Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art
Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli
Some twenty years after the ending of World War II, a gathering of drawings and paintings was found stacked in the damp storeroom of a psychiatric clinic in Heidelberg. The Prinzhorn Collection of the art of psychiatric patients, like many other collections, had been hidden away for the duration of hostilities but, unlike most, had been forgotten. It was rescued, recatalogued, and has since been on exhibition on the Continent and in the United States. Its existence, like that of the Wölfli Foundation in Berne and the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, is an expression of a change in artistic direction that has its roots in the nineteenth century.
It was Charles Lamb at the end of the eighteenth century who wrote cheerfully that “I look back upon madness at times with a gloomy kind of envy. For while it lasted I had many hours of pure happiness. Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of Fancy, till you have gone mad” (he was later, faced with the real horror of madness, to change his mind about its grandeur). Half a century later Alexandre Dumas was referring to his friend Gérard de Nerval’s insanity when he wrote that Nerval “described, like a gossip, how it had happened, with such liveliness and joy, and with such amusing reversals and vicissitudes, that each of us felt a desire to become mad too.” A further twenty years and Rimbaud was making the famous affirmation of the poet’s goal as madman:
The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences…. Even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses sight of his visions, he has seen them!
The age-old fear of madness is easy to understand: the other side of the coin is the fantasy that over there, on the other side of the insanity barrier, is a freedom and passion and color that were renounced in childhood. Nothing could be less true, as the wretched lives of the insane artists catalogued in Parallel Visions—and especially the life of Adolf Wölfli, the subject of Madness and Art—make clear. But the longing for a return to something direct and strong and primitive has underlain twentieth-century art.
Many contributing reasons for this—psychoanalytic exploration, contact with ethnic art, impatience with mass production and with art as a commodity—are suggested in Parallel Visions. The down-to-earth question of the invention of photography is scarcely mentioned, but it must have been seismic. Ernst Gombrich, discussing the flabbiness of Surrealist painting, has remarked that, like the oyster making its pearl around a piece of grit, the artist needs a hard core, or task, to work around. Making a faithful copy of the visual world had always been the artist’s grit, setting his sense of shape and color free to work unconsciously. After photography,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.