The newly opened exhibition of “outsider art” at the Haifa Museum of Art is the
first of its kind in Israel. Displayed alongside “classic” outsider artists such
as Henry Darger, Adolph Wölfli and Minnie Evans is a selection of “naive” and
folk artists from Israel.
“Outsiders, Naive and Autodidacts” was
initiated and curated by Ruti Direktor, the museum’s chief curator, who
confesses to having been “a fan of outsider art for many years,” adding that “it
has been a long-held dream of mine to show this work here.”
interest also led her to seek out well-known outsider art focal points such as
the “Collection de l’art brut” (Collection of raw art) housed in Lausanne,
Switzerland, and to visit Ferdinand Cheval’s “Le Palais Ideal” (The Ideal
Palace) in Hauterives, France.
A postman by profession, Cheval built his
remarkably ornate structure over a period of 33 years. It has since become one
of the landmarks of what could be described as “naive architecture.” In time,
other discoveries have been made such as Nek Shand’s similarly famous Rock
Garden of Chandigarh in India and Sam Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. What
has been common to all these extraordinary creations and to the majority of
outsider art has been the fact that their creators have pursued their vision
alone and almost without notice, adding a romantic aspect to the world of the
outsider/naive artist that is still very much alive today.
also referred to as “art brut” (raw art), first garnered attention in the early
part of the 20th century as doctors began publishing studies and examples of the
art of mental patients under their care or confined to institutions.
particular note was Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill)
published in 1922 by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, a work compiled from thousands of
illustrations by the mentally ill, which was to influence and capture the
attention of artists such as Max Ernst, Paul Klee and particularly of French
artist Jean Debuffet, who coined the term “art brut” and was to establish the
aforementioned collection in Lausanne.
Outsider art is generally
understood to be the art of those who create their work outside the established
art world – artists who inhabit the fringes of society, have received no
schooling from art institutions and have no contact with galleries, museums,
etc. The term, initially applied to the art of the mentally ill, has extended to
include certain selftaught or “naive” artists and also includes child
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It was the lack of formal training, typically seen in a general
disregard for the rules of perspective and the often obsessive- compulsive
drawing styles and tendencies that gave the best-known works of outsider art its
But more than this, the works presented
distinctly individual, alternative realities, likely stemming from their
somewhat off-kilter mind states.
“Outsiders [vis-a-vis outsider art] have
their own idiosyncratic world,” says Direktor, “unlike naive and folk artists
who live more normative lives, and whose art is a reflection of more known
DESPITE, OR maybe because of, the now apparent “respectability”
of outsider art, as seen in the large sums it fetches on the art market and the
museums and galleries dedicated to its display and preservation, there are still
debates among its adherents and purists about what exactly defines outsider
“Its interesting because this field is still very emotional and
there is a lot going on about its definitions and boundaries,” says Direktor.
For Direktor, the definitions do not appear to be particularly clear cut. “On
the contrary,” she continues, “I’d like to show [in the exhibition] that the
definitions are very fluid; there are connections and [these artists, whether
they be outsider, folk or naive] are all active in the margins of the art world.
I am interested in wide margins, not in strict definitions,” she
Direktor had first-hand experience of this “purist” approach
while trying to procure works for the exhibition.
“In the beginning I
approached responsible for administering] the Collection de l’art brut. Initially, they
agreed to lend works,” she says, “but when they found out that I was also
exhibiting naive and folk art, they said no, we are sorry – we are very strict
about it, only art brut can be shown.”
The exhibition might have been all
the richer considering the vast number of works in the collection at Lausanne,
but works loaned from the American Folk Art Museum, private collections and from
the Israel Museum go some way to compensating the loss.
Rooms are fully
given over to displaying selections of works by specific artists. One such room
shows the work of Henry Darger, one of the quintessential and probably the
best-known outsider artist today. Both Darger and Adolph Wölfli, whose works are
also on display, wrote and illustrated books stretching to thousands of pages
during their lifetimes, as well as producing paintings and drawings. Wölfli
spent the greater part of his life in a mental institution in Switzerland, while
Darger lived and worked as a virtual recluse in his later years.
Darger’s double-sided works on display, essentially eight paintings, are typical
of his haunted world and give credence to the connections between outsider and
folk art mentioned by Direktor.
In fact, the world of the folk artist is
everywhere apparent in Darger’s largescale paintings. The wooded landscapes and
American Civil War battlefields are peopled with soldiers, authority figures and
hordes of young girls, often naked, who roam and run rampant throughout,
creating story-like scenes reminiscent of folkloric tradition.
“folksy” world, however, is anything but idyllic and, if anything, the whole
effect is like a kind of fairy tale gone askew.
Similar to other outsider
artists it is marked by the peculiarities and strangeness that can probably best
be understood in the context of Darger’s life, with particular regard to his
youth spent in a children’s institution. While Darger’s works revolved around an
autobiographical story of sorts there were many outsider artists whose
compulsive need to create manifested itself in what is known as horror vacui, a
Latin phrase interpreted as “fear of empty space.”
The tendency, seen in
the drawings of Adolph Wölfli, Carlo Zinelli, Aloïse Corbaz and the wonderful
miniatures of Edmund Monsiel, was to leave no part of the paper on which they
drew uncovered. The works are fascinating to look at, partly due to the raw and
“primitive” drawing styles, but can also elicit claustrophobic feelings due to
the vast array of figures, designs and symbols rendered in flat masses of vivid
color and painstaking detail.
THE LIVES of outsider artists exert almost
as much fascination as their creations and likely play a role in how we perceive
their art. Whether they were confined to institutions or inhabiting the very
fringes of society, their artwork reflected their strange, eccentric and
sometimes cloistered worlds.
Many of these artists created their works in
straitened circumstances and with a paucity of materials. Wölfli, who drew
voraciously, had to trade whatever came to hand to keep himself in pencils and
paper for his drawings, while Darger and Zinelli were forced to use both sides
of the paper, or in Zinelli’s case white sheets, on which they executed their
Corbaz used flower juice and crayons to enhance the vibrant
colors seen in her work, titled Nenuphars/Paix Christi, while several works on
display by Sam Doyle were painted with enamel on cast-off pieces of corrugated
Direktor recounts in a somewhat philosophical but humorous tone an
anecdote about having to handle Doyle’s pieces of rusted tin with the white
plastic gloves used when hanging artworks.
“This is one of the
absurdities of the art world,” she says, “as soon as they enter the museum they
There is no difference if I hold in my hand a Dürer
etching or metal from the street, they are both treated the same
The exhibition also includes documentary film footage of Israeli
artists Nissim Kahalon and Afia Zecharia, and 15 photographic works by Morton
Bartlett, an American photographer and graphic designer whose more risqué work
only became known after his death.
In his spare time Bartlett sculpted
extremely lifelike plaster dolls and photographed them in various poses,
sometimes dressed or costumed, although just as often not. The images of the
young “dolls,” some of which appear as playthings in a variety of innocent and
provocative poses, are both eerie and unsettling.
This element or feeling
of eerieness is common to much outsider art.
Regardless of the use of
vivid color, the vast arrays of patterns and designs or subject matter, the
works almost never conjure up feelings of pleasure or warmth; rather we are
always aware of a very visceral and personal vision.
Possibly it is the
uniqueness of this raw vision we are drawn to and that is responsible for the
cult following that outsider art has and continues to attract.
explanation could lie in the fact that because of the artists’ unschooled
approach it has traditionally been outside the academic domain, thereby making
it more accessible to the layman.
By its very nature outsider art remains
on the periphery, but this situation is changing as more outsider artists are
being discovered while still alive.
However, the unusual circumstances
that tend to make up their lives continues to feed into the cult of outsider
The upside of this is you never know where the next outsider artist
will appear. Maybe in your own backyard.
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