Definition – Outsider Art
The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for Art Brut, or ‘raw art’: art devoid of expectations, prior conceptions and influence from the modern art world. At first it meant art created by the mentally ill. I’ve briefly looked at this idea before. More broadly now it means art created by the outsider of the art world.
The first inkling of the existence of such ‘outsider art’ emerged from the work of a select group of forward-thinking psychiatrists in the mid and late nineteenth century. They noticed that some psychiatric patients were spontaneously producing artworks of unusual quality and power.
In 1922 Dr Hans Prinzhorn in Germany published a study of psychiatric works, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (The Artistry of the Insane), which was produced after gathering together a large number of examples of psychiatric artwork from European institutions. The collection received a great deal of attention from avant garde artists and names such as Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet took notice. They were fascinated and inspired by an art that had been produced without any influences from the modern art world yet appeared to be highly contemporary and compelling.
Around this time Dr Walter Morgenthaler published a study of work by Adolf Wölfli, a patient at a Swiss asylum. Wölfli worked for thirty years in the asylum producing hundreds of huge drawings which he kept in vast tomes accompanied by a detailed script recounting his exploits and calculations. It was a depiction of a whole alternative reality.
Shortly after this Jean Dubuffet emerged on the scene. He thought that this sort of artistic creation was not just coming from the mentally ill. In collaboration with others, including André Breton, he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948 and aimed to seek out and collect works of originality by artists who were untrained and uninterested in modern art. These included mediums, isolates and fierce individualists as well as psychiatric patients.
The name ‘Art Brut’ was attached to this new genre. This meant art that was ‘uncooked’ by culture – a pure and meaningful art, an art produced entirely for individual satisfaction and inner need with no thought of fame or reward. In 1979 Dubuffet’s collection was established at the Collection de l’Art Brut museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.
It was at this point that Roger Cardinal, appearing in 1972, came up with the term ‘outsider art’. Around this time came the discovery of the art of reclusive Henry Darger. Over a period of thirty years he had produced almost one hundred large scale drawings depicting battles, which were accompanied by a text so long that it would take many years to read.
While researching something entirely different (for work) I came across The Creativity and Madness Conference in India in 2014. I’d love to go.
Well-known outsider artists
Adolf Wölfli – Mentioned above, Wölfli was a Swiss artist who had been orphaned as a child. He spent most of his adult life in an insane asylum, where he made thousands of intricate drawings of imaginary adventures.
Morton Bartlett – Bartlett moved from job to job while secretly making dolls of children and photographing them over a twenty-five-year period, leaving an apartment full of figures and prints to be discovered upon his death.
Madge Gill – Suffering illness during childbirth, this English artist started drawing visionary, black-and-white images of a woman in fancy dress after she’d recovered. She drew thousands of these drawings and they were later found in her home and exhibited internationally. She was said to be guided by a spirit she called ‘Myrninerest’ (my inner rest).
Kiyoshi Yamashita – Yamashita was a Japanese artist. He was known for wandering throughout Japan, during which time he wore only a vest, garnering the nickname ‘The Naked General’. It is said that he was an autistic savant.
Ferdinand Cheval – Cheval was a postman in France who spent thirty-three years of his life building Le Palais idéal. He began the building in April 1879. He claimed that he had tripped over a stone and was inspired to create the building by its shape. He gradually built his palace from stones he collected every day whilst on his rounds, firstly in his pockets, then in a basket and eventually in a wheelbarrow.
Henry Darger – mentioned above, Darger was a reclusive American artist writer who worked as a custodian in Chicago. He is famous for his posthumously-discovered 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript story called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. At the same time many hundreds of drawings and watercolour paintings illustrating the story were found.
Richard Sharpe Shaver – Shaver was an American writer famous for his stories known collectively as ‘the Shaver Mystery’, which he believed were true. They appeared in science fiction magazines, most notably Amazing Stories. In these Shaver claimed to have discovered an ancient, sinister civilization in underground caves, which led to Shaver Mystery Clubs. During the latter part of his life, Shaver devoted himself to ‘rock books’, which were that he believed had been created by the advanced ancient races and embedded with legible pictures and texts. He painted these rocks and wrote about them.
Judith Scott – Scott was a visual artist isolated from outside influences as a result of the impact of deafness and Down’s syndrome. She never repeated a form or colour scheme. She made sculptures out of bamboo slats and discarded materials and wrapped each work with lengths of knotted cloth or wool.
Raw Vision, http://www.rawvision.com/what-outsider-art [last accessed 3 December 2012]
Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives, http://www.bethlemheritage.org.uk/gallery_collection.asp [last accessed 3 December 2012]
Wikipedia on Shaver, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Sharpe_Shaver [last accessed 3 December 2012]
Paul Lister, ‘The 13 Most Amazing Outsider Artists of All Time’ Flavorwire (24 August 2011), http://www.flavorwire.com/203515/the-13-most-amazing-outsider-artists-of-all-time [last accessed 3 December 2012]
Adolf Wolfli website, http://www.adolfwoelfli.ch/index.php?c=e&level=17&sublevel=0 [last accessed 3 December 2012]