Outsider Art

henry darger

The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for ‘art brut’ (French: ‘raw art’), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture; Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane-asylum inmates.

While Dubuffet’s term is quite specific, the English term ‘outsider art’ is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. In many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Often, outsider art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds.

Interest in the art of insane asylum inmates had begun to grow in the 1920s. In 1921 Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his book ‘Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler’ (‘A Psychiatric Patient as Artist’) on Adolf Wölfli, a psychotic mental patient in his care. Wölfli had spontaneously taken up drawing, and this activity seemed to calm him. His most outstanding work is an illustrated epic of 45 volumes in which he narrates his own imaginary life story. With 25,000 pages, 1,600 illustrations, and 1,500 collages, it is a monumental work. He also produced a large number of smaller works, some of which were sold or given as gifts. His work is on display at the Adolf Wölfli Foundation in the Museum of Fine Art, Bern, Switzerland.

Some well-established artists have also be institutionalized. For example, William Kurelek, later awarded the Order of Canada for his artistic life work, as a young man was admitted to the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital where he was treated for schizophrenia. In hospital he painted, producing ‘The Maze,’ a dark depiction of his tortured youth. This 1953 work was used as the cover of the 1981 Van Halen rock album ‘Fair Warning.’ His experience in the hospital was documented in the LIFE Science Library book ‘The Mind,’ published in 1965.

One of the earliest collections of outsider art is ‘Bildnerei der Geisteskranken’ (‘Artistry of the mentally ill’) published in 1922, by Dr Hans Prinzhorn. French artist Jean Dubuffet was particularly struck by it and began his own collection of such art, which he called ‘art brut’ or ‘raw art.’ In 1948 he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut along with other artists, including André Breton. The collection he established became known as the Collection de l’Art Brut. It contains thousands of works and is now permanently housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Dubuffet characterized art brut as: ‘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 professionals. 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 in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.’

Dubuffet argued that ‘culture,’ that is mainstream culture, managed to assimilate every new development in art, and by doing so took away whatever power it might have had. The result was to asphyxiate genuine expression. Art brut was his solution to this problem – only art brut was immune to the influences of culture, immune to being absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated.

The interest in ‘outsider’ practices among twentieth century artists and critics can be seen as part of a larger emphasis on the rejection of established values within the modernist art milieu. The early part of the 20th Century gave rise to cubism and the Dada, Constructivist and Futurist movements in art, all of which involved a dramatic movement away from cultural forms of the past. Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, for example, abandoned ‘painterly’ technique to allow chance operations a role in determining the form of his works, or simply to re-contextualize existing ‘readymade’ objects as art. Mid-century artists, including Pablo Picasso, looked ‘outside’ the traditions of high culture for inspiration, drawing from the artifacts of ‘primitive’ societies, the unschooled artwork of children, and vulgar advertising graphics. Dubuffet’s championing of the art brut – of the insane and others at the margins of society – is yet another example of avant-garde art challenging established cultural values.

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