Sixty years ago, Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) wrote in a letter to his friend, the painter René Auberjonois:
"I preferred ‘Art Brut’ instead of ‘Art Obscur’ [Obscure Art], because professional art does not seem to me any more visionary or lucid; rather the contrary....Why then do you write that gold in its raw state is more fake than imitation gold? I like it better as a nugget than as a watchcase. Long live fresh-drawn, warm, raw buffalo milk."(1)
This is the first recorded use of the term Art Brut, often translated as "raw art." With this, a field of study was born. However, the parameters that defined exactly what this meant had yet to be determined, and there is still much debate about what does and does not constitute Art Brut, or the later term, Outsider Art.
As Dubuffet described it, this was art that was not based on established traditions or techniques. It did not follow styles or trends, and it was not made primarily to be sold for monetary gain. It is spontaneous, uninhibited, and maybe not even made as "art." The appeal of this work, for Dubuffet and others before him, was the unselfconscious imagery born of pure, uninhibited expression. This art subverted the conscious efforts of the artist and dismissed premeditated ideas of what art should be and what it should represent.
This type of activity, from outside established art academies and beyond the scope of tradition and history, has always been around, but because it was not valued in its contemporary society, was seldom preserved for future generations. In the twentieth century, with the development of a modernist approach in art and the exploration of alternate forms of visual representation, besides what is generally included in the western art historical canon, interest grew in these types of work, prompting their preservation and study.
In his attention to the artistic output of institutionalized people, Dubuffet was following in the footsteps of predecessors such as Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, a Viennese psychiatrist who had been trained as an art historian in the early twentieth century. In his medical practice, he came in contact with the drawings of patients who exhibited striking aptitudes for visual expression. His writing on the subject, particularly in the form of his 1921 book Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), circulated in Europe and was a topic of interest among avant-garde artists as they sought new modes of expression in their work. Prinzhorn discussed the artistic output of the individuals partly in terms of representing an urge to communicate, to externalize imagination, emotions and responses.
Another key scholar in the early twentieth century was Dr. Walter Morganthaler. He extensively studied Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930, Swiss), who spent the final thirty-five years of his life in an asylum. Wölfli’s massive oeuvre consists of numerous volumes of writing, including a semi-fictional autobiography of nearly three thousand pages. His works are highly complex and use careful gradations of color and intricate pattern, often with figures and self-portraits as part of his conceived universe. In addition to writing and image making, musical notes appear in his drawings, showing compositions that he would play on a horn made of cardboard.
As a characteristic feature of Art Brut, there is often a personal intentionality that distinguishes it from mainstream or commercial art, or pieces meant to appeal to an intended audience. As with Wölfli, works may be produced to give visual presence to an intellectual universe, leading to a possible position where the drawings invade or supplant reality. Henry Darger (1892-1973, American), who lived in Chicago nearly his entire life, created a staggering quantity of work which consisted of written and visual productions. His literary magnum opus is an epic novel of over fifteen thousand pages, commonly known by its abbreviated title, In the Realms of the Unreal. Darger’s work is strongly related to this massive tome, and inventive in his use of various techniques, incorporating appropriated and original material into scenes of exceptional color and compositional quality, employing these formal concerns in both scenes of strange and idyllic beauty and shockingly violent subject matter.
Whereas the work of Wölfli and Darger finds a common denominator in the connection of visual and literary expression, other artists had a more ethereal impetus in their work. Madge Gill (1882-1961, English), was highly influenced by Spiritualism, a movement interested in contact with the dead and otherworldly phenomenon. She began drawing in 1919, believing her work was guided by a spirit she called Myrninerest, and refrained from selling her work during her lifetime for fear of angering the spirit. Her ornate compositions are typically populated by elaborately robed women in architectonic settings, peering from her drawings with mysterious eyes.
The early work of Scottie Wilson (1891-1972, Scottish) shares some of these enigmatic qualities. Wilson received much recognition during his lifetime, but remained aloof from the art world, preferring in fact, to subvert it at times. He began drawing in Toronto in 1935 and resettled in Britain after World War II. His work was shown in galleries, but while his drawings could be sold for a hundred pounds in these shops, he would sell them for a couple of pounds in the street. Wilson’s work was collected by Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet, who included him in his collection of Art Brut. The visionary quality of Wilson’s work, exemplified by the "evils" and "greedies," or leering, frightening faces in his drawings, signified negative forces of the world, which Wilson believed could be neutralized through his drawings.
Despite Wilson’s seeming inclusion in the London art world, Dubuffet found him to be impervious to the market and essentially devoid of interest in art except his own. In his drawings, Dubuffet found the characteristics of Art Brut, such as a lack of premeditation as seen in the academic or trained artist, whose work is almost unavoidably conscious of tradition, audience, and marketplace. Whereas Prinzhorn viewed works which would become part of the Art Brut canon from the standpoint that the creators made these pieces as a means of externalizing sensation, Dubuffet’s interest lay in their stature as uninhibited and nonconforming to generally accepted expectations of culture. In fact, the status of this work as largely unaffected by culture is what Dubuffet valued most about it. However, defining its absolute relationship to established modes of convention is often difficult, and the delineation of cultural boundaries unclear.
In the work of some artists often considered within the Art Brut canon, there are strong cultural overtones. Martin Ramirez (1885-1960, Mexican) came to the United States probably in the first decade of the twentieth century and worked on railroads in southern California. He became indigent, and was eventually placed in a state mental hospital. Long believed to have been mute, it seemed that drawing was a means of communication and externalizing his memories and experiences of Mexico and America. His compositions incorporate imagery that references his native culture, and recurring motifs such as trains and animals, as well as repeated geometric and decorative patterns.
Because of the difficulties inherent in the attempt to precisely define the boundaries of Art Brut, Dubuffet found it necessary to determine another related category of art, which he called Neuve Invention (Fresh Invention). This definition included artists who fit to some extent the conditions of Art Brut, but demonstrate a somewhat closer relationship to received culture and society. This is naturally a more inclusive area, and filled with artists whose work is quite powerful as well. In the French parlance, there is also a discrete segment of the field known as Art Singulier, coined in 1978 by Alain Bourbonnais, which accents the individual position and purpose of the creator.
In the broader scope that encompasses Art Brut and works termed Neuve Invention, there are commonalities. As a general characteristic of approach, there is a predilection for highly imaginative and extraordinary compositions that deviate from traditional art historical genres such as portraiture, still-life, landscape, and the like. Images are often disembodied and presented with a sense of being disjoined from reality or tangible conditions.
This sense of departure can be seen in the work of Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern (1892-1982, Lithuanian). Most active in his drawing in Germany, he created fantastic, bizarre, and often sexually charged compositions with smooth, precise forms and vibrant color. The drawings of Anna Zemankoa¡ (1908-1986, Moravian) are also unbound from strictly observed reality. She develops large, organic forms; they are flower-like without being real flowers, they are purely imaginary. Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974, Italian), incorporates images from his life experience and reiterates them in a manner that denies easy narrative sequences, but strongly evokes emotional content through the manipulation of forms, figures, and relationships within the composition.
The repetition of motifs and style reveals another characteristic in this genre. It is common for these artists to begin working in a particular style, and for there to be little deviation from that mode. Though their techniques and handling of materials often becomes more sophisticated, the degree of experimentation in style or method is relatively slight. Eddie Arning (1898-1993, American) produced the bulk of his drawings based on advertisements from commercial media, and though he used a variety of source materials, he was rigorously consistent in his methods of constructing compositions and rendering figures. Dwight Mackintosh (1906-1999, American), whose work was primarily created at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, also displays stylistic consistencies. His drawings of figures are energetically linear and selective in the use of color. Wavy lines in many of his works are likened to text, suggesting an externalization or means of communication through art.
A workshop outside of Vienna, established in 1982 at the Klosterneuburg Hospital in Maria-Gugging, Austria, called the Haus der Künstler (House of Artists), is a place where patients demonstrating artistic aptitude live and work. Despite being in close quarters, each maintains a highly individual style. Johann Fischer’s (b. 1919, Austrian) early work is characterized by the depiction of geometrized, solitary persons in black, brown and yellow, but in his later work, narratives are added that surround and engulf the figures. Oswald Tschirtner’s (b. 1920, Austrian) work is elegantly minimalist, in sharp contrast to that of August Walla (1936-2001, Austrian), whose compositions are bright and filled with powerful figures, using numerous symbols and signs in a cacophony of iconography. Johann Garber’s (b. 1947, Austrian) ink drawings often exhibit a sense of horror vacui, a tendency to obsessively fill space with minute detail and decoration. He uses similar forms in his color works, but with less density.
Many of these artists today are called "outsider artists," a name which was derived from the title of English art historian Roger Cardinal's 1972 book, Outsider Art. In Britain and America, this name became popular instead of the French moniker, Art Brut. The introduction of this additional, or in some respects alternate, term reflected the complexities of attempting to encapsulate the enormous diversity of creative production. Numerous artists practicing today are considered in this field, such as Rosemarie Koczy (b. 1939, American/Swiss), a Nazi concentration camp survivor whose work is an ongoing memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and Michel Nedjar (b. 1947, French), whose painted works are solely done on found materials and resonate with a totemic quality. Albert Louden (b. 1943, English) is best known for his bulbous figures in strange, jumbled settings whose joys and apprehensions are reflective of the modern urban experience.
The field of Art Brut today is a scene of intense study and perpetual debate about its relation to art, culture, and our perceptions of it. Over time, Outsider Art has erroneously been used to describe everything from works by self-taught and folk artists, to art produced in therapy programs, and art made by those who are maybe just a bit eccentric. At the heart of Art Brut is a reflection of the artist that is intense, original, and essentially positions the viewer as voyeur, suddenly a party to this private imagery. In this sense, we occupy a special position, and may be seen as the outsiders looking in on these singular worlds.
(1) Letter from Dubuffet to René Auberjonois, August 28, 1945. Printed in Jean Dubuffet, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, tome II (Gallimard, 1967), 240. Translation from Lucienne Peiry, Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art (Paris: Flammarion, 2001), 39.
Katherine M. Murrell, "Art Brut: Origins and Interpretations," Singular Visions: Images of Art Brut from the Anthony Petullo Collection exhibition essay, September 16-December 31, 2005 (Chicago: Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 2005).