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Outsider Art

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A Brief Introduction

It is fitting that a quote from Jean Dubuffet (himself somewhat of an ‘outsider’) should introduce this section, because Dubuffet is generally credited as being the first person to bring ‘outsider art’ (or ‘art brut’ (raw art) as Dubuffet himself called it) to the serious attention of the art world.

Shortly after World War II Dubuffet started to collect the works of artists who appeared to him to be “immune to the polarisations of culture and the copycat spirit of cultural art “ (Roger Cardinal in Singular Visions, Outsiders 1979). He first discovered this ‘outsider’ quality in the works of patients in psychiatric clinics but it was not long before he recognised that non-conformist creativity occurs in a variety of settings. The rare quality which marked the ‘outsider’ artist was the courage to give individual creativity total freedom of expression irrespective of the consequences and without heeding the value judgements of the world at large.

Dubuffet’s personal collection of ‘art brut’, which he donated to the city of Lausanne in 1971, still forms the nucleus of perhaps the most important single collection of this type in the world, but since then there has been an ever-widening debate as to what truly constitutes ‘outsider’ art as people try to categorise and describe it in ways that Dubuffet would probably have seen as counter-productive. For those interested in exploring some of these topics, I suggest as a starting point the website of Raw Vision, the world’s most influential magazine devoted entirely to ‘outsider’ and associated forms of art (voted UNESCO’s Best Art Magazine in the World 1998). Two excellent articles are What is Outsider Art? and State of the Art – John Maizels; follow links from homepage to Raw Vision No. 37. (Other references and links are given at the end of this section.)

Perhaps the fact that there have been so few major exhibitions of ‘outsider’ art has contributed to the singularly powerful effect these have had on those fortunate enough to see them. My introduction to ‘outsider’ art came through a visit to the exhibition "Outsiders" (Hayward Gallery, London) in 1979 and the effect was both profound and permanent.

From that moment on I started to see myself more and more as an ‘outsider’ artist.

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‘Outsider’ Art and My Involvement with It

"Outsiders" made me aware for the first time of ‘art brut’ and ‘outsider art’ and I was profoundly affected by it. It was a powerful affirmation of my instinctive feelings about my own creative impetus, feelings I had never been able to express. I had never felt completely comfortable within conventional art circles; now I no longer felt alone with my art, although over the next twenty years I would exhibit rarely and my work would become more and more intensely personal.

The move to recognise the ‘outsider’ s right to a place within the broad spectrum of art comes in response to the fact that the conventional mainstream for too long has entirely ignored, or has deliberately devalued, whole areas of creative activity and the work of thousands of artists, that did not conform to ‘generally accepted standards’ of what properly constituted ‘art’.

It is ironic that, after a century when the range of the materials and techniques available for the creation of art increased dramatically, as did the number of people with the time and means to exercise their creative ability, we have entered a new millennium still embracing the concept that ‘art’ can and must be ‘taught’. The extension of this philosophy is the belief that those who complete such art training are ‘artists’ and that their work per se enjoys some inherent superiority over those who have not done so; that ‘art’ can be defined and re-defined from time to time by ‘experts’ and that ‘artists’ will be distinguished by their recognisable conformity with, or divergence from, these standards. The rest are unknown, ignored or pigeon-holed in a sort of aesthetic too-hard basket.

To attempt to define in this way ‘outsider’ art, or any art for that matter, is doomed to failure. One might as well attempt to define a smile or a flower or the soft touch of the breeze on one’s cheek; as soon as we do the magic of natural recognition is lost. Jean Dubuffet clearly recognised the danger of doing so when he wrote the words quoted earlier.

However, I believe one can make some generalisations about ‘outsider’ artists. provided one realises that immediately there will be many significant exceptions.

The earliest ‘outsider’ artists given specific recognition, people such as Wölfli, Tschirtner, Müller, Hauser and Brendel, were patients in psychiatric clinics, their so-called ‘Art Brut’ works often being closely related to the internal resolution of their psychological problems. While this area is still an important source of ‘outsider’ art, today the ‘outsider’ artist, or as the French prefer ‘artist singulier’, can come from any one of a number of widely diverse backgrounds.

Most ‘outsider’ artists are self-taught or have had no formal art training and their approach to their art is intuitive, spontaneous and emotional rather than intellectual (despite the fact that many are highly intelligent) and they will not be influenced by or concerned with art theory past or present. Their ‘outsider’ status will frequently be evidenced by their physical isolation — from psychological and/or spritual need — and their separation from the art establishment — either because they are unknown or the latter has ignored them or rejected them and their work, or because they themselves have consciously turned their backs on it, having no need for its recognition or wishing to avoid the implicit obligations of involvement in it.

The inherently different background and philosophy of the ‘artist singulier’ from that of the conventionally accepted artist, will often be clearly evident in his or her work, which will usually be highly idiosyncratic and will reflect intensely personal preoccupations and feelings. In this sense ‘outsider’ art defines itself — one has only to look at Le Palais Idéal of the Facteur Cheval and Les Rochers Sculptes de Rotheneuf from the last century or Nek Chand’s Rock Garden of Chandigarh or the Maison de Celle qui Peint of Danielle Jacqui from our own time, to realise instinctively that one is in the presence of an intensely personal outpouring of creative genius.

There have always been ‘outsider’ artists. Some like Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco and Goya were lucky enough to find recognition in their own lifetime; others like Van Gogh would only be claimed posthumously as a favourite son of the art establishment, his real life as a tragic ‘outsider’ conveniently glossed over and sentimentalised.

Only in the latter half of the 20th century, through the writing of people such as Jean Dubuffet, Michel Thévoz, John Maizels and others, through the extraordinary publication Raw Vision, through major collections such as those of Lausanne and Chicago and through the initiative of artists such as Danielle Jacqui, in conceiving and organising events like the Roquevaire Festival d’Art Singulier, is the amazing breadth, depth and quality of this previously unrecognised sea of creativity being gradually brought to light and given recognition.

My involvement in the Festival d’Art Singulier - Roquevaire-Aubagne in 2000 gave me the chance to make personal contact with many outstanding ‘outsider’ artists and to find there is not one but a multitude of answers to the question “What is ‘outsider’ art?” — all sharing the common quality of deeply-felt personal creativity.

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Suggested Reading

The bibliography of ‘outsider’ art is still not nearly as extensive as for many other forms of art but I suggest you look out for any books and articles by Roger Cardinal, Michel Thévoz or John Maizels, all acknowledged world authorities on the subject. The quarterly magazine Raw Vision, published in the UK is highly recommended as a rich source of the latest information and background material concerning all forms of intuitive, visionary and ‘outsider’ art – for those with internet access the magazine’s website may be the preferred option.

Some books you may find particularly helpful are:

Raw Creation – Outsider Art and Beyond – John Maizels, Phaidon.

Explores the knife edge between madness and creativity and surveys a wide range of outsider art, psychotic art, self-taught art and ‘art brut’.

Mondes Imaginaires (Fantasy Worlds) - Deidi von Schwaewen & John Maizels, Taschen.

Lavishly illustrated volume (335pp) surveying the world’s majot ‘outsider’ art environments. The stunning photographs are accompanied by a text in English, French & German by John Maizels (Raw Vision).

Outsider Art, Spontaneous Alternatives – Colin Rhodes, Thames & Hudson, (ISBN 0-500-20334-2).

Useful contribution by an Australian academic. Gives a detailed account of the rich world of outsider art and acknowledges the paradox created by it. Highly informative without being too deeply academic.

Raw Vision Outsider Art Source Book

A recent addition to the Raw Vision range this will be a ‘must’ for anyone wishing to investigate all forms of ‘outsider’ art in depth. Encyclopaedic references to bibliography, artists, galleries etc - click here .

Outsider Art – Roger Cardinal, Studio Vista, London 1972.

Out of print. Difficult to obtain, try libraries.

Art Brut - Michel Thévoz, Skira/Academy Editions, London 1976.

Again, probably best to try libraries for this book.

For the web surfer other useful links for reference material to ‘outsider’ art in general are:-

“Outsider’ Art - Other Websites and Useful Links

It is worth exploring the web, both in Australia and world-wide, for references to artists, galleries etc and other references to ‘outsider’ art.

As a starter here are some we have discovered to date:

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Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called.

Jean Dubuffet

People laughed, disapproved, and criticized me, but as this sort of alienation was neither contagious nor dangerous, they didn’t see much point in fetching the doctor, and I was thus able to give myself up to my passion.

Ferdinand Cheval

You have to disobey reality and explore corners which promise nothing.

Jano Pisset





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