Started in the eighties, the abcd collection brings together the main creators of art brut from the mid-nineteenth century to today. It contains works previously included in the psychiatric collections, the so-called spiritualist works and folk art that falls outside of traditional norms. The collection echoes the work of precursors such as the psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, painters like Max Ernst or writers like Andre Breton ; most of all, it has been inspired by Jean Dubuffet’s concept of art brut. Part of the collection consists of works by great historical artists, such as Aloise Corbaz, Henry Darger, Auguste Forestier, Martin Ramirez, Bill Traylor, Jeanne Tripier, Adolf Wölfli and others. There is also a number of works by contemporary art brut creators. The abcd collection thus offers a unique panorama of art brut.
What is your view of art brut today ?
Art brut has a special place in the history of art. It upsets the conventional wisdom, disturbs the ordered patterns of knowledge. It puts a strain on our mental structures, turns its back to the dogmas and certainties, reveals the complex and often paradoxical twists and turns of the unconscious. Indeed, what is more shocking to a scholar than the insolent creativity of a non-professional creator or the fabulous artistic elaboration of a delusional patient ? Such as the uneducated “crazy man” named Adolf Wölfli, who produced from his hospital cell, at the beginning of the century, a colossal work, one of the most important creations of art ever. Often uncovered or exhibited in few obscure places, these works of silence were mainly reserved to the exclusive attention of enlightened specialists, some of them jealously guarding their secrets. This explains in part that the general public and especially art historians today do not really know what art brut is. In the last twenty years, things seem to have changed : art brut has become part of the art world, remarkable collections have come to being, mainly in Europe and the United States. There is an increasing number of exhibitions and publications too.
How would you describe the collection you have constituted in respect to the field of art brut ?
Some of the exhibits under the label of art brut, by combining authentic creations with other, frequently incongruous works create confusion. In respect to this collection, I have tried to avoid amalgams by operating strict choices and compose a set that is both representative and hopefully rigorous. In fact, it does not contain works from the traditional folk or naïve art, or those by artists who voluntarily place themselves outside the established cultural system yet still retain a critical relation to their work.
This division into categories, is it not too sectarian ?
Art brut results from creative processes that are different from those of the so-called cultural art. Therefore, it is necessary, in my view, not to hide such features and explain these distinctions to avoid mistakes and misunderstandings. Seeking to understand the specific features does not mean that these productions cannot be present in the “classical” exhibitions. On the contrary, the confrontation with the history of art can only be beneficial, as long as you specify the field this art comes from.
What is the specificity of this field ? What is the difference between a regular artist and a creator of art brut ?
The former wishes for his work to be shown and recognized by the majority, he is concerned with its fate. The latter loses interest, he creates, that’s all. For him the act of creation is sufficient in itself, not because of any moral decision of purity or asceticism, but because in a way, that’s all he knows (or can be). There is no space between him and his work. His interest lasts as long as he creates. What happens next does not concern him. There is an example of a man who, for weeks, worked in secret on a fabulous, inventive and complex drawing. Once he finished, he took his eraser and rubbed everything clean, without any provocative intention or wish to create a stylistic effect, but on the contrary, showing us a fundamental truth. He and his work are one. In this sense for him to create is vital and sometimes it’s the only activity.
All artists would say this.
Yes, but the register is not the same. An artist has a message to deliver. A creator of art brut has very often nothing to say to us, his fellow men. He ignores us. Sometimes, the address seems to work in strange ways. For example, Achilles Rizzoli was sending poems to his mother despite knowing that she was dead. The message mediated by the postal network, the envelope with his writing that he received – he was living at the same address as his late mother - probably comforted him. Like a boomerang effect.
Art brut is said to be art with no cultural influence. In a society overrun by the media, flooded with information, is it not hard to imagine people who are still untouched by culture ?
When J. Dubuffet speaks about people free of culture, he means artistic culture. He refers to the "common man," someone who creates outside the artistic mainstream : schools of fine arts, museum circuits, exhibitions, fairs or galleries. Claiming cultural virginity has, of course, no sense. However, the creator of art brut has a very special relationship with culture.
What kind of relation ?
Art brut explores a private territory, radically individual, similar to a dream and free of conventional representations. What distinguishes these artists from the others is how they use the cultural elements they employ in their works. Beatrice Steiner is right when she says : "This is an art that refers only to its creator. He or she reserves its use and does not seek any audience." Perhaps the study of art brut leads us to focus on the psychological aspect privileging the unique, the individual, the secrets of the creator, rather than the sociological or the ethnological aspects striving to identify the universal or seeking the points of convergence between groups of individuals. This expression of the intimate history of the individual somehow dodges history. At the same time, the intimate is often linked in the works of these creators with very acute perception of the events of this world. For this reason we often consider them as visionaries.
An expression of freedom ?
In history, the creators of art brut have often been misused or abused for ideological reasons. Thus, the Nazis showed the “art of the insane" to demonstrate the stylistic similarities with the avant-garde ; to them these works were marked by insanity, degeneration and therefore had to be destroyed. In contrast, some consider the creator of art brut as the symbol of an absolute rebel, the ideal anarchist. There is a certain ambiguity in such discourse, which has the perverse effect of opening the field of art brut to artists who, feeling libertarian, seek to be annexed to a promising label. This confusion is further perpetuaded by certain careless curators but also by some dealers on the lookout for new artists, who hang the supposed works of art brut on their walls without giving it a further thought. The creator of art brut escapes conventions and seems a stranger to the society, however, it is not because he has decided so. He does not advocate anything. While his work often has the effect of a bomb, it is not his conscious decision. Somehow, he has escaped the principles that govern us, yet he is still under the influence of his own ghosts and has to obey their injunctions, more totalitarian than the rules of any society. Therefore one can not speak of freedom but of inner necessity.
Can you consider art brut as an artistic movement, like Expressionism, Cobra or the avant-garde ?
It defines neither a style nor historical lineage. It cannot work as a model, an artistic movement or a school as these works are totally devoid of any civilizing intention, they are not there to assemble the population or promote anything. They function more as a territory, an existential expression and - not like the artistic culture - a mode of representation which states its parentage. We bring together these works in a collection but in reality, nothing binds them together. Each creator is unique and has a world of his own. Art brut cannot be considered as a movement, yet it occupies a central place in the creation of the twentieth century. It has fascinated the greatest artists and often influenced their work.
The concept of art brut was born in Europe in the 1940s. Do you think this idea is still valid and applicable to other countries ?
At any given time and at any given place there have always been the excluded, enlightened, "crazy" as they used to say, who have developed for their use only, in excitement and obsession, extravagant artistic processes, masterpieces of inventiveness. With the concept of art brut Dubuffet put a finger on a territory and at the same time suggested a kind of open investigative method.
The English speakers have translated art brut by the term outsider art.
Yes ... Actually no ! For my part, I find this an unfortunate expression, it reminds me of horse racing with its champions and losers, society distinguishing between "winners" and "failures". In addition, this expression is not merely an inadequate translation of the term art brut, it covers a different field, much larger. Outsider art seems to bring together visual expressions constituted more or less spontaneously in the margins of official culture. A kind of inventory of marginal art expressions. It includes everything from folk art, naive, visionaries, spiritualists, the works of mentally ill, of the prisoners, the homeless, the singulier, the artists of the Neuve Invention, the self-taught ... A kind of potluck. For example, what is the relation between a production of folk art, rooted in tradition and transmission, and the radicallly individual and inventive work by someone like Darger, Ramirez or Aloïse, just to name a few ?
Self-taught ou l’art des autodidactes serait-elle une meilleure traduction ?
Être autodidacte est une condition nécessaire pour appartenir au champ de l’art brut, encore que nous puissions relever des exemples contraires. Paul Goesch, Achilles Rizzoli ou Karl Junker, d’authentiques auteurs d’art brut, avaient une formation d’architecte et de dessinateur. Si cette condition est partiellement nécessaire, elle n’est pas pour autant suffisante. Pour preuve, les artistes naïfs qui sont pour la plupart autodidactes. De même, les jeunes artistes plasticiens viennent aujourd’hui rarement des écoles ou des Académies. A leur manière, ils sont bien self-taught et n’ont pourtant rien à voir avec notre sujet. Dans le domaine de la musique, le jazz ou le blues sont bien des courants artistiques constitués d’autodidactes et pourtant, leurs productions n’ont rien à voir non plus avec l’art brut. L’expression self-taught, en ce qu’elle réfère au seul critère de l’apprentissage, renvoie à un inventaire vague et trop confus pour notre étude. L’art brut n’est pas l’art des autodidactes.
Would not self-taught art be a better translation ?
Being self-taught is a necessary condition to belong to the field of art brut, although we can identify examples to the contrary. Paul Goesch, Achilles Rizzoli and Karl Junker, all authentic creators of art brut, trained as architects and designers. While this condition is partly necessary, it is by no means sufficient. As proof, there are the naive artists who are mostly self-taught. Similarly, young artists go rarely to schools or academies. In their way, they are also self-taught, however have nothing to do with our subject. In the field of music, jazz and blues are artistic movements of self-taught musicians and yet their productions have nothing to do with art brut. The term self-taught, with its reference to the single criterion of learning, creates an inventory that is too vague and too confusing for our study. Art brut is not the art of the self-taught.
What would you suggest as a translation ?
I would propose to translate art brut by - art brut ... The accent in each language creating the charm of the difference.
What does art brut give you ?
First and foremost the aesthetic dimension of these productions that affect us in what we have the most secret. But also the discovery of incredible human stories : the gratuitous nature of the act, heroic lives, often miserable and tragic. While emotion is important, art brut reveals also, for anyone who is interested in creation, the creative process itself. Art brut fascinates, there is something of the “uncanny". It is an incredible subject, which – while it cannot be said to teach us - tells us a lot about ourselves.
What led you to your interest in outsider art and what is your background ?
I have had very traditional education... Sundays at the Louvre with my father - boredom guaranteed. Quite young I became interested in modern and contemporary art, especially in Jean Dubuffet, his artistic work and that of a collector. In 1967 I discovered the exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts. A significant link as my great-grandfather had helped to create this museum and my grandfather was a curator for some time. I enjoyed the exhibition but that was it. I studied philosophy with a preference for aesthetics ... and continued with film studies. Much later the real trigger were Gaston Chaissac and Michel Macréau. At that time, I was interested in what is called l’art singulier. Then I read Jean Dubuffet, Hans Prinzhorn, Michel Thévoz and many others ... I caught the “virus”.
What prompted you to assemble this collection ?
Perhaps the obsession of lack ! Try to find answers to questions, fill in gaps. Each painting, each drawing, each object raises a new question while it gives a kind of answer... But above all, it causes extreme emotion. Not the emotion of having captured something but the emotion provoked by a new encounter. The pleasure of building something too, assembling, a creation in progress. A collection represents perhaps something creative ... I don’t know. In any case, I find points of convergence with my job as a filmmaker, a kind of conductor.
How and where do you find work ?
As you know, works of art brut are rare and hard to find. The sources are multiple. People who have inherited works from their parents, sometimes former doctors or nurses. We have pieces that come from Dr Ferdière or Dr Marie. But also from psychiatrists who see in this collection a welcoming space. Works that belonged to artists-collectors, like a mask by Pascal Maisonneuve from the collection of the painter Andre Lhote, a boat by Auguste Forestier purchased from the painter Christian d’Orgeix, an embroidery by Jeanne Tripier, plaster casts by Henri Salingardes, Auguste Forestier’s assemblages, all pieces offered by Jean Dubuffet to Alfonso Ossorio for having taken care of the collection in the US. Donations as well. There are also galleries and auctions, growing in number and importance. And then there’s all that we find thanks to research, works by unknown artists who have not yet become part of the market.
Art brut is part of the art market ?
Like it or not, it’s a reality. You cannot prevent people from being interested in art and wanting to acquire a piece. In recent years, art brut has become fashionable, it is a growing niche, as they say ... This is unfortunate but it marks a new sensitivity of the public for works that are true discoveries.
Can you quote some values ?
There are the stars ! Aloise, Wölfli, Darger, Ramirez, Traylor and others. Some pieces by these artists have miraculously escaped the trash and are very expensive today.
Is it not shocking ?
A market functions as an aswer between supply and demand, a desire and the purchase power. One can also say that it is the irony of history or of our constant desire to integrate everything, especially what escapes us.
What are your selection criteria ?
The reference to the definition of art brut ... and the quality of works. For example, as said above, I do not accept in this collection works by artists situated in the margins of the art culture. That is to say, those who in one way or another consider their work as part of aesthetic search, who claim a certain approach, with the ability of hindsight, analysis or of criticism. For example, this is the case of Gaston Chaissac whose works I also collected with passion. I avoid especially those who call themselves artists of art brut. It is not rare to see them at the fairs, exhibitions and in galleries making inquiries about sales and about interest generated by their work. There are among them great strategists of communication, who manage to become part of major collections while they have clearly nothing to do in them. Art brut has become a fashionable label, some do not hesitate to claim it for themselves, choosing to ignore that an authentic creator of art brut does not claim anything and is thousands miles away from such concerns.
Are you trying to solidify the collection or rather open it ?
Collecting is an endless process, a continuous search for already known creators but also new discoveries. So I am looking for opening the collection to new creators, without changing the criteria.
For example Zdenek Kosek. How did you meet ?
I have met with Kosek thanks to Terezie Zemánková - the granddaughter of Anna Zemánková - who runs abcd Prague. She had discovered his work in a small exhibition. Kosek’s production is very interesting because it follows two distinct pathways. He can paint in a rather academic style, while during his psychotic episodes his production becomes unique and original. When I met Kosek, his intention was to get rid of his work related to the darkest moments of his life. He told us how this work was born and, as he spoke, I felt that in reality he did not want to destroy it. We have then proposed to him to keep it, to exhibit it, publish a catalogue and circulate it. He was very touched by the fact that we were interested in it and saw it as a work of art. This precision is, in my view, necessary because it raises the question of the status of the works by mental patients, an issue that still divides psychiatrists and art lovers. Works of art ? Documents useful for the study of the disease ? For example, when we asked Kosek what his doctors thought of his work, he smiled and replied : "I don’t want to show it to them because they will say I’m still crazy."
Have you paid Kosek ?
Kosek is a man who lives frugally. I deposited in his bank account a sum that seemed reasonable and honest.
How do you determine what is “reasonable” and “honest” ?
With Terezie, we determined the amount based on the living standards of his country and by reasoning in respect to the market. We have taken into account both his personal situation and the fact that this exceptional work deserves more than what Kosek asked for.
Would you want to transform this into business ?
Not in the sense it is generally understood. There is no question for me to sell like a gallery, not knowing to whom. However, I would like for some of these works to become part of significant collections. I think it is important for Kosek and for the recognition of his work.
If I had to sell a few works - of course, with his consent – a certain percentage would go directly to the artist. Another part would help financing the work undertaken by abcd that consists in communicating about these productions (by means of exhibitions, publishing projects, documentary films etc.), But – that must be clear - without trying to draw any profit. As to the question concerning the role of the creator of art brut in a society, I adhere willingly to the system developed by Pr Navratil at the hospital in Gugging - widely adopted in the English speaking countries - that a creator is to be considered as any artist who can exhibit and sell their work as he or she wishes.
Don’t you think that he can now make these drawings, not spontaneously but because he knows they may interest you, because he understands they can also function outside the context of the hospital ?
Kosek’s artistic journey - the two aspects of his art - illustrate how the works of art brut are directly related to the most intimate sphere of the creator. The conditions of their development, their connection to a certain form of psychic automatism, show clearly that these are artists who create only for themselves, out of pure necessity, light years away from any strategy or dishonesty.
Do you think your point of view and his in respect to his drawings coincide ?
Your question raises the problem of reading and interpreting works of art brut. To us, Kosek’s drawings – a kind of maps embodying his new world view - produce an emotion. They seem full of poetry. To him, they have to do with a hallucinatory experience, probably very painful, which is not a poetic act. At the same time, if these enigmatic formulas fascinate us, it means that our view and his experience can somehow resonate.
When you choose to include a particular artist in your collection, do you feel a responsibility as to the sustainability of the concept ?
This is a very interesting question in my view. You cannot collect art brut like any other kind of art. A collection of art brut makes you face great responsibilities. First of all, there is the relation with the artist - I have just mentioned one example. But there is also an intellectual responsibility expressed through the choice of works, perpetuating the concept. The marks left by Dubuffet define a territory and make it possible not to confuse art brut with other works.
Does not your subjectivity play its role too ?
Each collector has his views and his own selection criteria. Criteria related to the body of works he has assembled but also his taste. As to the latter, there are some works that I have not acquired for the collection and there are some artists who are not, for me, creators of art brut, although in other collections they are considered part of the corpus. In contrast, there are some artists whom I consider as genuine creators of art brut. This is the case, for example, of Louis Soutter and Carl Fredrik Hill.
Yet those two had a good artistic training.
What is fascinating in their case is how their cultural achievements shattered after they had undergone a real break. These examples show how their altered mental state radically changed their perception of the world. Uncontrolled creative processes had come to being and some form of psychic automatism became the driving force behind their creativity.
Do you think that automatism can be considered as a criterion ?
Not the kind of automatism that was artificially provoked, calculated, prompted by the Surrealists, which is often manneristic and has shown its artistic limits over time, but one that arises spontaneously from the unconscious under some particular circumstances and in the case of individuals with a very specific psychic structure. On this issue, psychoanalysis can help us understand better the artistic process. This is, for example, one of the reasons behind the exhibition and publication that was devoted to Fernand Desmoulin. We have tried to show that “raw” creation may well exist temporarily, be a parenthesis in an otherwise conventional artistic life of a professional artist. As noted by Dubuffet, art brut is an unattainable pole. Raw works may occur during a given time in a career of an artist, then disappear. This shows that the study of art brut needs to take into account biographical details. However, collecting is not a science, there remains the quality of the collector’s view point.
When you have the opportunity, do you like to meet the creators ?
The encounter with the work is the most important. Everything related to its history comes second, as an indispensable contribution that helps to understand better. This has motivated the documentary films I have made about certain creators (A. Lobanov, G. Merritt, Z. Kosek, H. Darger and others). But I must admit that these encounters are accompanied, in most cases, by the ulterior motive of filming : to capture these privileged moments, observe these men and women of exceptional destinies.
What future would you wish for the collection ?
Continue exhibiting it, develop and extend the research work conducted by abcd. On long term, I wish that the collection remains together and the structure I’ve set up continues to work like a laboratory of ideas, a center of action.
What is abcd ?
abcd (art brut connaissance & diffusion) was established in 1999. It is a French “association” of international vocation, the goal of which is to research, study and communicate on art brut by means of exhibitions, publications and audiovisual productions. This research unit is composed of art historians, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, writers, collectors and other enthusiasts ; it derives its originality from the confrontation of different disciplines. abcd carries out its work based on the collection I have created.
abcd thus functions as a laboratory of ideas, open to anyone who wants to shake up some established definitions. Starting this year, Barbara Safarova, the president of abcd, has been mandated by the International College of Philosophy to lead a seminar on art brut, for a period of six years. In the field of thought and reflection on art in particular, it is certain that there have been some important changes and that such seminar would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Who owns the collection ? What is its legal status ?
The collection belongs to me while abcd has been created to manage its functioning and develop its activities based on the collection. It works as a partnership.
Within abcd are you the only one to decide that a particular work will be included in the collection ?
As I have already said, it is important to distinguish between the collector and abcd. Each retains his autonomy. The editorial line of abcd is determined by its members and by them alone, while I am the only one to decide on the purchasing policy.
This is not surprising : collecting is such an intimate act that it cannot be shared...
Collecting is a personal story. This is true for any collector, including Dubuffet : it was his collection, his eye and you cannot blame him, accusing him, for example, of despotism. You could also add that every collector manifests certain tyrannical, maniacal and obsessive tendencies, I admit it’s true. That said, I have nothing against museums yet I believe that the great collections have always been the matter of a single viewpoint, of a passion, a certain degree of madness, the story of one person.
Interview by Barbara Safarova and Vincent Gille