What is Outsider Art?


Printer-friendly versionSend by email

See also => Raw Vision's Definitions

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 some 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, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (The Artistry of the Insane), after amassing a collection of several thousand examples from European institutions. 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 at the Waldau Asylum, producing hundreds of 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.

It was Jean Dubuffet who realised that spontaneous, original and uninfluenced creation was not just the preserve of the mentally ill. Together with others, including André Breton, he formed the Compagnie de l'Art Brut in 1948 and strove to seek out and collect works of extreme individuality and inventiveness by creators who were not only untrained artists but often had little concept of an art gallery or even any other forms of art other than their own. 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 many thousand pieces and in 1979 was established at the Collection de l'Art Brut museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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'. 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 work of the previous thirty years: almost one hundred 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.

The United States has long respected folk crafts and vernacular art and found it easy to accept such works as the economical drawings of ex-slave Bill Traylor and the striking visual sermons of Rev Howard Finster.Martin Ramirez, one of the few great American discoveries with a hospital background, was found by his doctor to be hiding bits of drawings in his clothes to prevent the daily clear-out of what was considered trash. After being given proper materials and allowed to preserve his work, he went on to produce large drawings 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.

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 Ideal, the first of many discoveries of sculptural and architectural creations of 'ordinary geniuses'. Since the saving of Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles in the 1970s, 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. Originally started in secret on government land, the discovery in 1972 of thousands of sculptures set in a complex of courtyards created by one man caused an immediate sensation. In most countries the illegal structure would have been demolished for contravening planning laws but Nek Chand's magical kingdom was allowed to remain and eventually grew to over 25 acres of sculptures, waterfalls, courtyards, mosaics, balustrades and amphitheatres.

Outsider Art has now established itself as a vibrant component of contemporary art and large collections can be visited in Europe and the United States, where exhibitions of Outsider Art are held regularly in major art museums and, in addition to the Collection de l'Art Brut, specialist museums have been established in many countries.

Michel Thevoz, the original curator of the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne has written the following:
Art Brut, or Outsider Art, consists of works produced by people who for various reasons have not been culturally indoctrinated or socially conditioned. They are all kinds of dwellers on the fringes of society. Working outside fine art system (schools, galleries, museums and so on), these people have produced, from the depths of their own personalities and for themselves and no one else, works of outstanding originality in concept, subject and techniques. They are works which owe nothing to tradition or fashion.

See also >> Raw Vision's Definitions