Art: An inside view

You never know when the next outsider artist will show up. Maybe in your own backyard – or at a new exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Art.

Carlo Zinelli  (photo credit: Haifa Museum of Art)
Carlo Zinelli
(photo credit: Haifa Museum of Art)
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.”
Direktor’s 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.
Outsider art, 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.
Of 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 art.
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 defining characteristics.
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 worlds.”
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 art.
“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 states.
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.
Four of 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.
Darger’s “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 paintings.
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 metal.
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 become artifacts.
There is no difference if I hold in my hand a Dürer etching or metal from the street, they are both treated the same way.”
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.
Another 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 art.
The upside of this is you never know where the next outsider artist will appear. Maybe in your own backyard.