Saturday, September 1, 2012

Art as Symptom

An early edition of Prinzhorn's book on the art of the mentally ill

In 1922, the German psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn published Artistry of the Mentally Ill, a richly illustrated text that drew attention to strange and extraordinary artworks created by psychiatric patients.  At the time, the European artworld was dominated by a swing towards the classical, as artists tried to restore a sense of order after the First world War.  The surrealists took notice, of course, and there was a detectable kinship between some of Prinzhorn's artists and Paul Klee and some expressionists and fauvists, but, overall, the modes of expression associated with mental illness were too unfettered and compulsive to enjoy widespread uptake in the 1920's.

A painting by Dubuffet, showing the influence of art brut

The mood changed after the Second World War, however.  Classicism no longer seemed relevant or viable in a shattered world.  A number of artists, such as Francis Bacon, Giacometti, members of the Cobra group, and Jean Dubuffet began to explore styles that were more raw, stark, and disturbing than European galleries had hitherto seen.  Some of them produced work that was childlike, but rarely innocent.  Europe was psychically damaged and artists began to revert, not too childish glee or surrealist escapism, but to a mode of distortion that rebelled against the aspects of control associated with formal art training.  This new mode served to condemn the ideas of order, reason, and civilization.  At this historical moment, the artworld was ready for Prinzhorn, but he had died the year Hitler came to power.  Mentally ill artists needed a new advocate, and Jean Dubuffet took up that role.

Dubuffet in his Lausanne museum

Dubuffet coined the term "art brut" in 1945, and began collecting work by artists who were untrained and isolated from the artwold.  It wasn't essential to him that the artists in his collection were mentally ill, though most were.  What mattered more is that they innovated new styles with no interest in or knowledge of what what going on in galleries and museums.  Dubuffet's artists were compulsively driven to create.  Most were astonishingly prolific, but they had no interest in selling their work, exhibiting it, or making a profit.  Dubuffet's collection is probably the best of its kind in the world, and it is housed at the Collection Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.  The curators of the museum continue to identify artists and acquire their work, and the collection now owns some 63,000 works by 400 artists.  It is a treasure trove for enthusiasts of Outsider Art--a term coined in the psychedelic '70s as a translation for art brut.

A detail from Adolf Wölfli

Among the many highlights, are several works by Adolf Wölfli (top), one of the first outsiders to come to the attention of the artworld.  Wölfli had been an abused foster child, who then became a child molester, and, after multiple offenses was interned in a mental hospital in Bern.  There he wrote an epic novel of 25,000 pages, and produced about 1,600 colorful drawings.  His doctor, Walter Morganthaler, published a case study in 1921.

Augustine Lesage at work, and one of his monumental paintings

Wölfli often worked at a large scale, and his works are obsessively detailed with symmetrically arranged figures, faces, patterns, and symbols crammed into every inch.  This is common among outsider artists, including Augustine Lesage, a miner who began hearing voices instructing him to paint.  Lesage believed he had a spiritual mission, and claimed to produce his works automatically.  He eventually left the mines and became a spiritual healer.  He produced about 800 works.  A picture of Lesage at his easel, painting from left to right as was his habit, appears above, next to a monumental canvas on display in Lausanne.

A detail from Madge Gill (reproduced from here)

Another spiritualist artist in the collection is Madge Gill, an English woman, who made enormous drawings with black ink, dotted with identical, disembodied faces, and claustrophobically clustered with interlocking architectural details, such as checkered floors and rafters.  Gill spent her first 8 years cloistered away from society because her family was ashamed that she was born out of wedlock.  She then had a bad marriage, which resulted in the birth of three children, including a son who died in the influenza epidemic on 1918.  She later had a stillborn daughter, and became very ill from the birth.  During that illness, she lost an eye and almost died.  After recovery, she began compulsively weaving, playing music, and drawing.  She believed her artistic productions were being guided by a spirit named, Myrninerest, whose name often appears as the signature on her work.  The identity of the female face is obscure.  It might have been a portrait of her stillborn daughter, whom she attempted to channel through  drawing, or perhaps they are self-portrait, lost in a tangled sea of interlocked chambers with no possibility of escape.

An Alexander Lobanov painting

Self-portraiture was the preoccupation of another extraordinary artist in the Lausanne collection, Alexander Lobanov.  At five years of age, Lobanov contracted meningitis and lost his hearing and power of speech.  As a young man, his parents had him committed to a Russian asylum because of his violent behavior.  A decade later, he became more sedentary, and channelled his aggressive thoughts into artistic creations.  Lobanov made hundreds of drawings (and, later, photographs) of himself surrounded by various kinds of firearms.  These exquisite works portray the artist as a steadfast, expressionless hunter, shrouded by a decorative veil of guns and rifles, rendered in soothing purples, aquas, and blue.

A detail from Aloïse Corbaz (notice the stitches and collage elements)

When I visited the Art Brut Collection, an entire floor was dedicated to an exhibition of Aloïse Corbaz, a Swiss artist who developed an obsessive crush on Kaiser Wilhelm II, when she worked as a governess in his court.  She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and spend years making expansive colorful drawings, many on long scrolls.  She sometimes wove collage elements into these, but most are made with crayons, colored pencils, and even the juice of flowers.  The subject matter is almost always the same: a woman in the arms of a man, who is dressed in military formalwear.  Here Aloïse symbolically acts out an endless affair with an aristocratic German lover.

Two Josep Baque creatures

Because of their isolation, outsider artists often construct elaborate fantasy worlds.  We see fantasy romances (Aloïse), fantasy worlds (Lasage), and fantastical narratives (Henry Darger is perhaps the best case, though, sadly, his works were not on display during my visit to Lausanne).  We also see fantasy creatures.  There is a marvelous serious of bizarre beasts by Josep Baque, a Spanish policeman.

A Heinrich Müller creature

The collection also has a fantasy creature by Heinrich Anton Müller, one of the best known outside artists in the collection.  Müller was a Swiss wine farmer who became severely mentally ill after someone stole his invention for trimming vines.  In addition to his many drawings, Müller built numerous inscrutable machines and contraptions, as if hoping to relive his lost moment as a genius inventor.
Three pages from Takanori Herai's notebooks

Dubuffet's collection concentrates on artists from Western Europe, but art brut is a global phenomenon. With this spirit, the museum's curators have amassed an impressive collection of art by Japanese outsiders.  For example, they have many pages from the notebooks of Takanori Herai.  Born in 1980, Herai has been institutionalized since childhood for seizures, autism, and mental disability.  He fills pages with geometric patterns that are apparently words written in a secret language that only he and two of his nurses can decode.

Art brut fascinates us for many reasons.  On the downside, it is a kind of art world freak show, where we delight in the curious creations of those with mental disabilities--people whose lives are often very difficult.  On the upside, there are many artists on the margins of society who happen to create extraordinary works.  We also see, in this cohort, an unusual compulsion to create, not just as a symptom of some malady, but also as a form of therapy: both the sickness and cure.  They are outside the artworld, but they are creating worlds through they art--worlds that we too can escape into.  The work of untrained artists should not be seen as the work of noble savages--that is the fallacy of primitivism, and there is nothing primitive about the work on display in Lausanne.   But the work does benefit from the fact that the artists often produce their work for very personal reasons, and this frees them from the usual market forces that can constrain creativity.


  1. I'm definitely feeling the symptoms of art addiction, haha. I can't stop looking at outdoor wall art at! I want to buy it all, but I don't have unlimited money :( first world problems!

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