Sunday, December 06, 2009


Tucked away in an old dairy by Regent's Canal, the curators of the Museum of Everything have brought together a host of visionaries, discarded artists, survivors of abuse and mental illness, and resuscitated them from the world of Outsider Art (or Art Brut, perhaps a preferable designation).

It's a project full of paradoxes. None of these people, we are told, ever wanted to be artists. But doesn't that say something about our own narrow view as what constitutes an artist? An artist, to most of us, is someone born with a gift, who studies technique and art history, who hones his craft at art school, who becomes part of a movement, and who, finally, paints for the market. We disregard the use value of art - the usefulness of painting and of seeing - and focus only on its exchange value.

Judged by these criteria, none of the artists at the Museum of Everything exhibition began as an artist at all (though Outsider Art has become a movement in itself, and a highly marketable one). Many of them began painting after experiencing a trauma. They were institutionalised, dismissed as crackpots, schizos and paedophiles, and their creativity was a form of therapy, a dynamic way of exploring past events which continued to disturb them. We can see the results of this creativity in two ways - by fetishising mental illness and excusing the neuroses and obsessions of these works as pathological symptoms - or we can try to let go of our knee-jerk ironic impulses and see what art would be like if there wasn't a market for it.

One is initially drawn to interpret these works - they require us to conceive of the situation (often childhood in its entirety, or at the very least, a traumatic childhood event) from which they emerge. But they nevertheless resist such an approach, because one is immediately confronted by an impasse between creator and audience. The modern reader of a text is always looking for interpretations, and assumes that works (to quote Zizek on Joyce) "are not simply external to their interpretation but, as it were, in advance take into account their possible interpretations and enter into dialogue with them." But the hidden, outsider nature of Art Brut means that it does not take into account any possibly interpretations, nor does it engage directly with the viewer. The reflexive relationship between author and reader is obstructed by the work's desire to be everything, to leave nothing unsaid or unexplained, to leave no space on the canvas (or piece of paper, plank of wood etc) unmarked. These are final statements, and they do not allow for a response.

Who are the Outsider artists?

In 1922, Dr Hans Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist at the University of Heidelberg, published a book called Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, which catalogued the art of psychotic patients and explored the boundaries between mental illness and self-expression. The French artist Jean Dubuffet became fascinated with the works in Prinzhorn's anthology, and along with other Surrealist artists of the time, began collecting what he described as art brut. "After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness," wrote Dubuffet, "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." He believed that the deadlock between these artists and their audience, whose usual expectations of art were bound by their own asphyxiated cultural limits, provided an escape from mainstream culture, which managed to assimilate all transgressions from the norm into itself, thus deadening their impact.

The early Outsider artists were, therefore, patients of psychiatric institutions. The Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, near Vienna, became the focus of Art Brut. Early Gugging artists included Johann Hauser, whose hypermanic episodes produced colourful, highly erotic images, and whose depressive phases generated more simple, geometric pieces ...

... August Walla, who spent his childhood with his mother and in residential homes for children with learning disabilities, and who was admitted indefinitely to the Gugging Clinic aged 47, along with his elderly mother, who had dementia ...

... Oswald Tschirtner, an Austrian who had fought at the Battle of Stalingrad, who was imprisoned in France, and diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after the end of the war. He began by drawing squids and other marine molluscs, and their large heads and sprawling tentacles are often present in his minimalist drawings of other creatures of persons ...

... and 27-year old Leonhard Fink, current resident of the Gugging's House of Artists, seen here at work in the open studio ...

Following Dubuffet's celebration of the Gugging artist-patients, psychiatrists in other countries also began to use art both as a diagnostic aid (some believed that certain illnesses contained more or less creativity than others, and certainly those artists with bipolarity painted entirely different images depending on which end of the pole their mood was in) and as a psychotherapeutic tool. The repetitive, folkloric works of Martin Ramirez, an extraordinary Mexican artist who was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia at the beginning of the 1930s, were produced in the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, CA. But unlike many of the outsider artists, Ramirez did allow his multi-media works to enter into dialogue with their audience, and his Jaliscan churches, pistol-whipping caballeros, Madonnas and freight-trains are unmistakeably rooted in Mexico. He is not alone amongst the exhibited artists in being grounded in what we can recognise as reality, and he makes us question our perception of these artists as symptomatic of psychotic realities into which we can only glimpse.

The museum itself (which we were told was turned into a recording where Paul McCartney and Tina Turner both made records in the 80s - eek) is a wonderfully Piranesi-esque space, dominated by a high-ceilinged hall where paintings are piled one on top of another. Walking round, I noticed two trends which appealed to me (and I'm aware that I am pathologising the art by focusing on these obsessional tendencies): the use of dense lettering to describe the worlds which these artists are portraying (and many of the works are certainly attempts to put an entire state-of-mind on the canvas), and the "horror vacui" paintings which refuse to let the smallest section of the canvas to go unpainted.

Kunizo Matsumoto never learned to read or write, and his obsessive writing - huge series of Japanese characters, copied out from newspapers, films and menus onto blank scrolls or printed calandars - represents an effort to order the world in a language which he does not understand. The impulse to write and the cognition of words are governed by different areas of the brain, so malfunction in the temporal lobes (where words and ideas are understood) does not affect the desire to write (which is generated by the limbic area, deep in the cortex).

Something similar seems to be at play in the paintings of Dwight Mackintosh, whose meandering, highly detailed drawings of boys and animals are topped with long, nonsensical titles with lots of dotted i's and crossed t's, which recall Charlotte Gainsbourg's notebooks in Antichrist. Harald Stoffer's hypochondriac texts, arranged across staves like musical notes and often resembling cloud formations or geological strata, are even more extraordinary, but born of a more (dare I say it) literate drive. The magazine Raw Vision describes the way in which his notations take on an everyday drama here:

Before he begins to write, Harald Stoffers first draws freehand guide-lines, each aligned with the preceding ones. The effect is reminiscent of the constant repetitions that occur in nature in the form of wave movements, wood grain or rock strata. Within the lines he writes, in the form of a letter, everyday notes, memos, schedules, or comments about the circumstances in which he is working. Sometimes he tears away a sentence and starts it again from scratch using the rest of the sheet of paper or the back of another piece on which he has already written. From time to time this means that he tears in half a longer sentence on the other side of the paper.

Stoffers mainly writes about things he is going to do, detailing matters such as which trousers he will wear the following day when he goes to work in the art studio at the Elbe-Werkst├Ątten GmbH (an employment and rehabilitation centre in Hamburg, Germany for people with disabilities, mentioned in almost all his letters), at what time he will leave and from which platform, and how much money he will need to pay for a cup of coffee. Sometimes he refers to what is happening at the time of writing, for example the fact that the coffee machine has to be switched on: 'Eine Kaffee Pause Machen Wasser Aufsetzen' ('HaveCoffeeBreakBoilWater'). In this way the letters take on the quality of a performance.

Aloise Corbaz became a governess in the court of Wilhelm II in the early 1900s, and developed a massive crush on the Kaiser which led to her being committed to an asylum in 1918 (whether the date is coincidental or not, I'm not sure). Her pictures, made with crayons and pastels, depict women with gigantic anatomic proportions (hair, lips, eyes, busts) and contain highly elaborate borders. The fanciful biography of Augustin Lesage on the French Wikipedia site tells us that he was a French miner, straight from Zola's Germinal. Told by the voice of his sister, who had died as a young child, that he would be a great painter and must get to work immediately, Lesage produced frighteningly detailed images on three metre square canvasses. His paintings are always symmetrical along a vertical axis, and often inspired by Egypt.

Madge Gill, an East End medium who grew up in an orphanage and who gave birth to a stillborn girl and a son who died in the Spanish flu pandemic, drew images as cenophobic as Corbaz or Lesage. Her guide was Myrninerest, her medium was a ballpoint pen, and her subject was a woman with a blank face (dotted with two eyes, a fossil of a nose, and a quizzically pinched mouth) and a kaleidoscopically intricate dress. This woman is thought to represent the realisation of her stillborn daughter, or herself as an orphaned child. Her horror at the thought of leaving any part of the paper unadorned may be a symptom of her fear at losing control, of stepping over the boundaries of what was acceptable to her. When her son died in the late 1950s, Gill stopped drawing and started drinking heavily. She died in 1961.

The centrepiece of the Museum of Everything's exhibition is the work of Henry Darger, who warrants a separate piece which I shall post soon. The exhibition runs until the end of January - see here for more details.


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