Outsider art had its origins in the psychiatric collections of 19th-century European psychiatric hospitals when some psychiatrists started to collect artworks produced by their patients. But it was originally recognized as a specific category of artistic production in the 20th century. Interest in the art of the mentally ill, along with the children, was first demonstrated by the members of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group: Auguste Macke, Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky and others. But after the death of Macke and Marc during World War I, Paul Klee continued to draw inspiration from the primitives. Klee’s interest in outsider productions can be traced to 1912, when, in a review of a Der blaue Reiter (The blue rider) exhibition, he urged the public to take the art of children and the mad seriously.

In 1921, Doctor and psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler published his book Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist/Madness and Art) about Adolf Wölfli, one of his patients and one of the first artists to be associated with the Art Brut or outsider art label whose oeuvre the surrealist writer André Breton considered one of the three or four best of the 20th century. Madness and Art was a groundbreaking publication that made Wölfli’s work public. It was also the first time that a mental patient was described as an artist. Although Madness and art was ridiculed by the psychiatric community and only marginally accepted by art historians.

Another defining moment for the outsider and self-taught art was when Dr. Hans Prinzhorn published Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) in 1922 and the book became a touchstone for the surrealists, especially Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet and subsequently many others. It was the first formal study of psychiatric works of ten schizophrenic patients and artists (Karl Genzel, August Klett, Peter Moog, August Natterer, Johann Knüpfer, Viktor Orth, Hermann Beil, Hyacinth Freiherr von Wieser, Joseph Sell and Franz Pohl) with in-depth aesthetic analysis of each and also full-color reproductions of their work.

The artist who did more than any other to promote outsider art was Jean Dubuffet, who embraced it as a theorist, a collector and above all as a practitioner. His work was mostly inspired by his fascination of children’s art and the art of insane. Dubuffet called it Art Brut or raw art because it was uncooked by mainstream culture and defined it as “the works executed by people untouched by artistic culture, works in which imitation – contrary to what occurs among intellectuals – has little or no part, so that their makers derive everything (subjects, choice of materials used, means of transportation, rhythms, ways of patterning, etc.) from their own resources and not from the conventions of classic art or the art that happens to be fashionable. Here we find art at its crudest; we see it being wholly reinvented at every stage of the operation by its maker’s knack of invention and not, as always in cultural art, from his power of aping others or changing like a chameleon.”

In 1948, Dubuffet along with Jean Paulhan, André Breton, Charles Ratton, Michel Tapie, and Henri-Pierre Roche formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, a museum dedicated to outsider art, with artist Slavko Kopač designated as the collection’s curator. While the surrealists tended to show outsider art in the company of their own work, exhibitions of Art Brut got otherwise restricted to specialist galleries and museums and Compagnie de l’Art Brut became the home of them along with Aracine Musée d’Art Brut, Musée de la Création Franche, American Folk Art Museum and the Galerie St. Etienne. Occasional outsider art exhibitions in mainstream galleries only served to reinforce the sense of separation from the contemporary mainstream.

Ironically, Jean Dubuffet became an immensely influential figure whose recalcitrant stance and repudiation of taste inspired many other artists to follow his footsteps and Art Brut had turned out to be one of the most dominating art genres of 21st century. The increased recognition and exhibition had negated the outsider aspect of Art Brut with artists like Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) and Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) declared as one of greatests of 20th century.

Featured Painting: Adolf Wölfli Wikimedia Commons

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