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Art brut, or Outsider art

The stereotype-free art

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Art brut (fr. art brut — raw art, rough art; in English literature commonly called outsider art) is the term to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture. The term "art brut" was coined in 1945 by the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901—1985) to reflect the internal content of his collection of works created by mentally ill or socially limited people. Dubuffet himself also worked in the art brut style; he believed that such art was very honest, devoid of any stereotypes.
The works by contemporary artists always have a philosophical component, and if the viewer cannot understand the essence of the work independently, he/she may try to guess the subtext, keeping in mind the general direction of the artist’s works, or read the picture description in a catalogue.

There is no such component in outsider art, or art brut.

This term denotes an absolutely free flow of the painter’s creative thought, which is restrained neither by philosophy nor the subsequent tasks of presenting the work to the public or selling it. Art brut artists, in fact, invented their own principles of artistic skill, ways of expressing ideas, drawing techniques "from scratch". Art brut paintings are art for art’s sake, a stream of consciousness splashed onto paper or canvas.
Carlo (Zinelli), (1916—1974), Italy. Untitled. Drawing and collage. © Photo courtesy of Brut Art Collection, Lausanne



Carlo (Zinelli), (1916—1974), Italy. Untitled. © Photo courtesy of Brut Art Collection, Lausanne
Carlo (Zinelli), (1916—1974), Italy. Untitled. 1962. Gouache on paper. © Photo courtesy of Brut Art Collection, Lausanne
The works by Carlo Zinelli
Carlo, whose real name was Carlo Zinelli, was born near Verona, Italy. He lost his mother when he was two years old; seven years later, his father, a carpenter, sent him to work on a farm. Carlo subsequently became a butcher’s apprentice at the Verona municipal slaughterhouse. During the Second World War, Carlo joined the alpine shooters, then he had the first signs of a mental disorder. After 10 years at the San Giacomo hospital in Verona, he began to draw graffiti on walls, and the hospital management sent him to the painting and sculpture workshop, which was founded in 1957. During his years at the hospital, Carlo created almost two thousand works.
The art brut pictures are usually difficult to understand, because the people who create them live in their own ideas about the world, and, accordingly, convey their feelings in a purely personal, strictly individual way. For the most part, art brut artists are socially or culturally marginal figures, often suffering from mental disorders, which make them splash out their whole soul on paper. They are not constrained by the usual limitations of social norms, concepts and principles, their works are created spontaneously, and their drawing techniques are purely individual. It is all the more interesting in such works, to try to make out meanings that are different from the generally accepted ones.
Curzio Di Giovanni, (1957), Italy. A man with the green deep green nose. 2003 © Photo courtesy of Brut Art Collection, Lausanne

One of the most significant collections of art brut works belonged to the founder of the genre, Jean Dubuffet, who died in 1985. Today La Collection de l’Art Brut is kept in Lausanne, Switzerland. The collection includes more than 70,000 works by 1000 artists. About 700 works are constantly exhibited in the halls of Beaulieu Castle.
Antinéa (Marie-Louise Bergeaud), (1897—1983), France. The Triangle of Truth. 1948. Watercolour and ink on paper. © Photo courtesy of Brut Art Collection, Lausanne

A successful artist and sculptor, Jean Dubuffet drew attention to the art of the mentally ill people through the book by Hans Prinzhorn "The plastic activity of the mentally ill", which was published back in 1922. Prinzhorn, who was not only a well-known German psychiatrist, but also an art critic, was the first to try to analyse the drawings by mentally ill people from both psychological and aesthetic point of view. In his book "The plastic activity of the mentally ill", Prinzhorn presented full-colour reproductions of works by ten "schizophrenic artists" with in-depth aesthetic analysis of each piece (currently stored in the Prinzhorn collection at the University Hospital of Heidelberg). And the idea of studying his patients' works has appeared due to his colleague, Dr. Emil Kraepelin, who passed both his place of psychiatrist at the Heidelberg clinic and his collection of patients' drawings to Prinzhorn.
  • August Natterer, a.k.a. Neter (1868—1933). Hexenkopf (The Witch's Head) 1915
  • One of the artists, whose work was described by Hans Prinzhorn in his book “The plastic activity of the mentally ill”
After reading the book by Prinzhorn, Dubuffet began to put together his ideas about the origin of "the pure art", which he had been thinking about throughout his career. He felt that a simple life of an ordinary person contains more art and poetry than academic studies or the works by great painters. Dubuffet wanted to delight with his art, that was free from intellectual problems, "…a person at the street who is close to me, with whom I want to make friends … whom I want to please and fascinate with my work". Moreover, in 1923, Dubuffet passed military service in the meteorological division of the Eiffel Tower and learned about the illustrated notebooks of Clémentine Ripoche, a mad dreamer who drew and interpreted the configuration of clouds. This was another impetus for the artist towards a deeper study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
of the marginal art.
Gaston Duf (1920—1966), France. 1949. © Photo courtesy of the Brut Art Collection, Lausanne
The term "art brut" was coined by Dubuffet on 28 August 1945.

For more than 20 years of work, the artist rethought his activities and adhered to this style in his work. The art of the mentally ill people fascinated him deeply; this thirst for discovering new worlds also spread to Dubuffet’s friends, publisher and critic Jean Paulhan and writers Raymond Queneau and George Limbour. With their help, the artist met with leading psychiatrists and began to visit hospitals in order to find the creations of the adult self-taught artists with mental disabilities. Dubuffet published a series of brochures on artists working in the art brut. From 1947 to 1951, Dubuffet organized several exhibitions of his collection. In 1948, he established the Art Brut Society, which included well-known writers and publicists, including the "father of surrealism" André Breton.
Fleury-Joseph Crépin (1875—1948), France. Composition No. 6. 1939. Oil on canvas. © Photo courtesy of Brut Art Collection, Lausanne
In fairness, we must say that even before the Prinzhorn’s book in 1921, the Swiss psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler, a friend of the famous Hermann Rorschach and one of the first users of the Rorschach test, published the monograph "Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler" ("A Mentally Ill as an Artist". Morgenthaler described the drawings of his patient from the Waldau Clinic in Bern, Adolf Wölfli (1864—1930), which he considered artworks. Born in a poor family, Wölfli was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia after several attempts to rape girls. Four years later, he created his first drawing. He painted furiously, constantly begging for pencils and paper. In 1908, Wölfli began to write the story of his imaginary life — 25 thousand pages in 45 volumes! — which he finished shortly before his death in 1930. He left books, 1600 illustrations and 1500 collages behind him.
The monographs by Prinzhorn and Morgenthaler, which were published in subsequent years (1921 and 1922), made a splash in the art community and attracted great attention of surrealists, primitivists and avant-garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
artists. The creativity of the mentally ill people contained individual features of all these areas and at the same time it was something incomprehensibly delightful and fresh. Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and Sonia Delaunay were fascinated by the naive art.
Johann Hauser (1926—1996), Slovakia. Grosse gelbe frau. 1969. © Photo courtesy of the Brut Art Collection, Lausanne

Albino Braz (1896—1950), Brazil. Untitled. 1934—1950. Lead and coloured pencil, paper. © Photo courtesy of Brut Art Collection, Lausanne

A farmer of Italian origin who settled in Brazil, Albino Braz was diagnosed with schizophrenia and interned in the Juqueri psychiatric hospital in Sao Paulo in 1934. His drawings predominantly represent naked figures of imposing size surrounded by real or imaginary animals. Often, these scenes betray an epic character, with the chief protagonists asserting their dominance over an animal or a figure of the opposite sex as they brandish a tool, a flower, or another animal.

Another large collection of outsider art, the Musgrave Kinley Outsider, is stored at Whitworth, the art gallery of the University of Manchester. It includes more than 1150 works created by 129 artists. It took 30 years (1979—2010) for the curator Monica Kinley and the gallery owner Victor Musgrave to form the collection. It all started as an alternative to "production" painting aimed at commercial sales. Musgrave and Kinley focused on the works that were created by people who did not belong to any art movement or school — self-taught, isolated from the "main" art world.


Madge Gill (1884—1961). Untitled. Ink, cotton. Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, The Whitworth, University of Manchester (c)

British Madge Gill (1882—1961) claimed to be guided by a spirit she called "Myrninerest" (my inner rest) and often signed her works in this name. The artist used a variety of improvised tools — from scraps of paper to rolls of chintz about 100 feet long. Madge worked in a trance state — she wrote, drew, wove, crocheted, and even played the piano — and often worked at night. Her son Laurie helped the artist unfold long canvases of fabric on a special flyover, and the fabric itself was folded so that Madge saw only the part she directly worked on. Gill exhibited her work in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1939, but refused to sell them, believing that this would anger her spiritual mentor.

Madge Gill (1884—1961). Untitled. 1939. Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, The Whitworth, University of Manchester (c)
In 2010, the Musgrave Kinley Outsider collection was donated to Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Artifacts from the collection include the Henry Darger’s triptych, the works by Aloïse Corbaz, the spiritualistic drawings by Madge Gill, pastel drawings by Albert Lowden, woven sculptures by Judith Scott and the iconic works by Pascal Verbena, Scotty Wilson and Carlo Zinelli.
Augustin Lesage (1876—1954), France. Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World. 1923. © Photo courtesy of the Brut Art Collection, Lausanne

Art brut artists

The most famous art brut artists are Jean Dubuffet, Morton Bartlett, Josef Karl Rädler, Ferdinand Cheval, Richard Dudd, Louis Wayne, Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern, Adolf Wölfli,, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, Louis Soutter, August Walla, Johann Hauser, Henry Darger, Madge Gill, Francis Newton Souza, Martin Ramirez, Judith Scott, Raphaël Lonné, Yayoi Kusama, Miroslav Tichý.