Outsider Art and Beyond

To mark the return of the Outside In: Triennial exhibition John Maizels, Editor of Raw Vision, takes a whistle stop tour through the rich history of ‘Outsider’ and visionary art.

Origins: Art from the asylum

Image: Henry Darger

The first inkling of the existence of Outsider Art emerged from the work of a few enlightened psychiatrists in the mid and late nineteenth century. Gradually it became clear that a few psychiatric patients were spontaneously producing artworks – often on found scraps of paper – of unusual quality and power.

By 1922 Dr Hans Prinzhorn in Germany published the first serious study of psychiatric works, The Artistry of the Insane, after amassing a collection of several thousands of examples from German-speaking institutions around Europe. Both book and collection received considerable attention from avant-garde artists of the time and the influence on such figures as Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet has been much documented. They were fascinated and inspired by an art that was produced without any influences from the modern art world yet seemed highly original, compelling and contemporary.

At the same time Dr Walter Morgenthaler published the first study of a single psychiatric patient’s work, Adolf Wölfli, a patient at his Swiss asylum. Wölfli worked for thirty years in a small cell producing huge drawings which he bound in vast tomes accompanied by a dense script recounting his exploits and calculations, a depiction of a whole alternative reality from his tragic life.

Art Brut and Dubuffet

It was Jean Dubuffet who realised that spontaneous, original and uninfluenced creation was not just the preserve of the mentally ill. Shortly after the end of WWII he embarked on a lifetime crusade to collect and study works by all kinds of people who were able to work in this way. None were professional artists or had contact with the art world and all were completely untrained. They included mediums, isolates and fierce individualists as well as psychiatric patients.

For the first time a name was given to this genre, ‘Art Brut’. By this Dubuffet meant art that was ‘uncooked’ by culture – an art that was at its most pure, its most powerful and its most meaningful. It was an art produced entirely for individual satisfaction and inner need with no regard to exhibition, fame or monetary reward. Dubuffet’s collection eventually numbered over 30,000 pieces and in 1979 was established at the now famous Collection de l’Art Brut museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

‘Outsider’ Art in England

As knowledge and awareness of Art Brut spread, so did its parameters and the first study in English, by Roger Cardinal, appearing in 1972, presented the term ‘Outsider Art’, originally as a English version of Art Brut.  Cardinal’s book investigated a body of work which had never previously been considered together. He drew parallels between the early psychiatric collections, the Collection de L’Art Brut and the environmental creations which were gaining recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the years ‘Outsider Art’ has moved even further away from being an exact synonym of Art Brut.

The view across the Atlantic

There were soon major discoveries made in the United States too, with the work of the reclusive Henry Darger only coming to light close to his death in 1973. His one room lodging was found to reveal his work of the previous thirty years: almost 100 large scale drawings depicting epic battles between cruel soldiers and brave children who suffer terrible ordeals, accompanied by a text so long that it would take many years to read it all.

Meanwhile the economical drawings of ex-slave Bill Traylor and the striking visual sermons of Rev Howard Finster also found ready acclaim in the USA, as did the work of patient Martin Ramirez.  One of the few great American discoveries with a hospital background, Martin Ramirez, was found by his doctor to be hiding bits of drawings in his clothes to prevent the usual daily clear-out of what was considered rubbish. After being given proper materials and allowed to preserve his work, he went on to produce a huge quantity of work based on both a depiction and an abstraction of his Mexican background and culture. A recent discovery of almost 150 unknown works by Ramirez in a California garage caused a sensation.

Self-taught and Environmental Art

The discovery of large-scale environmental works by self-taught builders and sculptors has also been very significant. André Breton was photographed at the massive structure built by country postman Ferdinand Cheval in southern France, the Palais Idèal, the first of many discoveries of sculptural and architectural creations of ‘ordinary geniuses’.

Since the saving of the Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles in 1958 hundreds of similar creations have been found around the United States and France too has many extraordinary examples. Sculpture gardens and fantastical self-built structures have been found across the world with the greatest and largest being Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, northern India. Thousands of sculptures are set 25 acres of complex of courtyards, colonnades, walkways and landscaped waterfalls, with the main materials being industrial and natural waste, collected on a huge scale.

Art Therapy

In a parallel development to the awareness of Art Brut that developed from the mid 1940s onwards, art therapy gradually became an important part of patient activity. In Britain it was largely initiated by the pioneering work of Edward Adamson. Art therapy was initially presented as a mainly teacher-led activity to benefit the mental state of patients and to offer insights into their condition.

In Austria psychiatrist Dr Leo Navratil used patients’ drawings to help diagnose the changes in their condition but he realised that some were exceptionally talented and original and changed his approach to encourage them just to create without any need for diagnostic analysis. Navritil eventually established the Haus der Künstler (Artists’ House) within the grounds of the hospital in Gugging, Austria, where he worked. Here the artist-patients lived together and concentrated their time and energies in creative activity. Several of these patients, including Johann Hauser, August Walla and Oswald Tschirtner, became celebrated artist in their own right, represented in museums.

Contemporary thinking

In the last two decades many new studios and workshops have been established on both sides of the Atlantic to offer patients and ex-patients the opportunity to freely work in supported conditions. Some workshops also offer facilities to the homeless or unemployed as well as those with disabilities. As a result the boundaries of Outsider Art move ever wider and more inclusive, with the background of the artist as someone marginalised by society being an important element in their recognition.

Outsider Art has now established itself as a vibrant component of contemporary art with large-scale collections and museums on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the self-taught artists of today can not be as culturally isolated as many in Dubuffet’s great collection, they still prove to be as compulsive, inventive and self-motivated as ever.