions and without enforced restriction, outsider artists making sculpture tend to continue the theme of using waste and disregarded objects. The Cornish artist, David Kemp, uses entirely found materials, often harmful debris washed up by the sea to make his sculptures. As such the final pieces are at once a slap in the face to greedy and ignorant consumer culture and a testament to outsider artists who defy fashions and trends to always prioritize meaning.

Art Brut and Visionary Environments

Simon Rodia, <i>Watts Towers</i>, 1921-54. Steel rebar, concrete, wire mesh, and found objects.

Visionary environments include large-scale environments or architectural projects created by Outsider Artists, such as Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, SP Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden, Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Idéal, and Nek Chand's Rock Garden. As editor of Raw Vision magazine, John Maizels, explains, Visionary environments tend to be "unusual structures, full of strangeness and individuality" which "are often the results of years of committed toil" and "represent one of the most extraordinary forms of human creativity." These environments tend to be created from a vast array of found materials, such as stones and garbage / found objects, and they often contain a mixture of styles, drawing from various forms of architecture. A significant proportion of these projects are found in France and the United States.

Art Brut and Folk Art

Folk Art is a term that has been widely used in North America originally to refer to the handmade crafts of indigenous peoples and peasant communities in Europe, and later to the simply-made practical objects of colonial days, including objects such as weather vanes and quilts. These objects tend to be purely utilitarian or decorative in purpose. This category sometimes overlaps with the categories of tribal art and primitive art.

Art Brut and Naïve Art

The term "Naïve art" is frequently used as a synonym for Art Brut and Outsider Art, describing artists who received no formal arts education, although Naïve artists tend to be understood as bringing a greater level of artistic craftsmanship to their work. They often work closely with other artists but adopt a more childlike approach to conventional and technical ways of seeing. Dubuffet differentiated Naïve art as the art of "Sunday painters [that is,] people who are filled with respect for cultural art, and their work is strongly influenced by its traditions. They desire to form part of cultural art, and borrow from it their methods, imitating it to the best of their ability. (They do so badly, of course, because of their inexperience, a fact which results in their efforts being of more interest that the originals which inspire them.)"

Perhaps the most famous artist to be placed in this category is Henri Rousseau, an entirely self-taught French painter whose lavish and free dream-like images were celebrated by the likes of Picasso and other notable artists living in Paris at the time. Rousseau developed a highly recognizable signature style whereby most of his pictures depicted tropical jungle scenes; either this or cityscapes with foregrounded portraits that the artist termed his "portrait landscapes". Most remarkable is the fact that Rousseau never himself saw the jungle. He drew inspiration from children's books and from his regular visits to botanical gardens in Paris. His style of painting was typically flat and made with simplified perspective. Indeed, the legacy of Rousseau can never be underestimated; he became a primary inspiration for the Surrealists, and since then until the present day, for countless other creative minds.

A notable wave of Naïve Art also flowed from Cornwall, UK during the early-twentieth century due to the visionary work of Alfred Wallis. Wallis was a fisherman who painted coastal scenes with no regard for conventional scale or perspective. He painted on found wood, so the shape and size of his picture plane was also unusual. Fellow local artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher 'Kit' Wood discovered his work and as such his influence quickly spread to the large artistic community living in St. Ives at the time.

Art Brut and Neuve Invention

Dubuffet created the category of Neuve Invention in 1982 to categorize untrained artists who demonstrate Art Brut tendencies in their art, but who do have more contact with society and greater awareness of the art world. As editor of Raw Vision magazine, John Maizels, explains, "Dubuffet recognized that there were many creators who, although self-taught, were closer in their connections to conventional society than were the genuine artistes bruts. However, these artists found themselves on the margins of mainstream cultural art, set apart from the normal art world, often shunned by galleries and colleges." The category thus serves as a sort of middle ground between Insider and Outsider Artists. In many ways, changing his classification of some artists from Art Brut to Neuve Invention served as a sort of demotion, with Neuve Invention artists being seen as possessing less of the pure creative impulse of full-fledged Art Brut artists. Examples include Gaston Chaissac, Mario Chichorro, Rosemarie Koczy, Gerard Lattier, Albert Louden, and Frederich Schroder-Sonnenstern.

Later Developments

Art Brut / Outsider Art Today

Art Brut and Outsider Art remain labels given, not by the artists themselves but by others, often posthumously and mainly to gather together artists as operating outside of any sort of art historical tradition, rather than in an attempt to describe a common style or ethos in their works. These terms continue to be employed, for instance, at exhibitions like A Special Touch - Straight from the Heart, held at the Kunstcentret Silkeborg Bad in Silkeborg, Denmark (2016); World Transformers: The Art of the Outsiders, held at the Schirn Kunsthalle Gallery in Römerberg, Germany (2011); Inner Worlds Outside at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the La Caixa Foundation Exhibition Hall in Madrid, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin (2006); and In Another World at the Kiasma Gallery in Helsinki (2005), as well as at the Outsider Art Fair held annually since 2013, alternating venues between New York and Paris. The terms have also inspired a steady increase in the use of Art Therapy as a reputable means to support and rehabilitate individuals suffering from mental health difficulties.

Criticisms of Art Brut / Outsider Art

Although the category of Art Brut / Outsider Art has carved an art historical niche for visual artwork by the mentally ill and others living on the fringes of society, the category has been criticized for contextualizing this type of work in such a way as to present it as heavily exoticized, and thus contributing to further Othering and marginalization of its creators. For this reason, many Disability Rights activists and Critical Disability Studies scholars prefer to locate art made by contemporary mental health sufferers and intellectually/developmentally disabled artists within the nascent, and politically conscientious category of Disability Arts, while others do not see any reason for a separate genre to be created for this work, preferring instead for all artists to be included within mainstream trends and dialogue. Art critic Jerry Saltz argues that Outsider Art only serves as a discriminatory boundary preventing untrained artists from taking "their rightful places in the canon". Others, like humanities professor Rita Elizabeth Risser, criticize the quickly rising popularity of art explicitly made possible by mental or physical suffering as a form of voyeurism. Yet proponents of the category of Outsider Art maintain that it is only meant to demarcate "self-taught or non-academic work," as Rebecca Hoffman, director of the Outsider Art Fair in New York, explains.

Furthermore, the increased recognition and exhibition of Art Brut / Outsider Artists serves to negate the "Outsider" aspect of their identities and their artwork. As well, many previously institutionalized Outsider Artists are living back in their communities following the de-institutionalization movement. Many of them are even creating art in collaborative environments and/or with the mentorship of professional "Insider" artists at specialized arts centers such as Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California. Therefore, their practices do not follow Dubuffet's and Cardinal's vision of Outsider Artists as wholly cut off from society and from the mainstream art world. Thus many scholars and critics are coming to see "Outsider" as an obsolete categorization. There is an argument though that recognizes these categories as crucial at the time they were coined - shining a light onto hidden talent - but now there is gradual recognition that labels and prejudices are ideally better dissolved.

Most Important Art

Quotes

"These are primitive beginnings in art, such as one usually finds in ethnographic collections, or at home in the nursery. Do not laugh, reader! Children also have artistic ability and there is virtue in their having it! . . . Parallel phenomena are provided by the works of the mentally diseased; neither childish behavior nor madness are insulting words here, as they commonly are. All this is to be taken seriously, more seriously than all the public galleries when it comes to reforming today's art."
Paul Klee Signature
"We will not cease until justice has corrected the blind and intolerant prejudice under which works of art produced in asylums have suffered for so long, and so long as we have not freed them from the aura of worthlessness which has been created around them."
André Breton Signature
"The madman is a reformer, an inventor of new systems, intoxicated with invention. ... This is exactly what is required of the artist, and explains why the creation of art is so worthless when it does not originate in a state of alienation, when it fails to offer a new conception of the world, and new principles for living."
Jean Dubuffet Signature
"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim, and social promotion do not interfere - are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that... cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."
Jean Dubuffet Signature
"Nobody knows why I made them, not even me."
Fred Smith
"Nowadays people are calling me 'artist'. I don't like this word 'artist', only God pushed me to do this work. I never knew people would see it. I just made it for my own pleasure."
Nek Chand
"Totally alien, the new art (an art that has always been) proliferates quietly around the outskirts of the cultural city."
Roger Cardinal
"God wanted me to take this junk and make something out of it and show people who got things that they could do something where they stand. You see, I'm an example from God."
Howard Finster

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