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The Master of Eglfing-Haar

Eugen Gabritschevsky: 1893–1979

an exhibition at La Maison Rouge, Paris, July 8–September 18, 2016; Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, November 11, 2016–February 19, 2017; and the American Folk Art Museum, New York City, March 13–August 13, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Antoine de Galbert, Noëlig Le Roux, Sarah Lombardi, and Valérie Rousseau
Snoeck, 192 pp., $35.00
Collection Chave, Vence, France/Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky
Eugen Gabritschevsky: Untitled, gouache on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 5/8 inches, 1942

It is possible that the people who run the American Folk Art Museum have wondered in recent years about the name of their institution. Works by American folk artists make up the majority of its exhibitions, it is true. In the last decade or more, however, the museum has become an invaluable part of New York’s cultural life because it has produced a little stream of full-fledged introductions to figures who are much the opposite of folk artists and frequently are not American. The term “folk art” implies an art for a wide, popular, and perhaps not overly discriminating audience—ingenious and lovely as folk-art creations can be. But the day has passed when this kind of work, which was at its most vibrant in the early decades of the nineteenth century, was crowded with figures waiting to be discovered.

In this gaping situation the museum has informally reinvented itself with occasional explorations of what have been called outsider artists. They are sometimes confused with folk artists in that their work also has little or no connection with professional art-making. Yet in their creations (and their persons) they present the underside of the demotic, folk ethos. In no way a movement, they give us instead highly idiosyncratic, often confounding experiences. Folk artists in their work tend not to invite us into their private lives. We almost assume that they do not have private lives. Outsider art, which is frequently made by people who have spent their days as isolates, or have suffered mental or physical impairment and need to be cared for in assisted conditions, can seem like nothing but an immersion in the private.

The Folk Art Museum has given us definitive shows of such masters of the private as Martín Ramírez, Henry Darger, and Adolf Wölfli.* Two years ago, to take another significant example, there was an overdue examination of Jean Dubuffet’s pioneering project, begun in the 1940s, of collecting the work of these artists, which he called “art brut.” And recently the museum again expanded our sense of outsider art—a term that the curators there seem to use sparingly, preferring “self-taught art and art brut”—with separate but concurrent shows of Eugen Gabritschevsky (1893–1979) and Carlo Zinelli (1916–1974).

These were first-ever retrospectives in the States for these artists, though Zinelli, who spent a fair amount of his adult life in a psychiatric hospital in Verona, may be an almost-familiar figure for some New York gallery-goers. His good-size works on paper, which show silhouette-flat figures, abstract shapes, and passages of writing lined up in loose formations—and which please us in the seemingly spontaneous yet rhythmic ways they are parked here and there—often seem to be on hand at art fairs. One remembers regularly finding them at the no longer extant Phyllis Kind Gallery, for years the place to go, in New York, to see such work.

Eugen Gabritschevsky, however, has been a far less visible figure. It is likely that even Americans who have come to realize in the past few decades how powerful the very different epical visions of Ramírez, Wölfli, and Darger can be are unfamiliar with his pictures. And of the two exhibitions it was that of the Russian-born Gabritschevsky, who suffered a mental breakdown when he was in his late thirties and lived for most of the remaining decades of his life in a psychiatric hospital, that provided the more mysterious and absorbing experience. This is partly due, of course, to what for most of us is the total novelty of his work.

But it really derives from the marvelous, and elusive, visual poetry he often attained. Uncommonly varied in nature, his pictures are primarily works on paper, done largely in gouache, a medium like watercolor (which he sometimes added in) but with more body and less translucence. (In effect, we look at small paintings surrounded by mats and behind glass.) These works range from dreamlike portrait heads to total abstractions, some showing merely the swish of a brush, others giving us galaxies of interconnecting little elements.

There are as well pictures where semblances of faces and bodies appear in what might be windy and stormy, or sometimes cloudy and stilled, atmospheric conditions. Other pictures are of stageset-like city and factory views, and we find scenes of theaters, and compositions that resemble tapestries, jammed with molecule-small figures. Close looking at his various tableaux reveals that curving lines of dots might be rows of the tiniest people—on the march somewhere.

Collection of Audrey B. Heckler/Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky
Eugen Gabritschevsky: Untitled, gouache and watercolor on paper, 11 5/8 x 15 3/4 inches, 1957

If we didn’t know much about Gabritschevsky the person, and limited ourselves to the reproductions of his work in the show’s valuable and handsome accompanying catalog—it presents many more pictures than were in the museum’s exhibition—we might not at first assume that their author was a schizophrenic patient living in a psychiatric hospital. We might, rather, wonder whether we were encountering a newly discovered modern master, a kind of Paul Klee, say, whose each small-size picture feels like its own self-contained world. He is an artist who, like Klee and others, seems to proceed less from having a particular image in mind at the start than from letting images be suggested to him from the runny and brusque, or the pasty and porous, way he introduced his medium onto the given sheet of paper to begin with.

We know that Gabritschevsky sometimes did work in this manner, and his method has appropriately been compared in the catalog to the roughly similar ways that Victor Hugo, starting off with spills of dark brown ink, and Max Ernst, beginning with rubbings made on wood boards, developed some of their drawings. But Gabritschevsky leaves us even more with a newfound interest in gouache itself. We tend to think of it as a utilitarian medium, a fast-drying tool, not temperamental like watercolor, that is suitable for making posters or perhaps mock-ups for paintings. Gabritschevsky shows that it can be streaky and florid in one instance, or ploppy and indecisive in the next—or waxy, and then somehow carved into. His skill with gouache is one of the revelations of his work.

Should Gabritschevsky be called an outsider artist? The question hovers over his pictures, adding yet another level of mystery to them. In a number of obvious senses, he was certainly the opposite of the figures we generally think of as outsiders. Their bodies of work, if one can generalize, tend to emphasize (in quite different styles) lines, patterns, and structures. Gabritschevsky’s scenes in comparison are practically amorphous. He was also very different from many outsiders as a person. Such figures tend not to have an interest in art in itself and to make pictures and objects for the first time only after they are stricken. (Their work seems to have the quality of a suddenly found language.) Most tend to come, moreover, from milieus where art is hardly thought about. Wölfli and Ramírez were laborers. Darger supported himself as, among other things, a janitor, and the highly regarded James Castle, who was born deaf and mute, lived primarily on his family’s Idaho farm.

Gabritschevsky, though, was a person of considerable learning, and he came from a background of some wealth and stature. At the home of his mother’s relatives, where much of his childhood was spent, Leo Tolstoy was a visitor. Eugen’s father was a renowned bacteriologist. When he died at a relatively young age from an infection connected to his work, Eugen’s mother assiduously took over the education of her five children. There were tutors, many esteemed in their own right, for every subject, and Eugen and his brothers and sisters all eventually mastered numerous languages. Eugen as a matter of course had drawing (and dancing) lessons as a boy; he drew consistently and learned to paint and sculpt. He attended exhibitions in Moscow in the years before World War I of the most progressive new Russian art and stage design.

Eugen’s chief interest was the natural world, which he seems to have seen in terms that were equally scientific and imaginative. From childhood, he personified birds, flies, and insects, and his brother Georges wrote that he so blended fanciful details with precise factual ones that it was hard to know what was real. Eugen became a biologist, with a particular concern for morphology and heredity. An accomplished researcher, he was able, in 1925, to do postdoctoral work in genetics—then a new field—working with Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia. (Morgan would later win a Nobel Prize for his work in heredity.) After his stay in New York and then at the Woods Hole labs (and a western vacation that included a visit to Yellowstone), Eugen moved on to the Pasteur Institute in Paris for further work.

His papers and findings were admired by his colleagues, and he was already, in his field, a figure of real distinction when in the late 1920s his grip on reality began to disintegrate. It precipitated a time, his brother wrote, of “violence that is familiar to all doctors and that is impossible to describe.” By 1931, now entirely unable to handle his personal and professional lives, he was admitted to the Eglfing-Haar Psychiatric Hospital outside Munich. He remained there—apart from the years of World War II, when he seems to have been taken to the homes of different people—until he died, in 1979.

A number of Gabritschevsky’s drawings done before his breakdown have been preserved, and they show him to have been a conventional realist artist of the era, albeit one with a taste for large, rounded forms. He worked primarily in charcoal and, clearly sensitive to the properties of the materials he used, he saw the medium as lending itself to presenting blackness, or darkness. Areas where there was no charcoal on the sheet became, as he drew, vestiges of light.

The charcoals are from his time in the States, and one alluring piece from 1926—most of his pictures are untitled but many are dated—shows Thomas Morgan and another researcher at a Columbia lab, working at night. Their test tubes and microscopes are before them, and the room’s pervasive darkness plays against the beckoning lights from the scientists’ desk areas and from building and street lights outside, seen through the window. (Although the circumstances are quite different, the image reminded me of the nighttime scene in Citizen Kane when the reporter comes to interview Bernstein in his office while, outside the windows, the city seems to glow.)

Gabritschevsky’s literally dark, and early, charcoal pieces tend to be more threatening and overcast in spirit than the Columbia lab picture, however, and it is fascinating to turn from these charcoals to the often fantastical works in gouache that he did after his breakdown. They suggest that when he was a functioning person in society (who also happened to be a widely respected scientist), Gabritschevsky saw the world as an ominous place—a spirit that is only occasionally felt in the pictures, with their fanciful, and wonderful, colors, that he made after he became ill. We might say that, excruciating as the throes of his crisis were, it liberated him from pervasive dread.

It is hard, of course, to pin down the content of the little paintings that he did at the hospital. Annie Le Brun and Valérie Rousseau, in separate strong essays in the catalog, see Gabritschevsky’s concerns as a biologist permeating his pictures. Le Brun writes about the artist, whose scenes often show forms and substances in flux, that “we cannot forget that he was a geneticist who was fascinated by the transmission and possible transformations of form.” His images of “strings of bead-like forms stretching from horizon to horizon,” she says, “may be taken for a barely transposed representation of the arrangement of genes.” And Rousseau evokes the sense of constant bubbling activity in these pictures, with their instances of near-molecular miniaturism, when she refers to “that bacterial colony in which the whole body of Gabritschevsky’s work is steeped.”

Le Brun and Rousseau’s approaches will surely be guidelines as Gabritschevsky becomes better known. (It will also be helpful to learn more about the vast number of letters and essays that we hear he wrote—in what years?—in the hospital.) Yet for this nonscientist, the “natural universe,” as Rousseau puts it, doesn’t account for the sense of violence, and of longing and hiddenness, and the humor, that are also felt in his pictures. The many instances in his scenes where, for instance, aspects of women’s nude bodies appear make it seem as if we were encountering a mind that was being visited not only by his visions and memories as a naturalist but by his predicament as a person. One feels this even more in some of the few images of faces in the present selection. They are Gabritschevsky’s most affecting works.

In a buoyant picture from 1942, say, showing a bubbling forth of atmospheric forces, a blob at the bottom of the delectably red-orange scene is nervously and appealingly watchful while other shapes, equipped with unfriendly eyes that resemble pomegranate seeds, float along in the currents. Then in an extraordinary work from 1947, we are confronted by a head that has been stretched out, as we might see ourselves in a funhouse mirror, with an eyeball at either side and a wispy bowtie underneath. Taking up almost the entire sheet of paper, the bloated, pinkish head, with one eye suggesting a wounded soul and the other an angry one, could be the official face of anyone suffering mental turmoil (or of any of us when we sense that we have become all head and yet wonder if anything is in it).

Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne/Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky
Eugen Gabritschevsky: Untitled, gouache and pencil on paper, 8 11/16 x 5 1/8 inches, circa 1947

And in, lastly, a striking scene dated circa 1947, we see a huge-headed, puppetlike man, each of his large eyes a black abyss, in a railway or subway station. Every space around him ingeniously, and inaccessibly, contains unclothed women. Did Gabritschevsky make other pictures that, like these, portray states of imprisonment and yet give us joy as works of art? There is a good chance that he did. The two-hundred-odd pictures in the present catalog are but a portion of the roughly three thousand works on paper that he left.

We have Jean Dubuffet to thank for setting in motion the process whereby those works were preserved. Gabritschevsky made them, it appears, over the first three decades of his stay at Eglfing-Haar. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, whether due, it is thought, to new medications, or because, as a visual artist, he said what he had in him to say, he made hardly any new pictures.

He had long since lost his ability to be a scientist, and he now lost his desire to make art. Yet his losses seem not to have weighed on him. His doctors, we read, were amazed by his fortitude. After all his years of hospitalization, he should have become, one of them wrote, a “silent shadow, an emaciated body with nothing human left.” But he didn’t give in to “despondency,” and “he looks better than many other men of his age”; and another doctor believed that Gabritschevsky ultimately came to see himself with “a deep wisdom full of resignation.” He was now, one might say, in the third act of his life, and he was again proving himself to be, as Le Brun writes, “always exceptional.”

  1. *

    On Martín Ramírez see my “A Track All His Own,” The New York Review, April 12, 2007; on Adolf Wölfli see my “Wölfli’s Empire,” The New York Review, May 29, 2003.