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, after realism, the task was now to find an art absolutely free of the mechanical, whether tribal art, children’s painting, or the work of the insane.
The passion for the primitive among artists might be dated from Gauguin’s flight to Tahiti, or from the cult of the Douanier Rousseau, or from the Brücke and Blaue Reiter movements early in the century. Klee, the most articulate of artists, expressed the passion over and over again. “Neither childish behavior nor madness are insulting words…. All this is to be taken seriously, more seriously than art of the public galleries, when it comes to reforming today’s art.” “In our time worlds have opened up which not everybody can see into…. Perhaps it’s really true that only children, madmen and savages see into them.” Other artists echoed him: “We must be brave and turn our back on almost everything that until now good Central Europeans like ourselves have thought precious and indispensable…if we are ever to escape the exhaustion of our European bad taste.”
Klee knew Prinzhorn’s collection. A colleague of Klee’s recorded in his recollections:
A mood of excited gaiety took hold of Klee. He took from a shelf Prinzhorn’s recently published book of pictures by the insane, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken. It was at that time going the rounds in the Bauhaus. “You know this excellent piece of work by Prinzhorn, don’t you? Let’s see for ourselves. This picture is a fine Klee. So is this, and this one too. Look at these religious paintings. There’s a depth and power of expression that I never achieve in religious subjects. Really sublime art. Direct spiritual vision.”
Hans Prinzhorn, a Viennese, was unusual in being qualified both in art history and in psychiatry. After serving as an army surgeon in World War I he joined the staff of the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, where a small collection of patients’ pictures had already been made. Within less than four years he had amassed some five thousand pictures and sculptures by about five hundred artist-patients, reaching back to the 1890s, and covering several European countries and, in a few cases, the US and Japan. Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, his scholarly book on the collection reflecting his interest in the borderland between psychopathology and creativity, was well received and influential. Artistic work by psychiatric patients had been written about before, but from the point of view of diagnosis rather than simply for its own sake.
Prinzhorn’s impact on Klee and the artistic movements of his time is described by Reinhold Heller in a chapter on Expressionism in Parallel Visions, with pictures by Klee and “outsider” artists juxtaposed. The book is a catalog of the Los Angeles County Museum’s exhibition last year of Outsider Art*—“outsiders” being defined by Maurice Tuchman in his introduction as “compulsive visionaries,” self-taught, isolated from professional art, and sometimes mentally disturbed. Tuchman describes the problems of selection: children’s art and ethnic art were first considered, but dismissed. In the end the selectors have mixed professional and amateur artists (forty professionals and thirty-four amateurs) in a way that would have pleased the Expressionists: the work by outsiders is all material that has been seen and noticed by professional artists, and the professionals’ work has all been influenced by outsider art. Of the outsiders, thirteen are hospitalized psychotics, three are spiritualist mediums, and the rest untaught, reclusive, and quite isolated from sophisticated work.
Insanity got an especially good press from Surrealism, from its beginnings well before the first Manifesto of 1924. Its founder, André Breton, like Prinzhorn, had worked with shell-shocked troops during World War I, and recorded that he “could spend a whole lifetime eliciting the confidences of the mad. They are people of the most scrupulous honesty.” Originating as a literary movement drawing on automatic writing and dream records, Surrealism soon drew in visual artists. One of the most dedicated, Max Ernst, had got a message when consulting the spirits through automatic writing that he would “play with the madmen”—and so he did. He had the same interdisciplinary background as Prinzhorn, and only Prinzhorn’s book preempted him from writing on artist-patients himself. But, as Roger Cardinal points out in his chapter on Surrealism and its relation to outsider art, facile comparisons between the work of the would-be mad and of the genuinely mad are not appropriate. Paintings by Ernst, Dali, de Chirico, or Magritte differ radically from the work that came out of psychiatric wards, as a glance through Parallel Visions‘ illustrations shows. Ernst’s Le Monde des naïfs is a beautiful and sophisticated reference to “outsider” art, by an insider.
Breton and his colleagues, though, felt that they were drawing directly on the Freudian unconscious; but if there was an unconscious they were drawing on, it was not Freud’s Id-pit of wild wickedness, but the innate sense of form that artists prefer to keep unverbalized. In 1938 Dali, mad only in the size of his megalomania, actually had a meeting with the very old Freud and convinced himself that he had converted the patron saint of the Surrealists to their art.
Many among both the Expressionists and the Surrealists seem to have believed that serious madness was enough to produce seriously good art (most, of course, had seen little lunacy at first hand). As several contributors to Parallel Visions point out, this is far from the case, and was far from the case even before the use of anti-psychotic drugs led to the almost complete disappearance of psychotic art. Nevertheless one cannot know how many other inmates of institutions might have produced interesting work if they had had the chance; what is reproduced here owes its survival partly to chance, but particularly to the support of enlightened doctors.
One such doctor was Gaston Ferdière, who worked at the Sainte-Anne Asylum in Paris from 1934, was acquainted with the work of Prinzhorn, and had friends in the Surrealist circle. Quitting Paris for the south after the German invasion, among a host of desperate refugees that included discharged psychiatric patients, he took charge of the hospital at Rodez that was to shelter Antonin Artaud, the one Surrealist who went through—unwillingly—the whole experience of madness. Ferdière encouraged Artaud to draw and write, and the work he produced at Rodez included his translation of a chapter of Through the Looking Glass (“All mimsy were the borogroves” was rendered “Jusqu’là où la rourghe est à rouarghe à rangmbde et rangmbe à rouarghambe“).
After the war, with a special animus against the Germans, who had included psychotic art in their celebrated Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, there was a positive outburst of interest in “outsider” art of every kind in Paris. “L’art des fous, la clef des champs” was the slogan. Ferdière’s collection of the work of his psychotic patients was exhibited in 1945, an exhibition at the Sainte-Anne the following year mixed works from the wards with avant-garde works, and the Surrealists painted a mural for the hospital, to replace one destroyed by the Nazis. The year 1947 saw exhibitions in Paris of Van Gogh and Blake, Surrealism and “Psychopathological Art”; the critics agreed that “the parallels between the work of patients and the art of twentieth-century painters—expressionists, surrealists, and certain pure abstract painters—are established beyond doubt.” Meanwhile Jean Dubuffet was inventing the category of art brut, making his own collection of psychotic and primitive art works (among them drawings by Adolf Wölfli) and beginning to paint with dust, straw, and grit mixed into his medium. An entirely new attack was being mounted on belle peinture, elitism, and tradition. The 1960s and after saw even more exhibitions, the publication of Dubuffet’s Asphyxiante Culture, and the spread of the whole movement and its influences from postwar France to New York and, in particular, to Chicago.
How remote this mix of anti-psychiatry, primitivism, existentialism, and the cerebral arguments of French intellectuals was from the sad, secluded lives of most of the artist-patients who inspired it! Parallel Visions gives brief biographies of the thirty-four outsider artists in the exhibition. Two who influenced several of their contemporaries, Johann Hauser and August Walla, were fostered by Dr. Leo Navratil of the psychiatric hospital at Gugging in Austria. Hauser, illiterate, attended a school for retarded children and was then institutionalized for life at seventeen with manic-depressive illness. He has been in the hospital for over forty years.
Currently (February 11–May 9) at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía in Madrid.↩
Currently (February 11–May 9) at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía in Madrid.↩