Recently, I’ve been doing a little research on the world of Outsider Art. Outsider Art is created by individuals that haven’t had a conventional education in art; they’re self-taught. They are also not considered part of the conventional art establishment and many, though not all, suffer mental illness. The springboard for my research was when I came across some works by artists featured in German psychiatrist and art historian, Hans Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922).
Prinzhorn’s groundbreaking study, the first of its kind, gained much attention in avant-garde circles of the time, interesting artists such as Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and Jean Dubuffet. In the 1940s, the latter went on to coin the term Art Brut (Raw Art), which along with the related concept of Outsider Art, has continued to capture the public interest, to the point where it has today (some might say ironically) become a successful art marketing category in its own right.
And indeed, it did capture my interest. In doing further research, I realized how mainstream Outsider Art has become. It is regularly showcased in galleries globally, including my beloved Chicago. Since 1991, Intuit: The Center For Intuitive And Outsider Art, has been showcasing Outsider Art exclusively, eschewing the notion that you need an MFA or a certain kind of CV to be successful and have your work displayed. While I’m just scratching the surface with my research on the world of Outsider Art, I wanted to share a few of the artists that stuck out to me.
Wölfli was a Swedish Outsider Artist that endured a rough childhood, having been physically and sexually abused. As he grew older, he began to show signs of predatory, deviant behavior with a few instances of child molestation that got him sent to prison. Later, homeless, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and exhibited violent and psychotic behavior. What calmed him? Drawing. Prolifically. And he only discovered his obsession with drawing at the age of 35. He would use pencils until all that was left was a nub of lead. He bartered food to get his hands on more pencils and paper.
Over the next three decades, he will paint, compose music and write a semi-biographical book that has 45 volumes, approximately 25.000 pages, and more than 1.600 illustrations.
Wölfli exhibited horror vacui in his works, or “fear of empty space” in Latin. Indeed, you’ll notice that his works are full and leave no blank areas. I find this fascinating and venture that it comes from some sort of compulsion.
Madge Gill was born illegitimately in England, unwanted and shuffled from orphanages to relative’s homes due to the embarrassment of her birth. When she grew older, she married her cousin and gave birth to a few children of her own, unfortunately including a son with a fatal case of Spanish flu. After recovering from the illness herself, she took up ink drawing at the age of 38. These drawings are detailed, mesmeric, and in stark black and white, often featuring women in the garb of the time (the 1920s).
Interestingly, her prolific career was motivated what she called “Myrninerest”, or “my inner rest”. Gill was a spiritualist (later working as a medium in the 1930s) and believed she was a vessel for the spirit that produced her art as opposed to being responsible herself. This disassociation combined with the style of her work made her stand out to me and I rather wonder if she suffered from mental illness as well.
Natterer was a German artist featured in Prinzhorn’s book. The onset of his schizophrenia occurred after he married and established himself as an electrician. On April Fool’s Day in 1907, he hallucinated the Last Judgment, culminating in a suicide attempt and subsequent committal into a mental asylum for the remainder of his life. I couldn’t find much more information on his biography, but his artwork is striking, stark, and endlessly haunting.
(2019, April 23). August Natterer. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Natterer
Bentley, C. (2019, April 11). ‘Outsider’ Art Is Going Mainstream. But In Chicago, It’s Always Been In. Retrieved from https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/04/11/outsider-art-chicago
(2019, August 8). Hans Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922). Retrieved from https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/hans-prinzhorns-artistry-of-the-mentally-ill-1922/
(n.d.). Home. Retrieved from http://madgegill.com/biography
(2019, June 22). Horror vacui. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_vacui
(2019, August 9). Madge Gill. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madge_Gill
Rhodes, C. (n.d.). Outsider art. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/outsider-art
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