Art Brut - Creativity from the Outskirts of Culture

December 16, 2015

To talk about Art Brut we may need to tackle the unpopular concept of the canonical art history. The existence of an art historical canon had a crucial role in informing the academic work on the visual arts in the past and the concept is no less influential today. The concept of a canon does not only shape the study and teaching of art, but also the art production, reception and finally the art market. The important question that emerges is: Who decides on who will enter the art history textbooks and who will be left on the margins or not included at all? What about those artists who chose to work outside of the mainstream art scene, not belonging to any school, movement and art tradition? What about those people whose creativity shaped beyond cultural institutions, who were not perusing artistic careers but used artistic mediums freely to elaborate their mental states and fantasies without constraints. This is where the story of Art Brut begins.

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Heinrich Anton Müller - Canonne, 1919

Jean Dubuffet and the Art Brut Phenomenon

Prominent French artist Jean Dubuffet was first to use the term Art Brut, referring to a variety of art forms that originated from the outskirts of the institutionalized culture and established art scene. “Raw” or “rough” art, as it is often translated, is created outside of the fine art and has nothing to do with the conventional, academic training. Furthermore, the attribute raw implies that this kind of art features some primitive elements, unpolished by cultural conventions. When Jean Dubuffet tried to describe what Art Brut was, he often compared it to the pure and uninhibited expressions found in the children’s drawings, works created by mentally ill, prisoners and other solitary beings who were excluded from the community in different ways. This kind of art that originates from solitude accentuates isolation and singularity of the expression, qualities not often found in the art practice informed by the institutionally trained artists. Dubuffet favored this uniqueness, honesty, and authenticity that he thought were lost in the pretentious and fashionable world of Paris salons. This is why he obsessively started visiting mental hospitals and prisons, gathering paintings and drawings created by the patients that would in 1948 become part of Compagnie de l’Art Brut, a collection on which he founded this movement.

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Adolf Wölfli - Drawing, 1921

Art Brut and Outsider Art – Is There a Difference?

Term Art Brut is often interchangeably used with the Outsider Art. Although Jean Dubuffet coined Art Brut to encompass all works free of cultural norms and traditions, he was mainly interested in a subcategory of Art Brut – art made by the patients in mental hospitals. In 1972, art critic Roger Cardinal introduced the Outsider Art as an English equivalent of Art Brut and his expression is applied more broadly to include self-taught artists who are working outside of the art institutions. However, the second expression with its broader meaning brought problems, as in time, people started using it to describe the works of any untrained artist and the expression began to overlap with Folk Art, Naïve Art, Marginal Art and Visionary Art, regardless of the content and circumstances that were accentuated by Dubuffet. Some art critics even argue that terms Art Brut or Outsider Art should only refer to the original Collection de l’Art Brut, now kept in Lausanne, Switzerland and there are those who would not even recognize Dubuffet’s work as part of Art Brut movement, even though he championed it.

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Left: Jean Dubuffet - Compagnonnage, 1956 / Right: Jean Dubuffet - Le Reitre, 1955

Art Brut Manifesto and Modernism

In his effort to dignify art created by mentally ill, Dubuffet wrote a manifesto in 1947, promoting the artistic style free from the intellectual heritage, established values and high culture. This focus on the marginal and subversive can be seen in the wider context of the twentieth-century avant-garde movements from Dadaism to Cubism and Surrealism, to name a few. Dubuffet did not only promote Art Brut, but also started to explore the naïve aesthetics he found in his own art. Childlike imagery, explorations of unorthodox materials, raw expressions, they all converged in his own production. However, since he was never an outsider to the art world and his work that appeared primitive didn’t come spontaneously as one might think, many art historians tend to exclude his work from the movement he established.

raw Art Brut
Left: Aloïse Corbaz, Bal tango - Hôtel Rosière / Right: Martin Ramirez - Madonna, circa 1950

“Outsider Artists”

When it comes to Art Brut and its representatives critics tend to use the term authors rather than artists. This is mostly due to the fact that many of those individuals whose works can be subsided under this label do not consider themselves artists. They take nothing from the art traditions and do not contribute to the culture in any way. Many names that are now considered representative for the movement do not come from the artistic background. For instance, Adolf Wölfli who is regarded as the first well-known Art Brut artist was one of the patients at a psychiatric hospital, who had no interest in art before he was admitted to the asylum. He has developed his skills and talent on his own and in over thirty years produced a massive oeuvre that included complex, meticulously executed visual works and fictional writings. Adolf Wölfli was championed by Dubuffet along with Heinrich Anton Müller and Aloïse Corbaz who were included in the initial collection of his psychiatric art. Other authors also became visible due to the attention Dubuffet’s work was gaining. Among them are schizophrenic artist Paul Gösch from Germany euthanized by the Nazis, Mexican artist Martín Ramírez who spent most of his adult life institutionalized in a California mental hospital, and Charles Dellschau, a butcher by trade who after a retirement secluded himself in an attic where he spent 20 years creating drawings and watercolors. These are only some names among many others who became famous after studies of Art Brut and Outsider Art began.

raw Art Brut
Sculpture by Judith Scott

Art Brut on the Contemporary Art Market - Outsider No Longer

Jean Dubuffet used to describe Art Brut as art that was not based on established traditions or techniques. Art that did not follow styles or trends, and it was not made primarily to be sold for monetary gain and maybe not even made as "art." This is certainly true, as most Art Brut works are often discovered after the artist is dead. In recent years, however, Art Brut kicked off a craze in the contemporary art market. Collectors are definitely interested in this movement, as it provides the authenticity and spirituality that contemporary art with its intellectual aspirations lacks and dealers are ready to meet their demands. Most of the popularity of Art Brut comes from the Outsider Art Fairs, taking place annually in New York and Paris and there is a number of art galleries that specialize in trade of artworks created outside of the mainstream art. However, art specialists warn that collectors interested in Art Brut should be careful, as there are often misconceptions when it comes to this particular category. Nowadays, terms Art Brut and Outsider Art are used to describe everything from works by self-taught and folk artists, to art produced in therapy programs, and art made by eccentric individuals. Many gallerists and dealers would place any art produced by marginal individuals under this label, but ultimately, only a few of the works will fit the criteria.

Editors’ Tip: Collecting Worlds: Contemporary International Outsider
by Markus Landert

Explore further about Outsider Art, a small, near hermetic part of the art world. It is a place where rules are imaginary, original thoughts appear and taboos are broken, giving us insight into the world which we can see here through other, occasionally strange eyes. This comprehensive volume provides a representative overview of contemporary Outsider Art, inviting the reader to devise own taxonomies and create own compositions. Based on over five thousand works in the Korine and Max E. Ammann Collection, seven chapters provide access to a fascinating universe of images and imagery. Seven different parts have been delineated by semantic fields that not so much define rigid boundaries but rather create open spaces where considered thought and contemplation may roam.

Featured images: Jean Dubuffet - Compagnonnage, 1956, detail; Adolf Wölfli - The Helvetia Cathedral in North-Amazon-Hall. All images used for illustrative purposes.

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