The Collection de l’Art Brut is a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, of a very rare kind. It displays art that is not aware of being art – created by people at the margin of society or of the art world, mostly for they own pleasure or just for expressing themselves.
With the words of Jean Dubuffet, who invented the name Art Brut (the English version comes below):
Nous entendons par là [Art Brut] des ouvrages exécutés par des personnes indemnes de culture artistique […]. Nous y assistons à l’opération artistique toute pure, brute1, réinventée dans l’entier de toutes ses phases par son auteur, à partir seulement de ses propres impulsions. De l’art donc où se manifeste la seule fonction de l’invention, et non, celles, constantes dans l’art culturel, du caméléon et du singe2,3.
In English it reads:
We mean by that [Art Brut] works realized by people not affected by the artistic culture […]. With them, we can see the purest, rawest1 form of artistic creation, where all phases are reinvented from scratch by the author starting from him/her impulses. So this is a kind of art where only invention plays a role, and, differently from what usually happens in cultural art, there is no place for chameleons and monkeys2,3.
Some of the authors are then just talented people who, within an ordinary life, cultivated their passion for creating, but in fact most share the salient points of their biography: uneducated to art, born or grown up in straitened circumstances, after a period in a mental hospital they came to art as a mean to get in touch with the others, or just to express themselves. As one of them – Vojislav Jakic – said about his works:
This is no drawing or painting: this is sedimentation of pain.
Those similar personal backgrounds often imply some recurring features in their works: the obsession for filling the space – each empty room needs to be covered with details, that are everywhere and hence uninteresting or at least of different comprehension for the viewer. The canvas as a mean to explicitly express ideas with written words: many of them had physical or psychological inabilities to speak, hence they delegate their thoughts to the characters of their paintings or would even write around the pictures or in the empty room between objects. The repetition of the same subject, even within a single canvas: for instance, Madge Gill paints figures of the same woman, that constantly look at the viewer from slightly different poses, repeating her face multiple times over several slightly different canvas, often glued together in an hypnotic pastiche.
And originality is of course central, declined in many aspects: from the themes, to the choice of materials, with shells that become ears and lips and journal paper that is used to shape three-dimensional objects. To the canvas, often obtained by gluing more pieces together as the painting expands, as to form non-convex, strangely shaped pictures.
Charles Steffen is the star of the current exhibition. He did study art, but he had to stop after just one year because of psychiatric problems. After that, he spent 11 years in a mental hospital. He often paints images of nudes that are supposed to represent men and women, but actually look like wrinkled baby monsters of hybrid sex that lie somewhere between living beings and plants, and that look around with a grotesque gaze. Their details are carefully drawn as if Steffens was depicting something that was really appearing in front of him, and they are surrounded by inscriptions that explain their genesis and place them in the context of a fantastic world. I found the evolution of the sunflower especially imaginative (see below for the picture). It starts as a proto-human being with a single eye, and slowly, from top to bottom, it transforms itself. Its head becomes a flower, its hands twist into the stem, roots exit from its legs, and a sunflower is born.
If you are looking for an aesthetic guiding thread through the exhibition, you will be disappointed. Most authors are represented just by a bunch of pieces (up to 5), and there is no link between one and another, or any of them and any artistic current, since none of those authors shared a past with mainstream art.
But some of them had in fact a future, influencing modern well-known artists (see eg here), as well as imposing their charm on popular culture (the Vivian Girls, named after some recurring characters in Henry Darger‘s work, is an indie American band, and the name of the English-German band Art Brut speaks by itself). For even though the images are often cryptic, the emotions behind them are clearly visible: the obsessions, the search for oneself, the fantastic worlds they created are not mediated by any artistic theory, hence they appear vividly to the eye of the spectator. This creates art that constantly swings between being disturbing, romantic, and grotesque, but is nevertheless direct and powerful.
1. I think the best English translation of brut is raw. A somewhat related, but more general concept, is that of Outsider art.
2. Jean Dubuffet, L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels, 1949.
3. I personally think that the idea that pure and innovative art only comes from people outside the artistic community is a cliche itself. But that’s another story.