Hundred Years of Collections, a Century of Collectors. By Barbara Safarova
Art brut : since its appearance in 1945, the concept has continued to question our aesthetic perceptions, our definitions of art as well the convictions about our identity. Now it has evolved and become richer. Thanks to the views of new collectors, it has been tested - this has been proved by the present exhibition. If art brut has outlived Jean Dubuffet, its inventor, it has also had its prehistory, rooted in what used to be called, in the beginning of the 20th century, “art of the insane,” artistic productions by the mentaly ill which have been preserved in the first psychiatric collections. Hundred years of collections, a century of collectors. Three significant moments have punctuated this period. Three moments that profoundly changed social views in respect to insanity. Each of them, in its own way, carried hope and liberation.
The first can be situated in 1793 when Philippe Pinel liberated the alienated from the chains that hindered their movement. Their hands free, they could tinker around and create. Michel Foucault notes that during the 19th century this liberation was accompanied by the subjection of the insane to psychiatric power, signing thus the end of dialogue between madness and reason. The first psychiatrists searched in the productions by mentally ill those signs which could be generalized in respect to pathologies they described.
The second moment coincides with the expansion of psychoanalysis in the 1920s which contributed to the reestablishment of the interrupted dialogue. According to Julia Kristeva, “the theory of the unconscious erases (...) the borders between normal and pathological (...) it considers insanity as a model among others (...) that exist secretly in all of us and are carriers not only of excess, impasse, but also innovations.” A new generation of doctors-collectors became interested in the images produced by their patients, not only because they allowed for privileged access to the unconscious but also because they considered them - in contrast to their predecessors - as works of art.
The name of Jean Dubuffet is linked to the third moment, an occasion of epistemological break. With his provocative expression : “(...) there is no such thing as art of the insane, as there is no art of the dyspeptic or art of those who have a knee trouble,” he took art of the insane out of the hospital enclosure for good. Based on experiences acquired during his research in Swiss and French asylums, he affirmed that the “mechanisms of artistic creation” are the same in case of an “allegedly normal person” as well as those who are “more or less mad.” For the simple reason that a true “artistic action” implies too much “tension” and “fever” and therefore can never be normal. Hundred years of collections, a century of collectors. Several volumes could be written about its history. Here we can indicate only a few landmarks..
From 1812, with Benjamin Rush’ Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind, it can be noted that doctors-psychiatrists were interested in the spontaneous creations of certain patients, although they considered them above all as clinical documents. From 1876, the year in which Dr Paul-Max Simon published his article on L’imagination dans la folie (Imagination in Madness), other psychiatric studies began to multiply. There is the book by Rogues de Fursac in 1905, L’Art chez les fous (Art of the Insane) by Marcel Réja (the pseudonym of Dr Paul Meunier) in 1907. At the same time, the first psychiatric collections worthy of the name came to exist. There was the collection constituted by Auguste Marie, and another one assembled by the Italian criminologist and psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso.
Charcot’s student, Auguste Marie (1865-1934) collected art created by the insane from 1900. His work testifies of great open mind, his neurological education, however, limited his analysis of images. Drawing and painting himself, Marie perceived nevertheless the relation between pictorial expression of his patients and that of normal artists. In 1905, he founded “Le Musée de la folie” (Museum of Madness) in the hospital of Villejuif where he worked as the head doctor. The museum was an immediate mediatic success. The works from his collection have been often reproduced, in particular in L’Art et la folie (Art and Madness), a study by Jean Vinchon published in a popular collection in 1924.
Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) owes his notoriety to his study Genio e Follia (Genius and Madness) published in 1864 and reedited six times during the next thirty years. This study, whose aim was to locate the signs of degeneracy shared by criminals, the insane as well as the men of genius, is characterized by questionable “psychopathologizing” obsession. Lombroso claimed to be able to detect the signs of “deficiency” based on physical characteristics of a person. The book probably facilitated crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. Lombroso’s heterogeneous collection, in which we can find children’s drawings, foetuses in jars, skulls and objects linked to crimes, was constituted in order to document mental pathologies. Today it is preserved in the Museo di Anthropologia criminale in an institute of the same name in Turin.
The first explorations of the unconscious undertaken thanks to the psychoanalytic method went hand in hand with a new approach towards phenomena inherent to expression in insanity. This was not only beneficial in the clinical field. The period was also filled with intense theoretical activity. Around the world, the search for the comprehension of illness by means of artistic productions oriented and stimulated some enlightened psychiatrists who became also great collectors : Walter Morgenthaler in Switzerland, Hans Prinzhorn in Germany, Osório Cesar and Nise da Silveira in Brazil, Honorio Delgado in Peru, Pavel Ivanovitch Karpov in Russia.
Among them the best known is without any doubt Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933). In respect to art of the insane, he is the archetypal collector. He owes his fame to the publication of a major study : Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, in 1922. Thanks to Max Ernst and Paul Eluard, Prinzhorn’s book, with its numerous beautiful reproductions, soon captured the Surrealists’ attention. A copy of the book (second edition from 1923) featured in the library of André Breton. In his book, Prinzhorn describes and analyzes artistic production by ten “psychotic masters,” whose works were part of the collection constituted in the mental hospital of Heidelberg ; Prinzhorn himself was the scientific director of the collection for one year and a half, between 1919 and 1921. Before his arrival, the works considered worthy of conservation were those created mostly by patients who had artistic education. Apart from those Prinzhorn was interested in the so-called “catatonic” drawings produced by patients who lacked artistic culture. Thanks to his frantic activity as well as personal sensibility and awareness of the changes in art of the beginning of the 20th century, he enriched the collection considerably. In 1922, it contained more than 5.000 drawings, sculptures, books, notebooks, collages and embroideries created by more than 500 patients between 1880 and 1920, coming from different European, American and even Japanase asylums. Hans Prinzhorn studied aesthetic and history of art at the University of Vienna ; he was tempted by the career of professional opera singer before having chosen medecine and psychiatry. His contemporaries describe him as non conformist and anti bourgeois. According to Ludwig Binswanger, who introduced him to Sigmund Freud, Prinzhorn was of “artistic nature with great need for independence and strong opposition against any authority.” He was also a serious theoretician, familiar with Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. Passion, desire, a claim of primacy, but also the conscience of his talent and clear vision of the weaknesses of his potential rivals emanate from his correspondence when he mentions, in a letter addressed to his editor, Walter Morgenthaler’s study on Adolf Wölfli, which was published one year earlier than Bildnerei der Geisteskranken : “when he became aware that my study was well advanced, he quickly included a theoretical essay which was, of course, appalling (...).” (Archives of the publishing house Springer, in La Beauté insensée, catalogue of the exhibition in Charleroi, 1995). Between 1920 and 1932, the Heidelberg collection attracted numerous visitors and awakened the enthousiasm of several intellectuals and artists. Alfred Kubin, in a text entitled Die Kunst der Irren (Art of the Insane) expressed in 1922 his fascination and intense emotion which he experienced facing the “secret logic” (“geheime Gesetzmässigkeit”) of the works. By having situated the genesis of artistic production in the depths of psyche, Hans Prinzhorn implicitly assimilated art of the insane to art in general. Despite certain formal analogies, he nevertheless refused the idea of proximity between works by the insane and those created by Expressionist artists. In the case of the latter we are dealing, according to him, with “substitutive intellectual constructions.” We could interpret this denial as a premonition of future amalgams used by Hitler’s supporters to discredit artistic Avant-garde, to persecute professional artists who refused their ideology, to assassinate mental patients. From 1933, but in particular from 1937, with the exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) inaugurated in Munich, the Nazis orchestrated stigmatization of modern art, based on its proximity with the supposed degeneracy in works by the “insane.” Not without paradoxical consequences, because Entartete Kunst offered, together with its “poison,” the possibility to discover modern art, the opposite extreme of dramatic kitsch advocated by the propaganda. If the Heidelberg collection remains unique as to its significance and scope, other collections, such as the one assembled between 1915 and 1930 by Walter Morgenthaler (1882-1965) at the hospital of Waldau in Switzerland, or that constituted by Dr Hans Steck in Cery or Dr Charles Ladame in Geneva, testify of the distinguished psychiatrists’ capacity to discern and take into account the artistic quality of productions created freely by some of their patients. Among them, Heinrich Anton Müller and Adolf Wölfli remain the most famous. Published in 1921, Walter Morgenthaler’s monography of Adolf Wölfli, Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Mental Patient as Artist) was the first to be devoted to a creator of this kind. It is probable that Ernst Morgenthaler (1887-1962), a well-known painter in his country, exercised some influence on his brother Walter. Morgenthaler developed his visual competence and analytic capacities already in his master’s thesis in medicine, entitled Übergänge zwischen Zeichnen und Schreiben bei Geisteskranken (Passages betwen drawings and writings by mentally ill), which he wrote at the same time as Prinzhorn (1918).
Whereas in Europe Germany and Austria sank into national-socialist obscurantism, psychonalysis left the countries of its origin and awakened a strong interest in Southern America. This would influence the development of scientific studies concerned with art created by people who were considered as insane.
Philosopher, Freud’s translator, the Peruvian doctor Honorio Delgado (1892-1969) assembled an important collection, until now preserved in a mental hospital in Lima, where he was employed as the head doctor.
In Brazil, Osório Cesar (1895-1980) was one of the first who were interested in relation between art and psychoanalysis. Always in search for new artists, during his entire medical career he never stopped publishing articles on aesthetic. Moving in Avant-garde circles, he became, in the 1930s, the companion of Tarsila do Amaral. The latter has become known in France especially because of her collaboration on illustrations of a Blaise Cendrars’ book. Cesar’s curiosity for art of the insane began in 1923, when he discovered the book by Hans Prinzhorn and later on the study by Jean Vinchon. The same year, he moved to the asylum of Juqueri in São Paulo where he spent the following 40 years. After his first article in 1925, in which he claimed that art by the alienated had its own aesthetic qualities (figurative distortions and symbolic character) which could be put in close relation with Futurist aesthetic, he published a study entitled A Expressão Artística nos Alienados (Artistic Expression of the Alienated) in 1929. Illustrated with 84 reproductions, the book analyzed works produced by patients in Juqueri. Active Marxist, Cesar was imprisoned several times. That did not stop him from organizing in 1933 a series of conferences at the occasion of an exhibition, for which he wrote a Comparative Study of Avant-garde Art and Art of the Alienated. In 1949, he invited to his hospital professional artists who were in charge of workhops organized for patients. Now a great part of his collection has disappeared. There are still several vestiges in a small museum devoted to Cesar’s memory.
The principal merit of Nise da Silveira (1905-1999) lies without any doubt in the fact that she was the first to have noticed the extraordinary production of the schizophrenic sailor and boxer Arthur Bispo do Rosário which could be admired last year in Paris. Her medical career began in Rio de Janeiro in 1933 and was interrupted in 1935 when she was imprisoned for her communist opinions. She came back to psychiatry in 1944 and founded a department devoted to occupational therapy at the hospital Pedro II in 1946. Ten years later, she created la Casa das Palmeiras, an independent institution in which mentally ill could create freely. At the same time she inaugurated the Museum of the Images of the Unconscious in 1952. Nise da Silveira’s approach is not, strictly speaking, aesthetic. Jung’s supporter, she studied mental illness and patients’ history by means of archetypal images and mythical themes which she could trace in their works. Her best known book remains Imagens do Inconsciente (Images of the Unconscious) published in 1981.
At the other end of the world, in Moscow, the psychiatrist Pavel Ivanovitch Karpov closely collaborated with Wassily Kandinsky at the National Academy of Artistic Sciences. In 1926, he published a treaty entitled Creative Activity of the Alienated and Its Influence on the Development of Sciences, Arts and Technique. The collection which he assembled has unfortunately disappeared.
In France, during the first half of the 20th century, even if we do not come even close to the intellectual effervescence of our neighbours, there were some psychiatrists who in the silence of hospitals and hidden from any outside look assembled collections. Simon at the Bron asylum, Luys at Salpêtrière, Chambard, Thivet and J.J. Valentin Magnan at the asylum of St. Anne, B. Pailhas in Albi, Leroy in Evreux. Some of the works from these collections were shown at Galerie Vavin and Galerie Max Binne in 1928 and 1929.
Among writers and artists, André Breton and his friends became interested in “art of the insane” ; this coincided with their interest in automatic drawings and writings. Breton’s choice was not limited to this topic. His eclectic taste and constant reasearch led him also to admire the mediumistic productions by Fleury-Joseph Crépin, Hélène Smith, Victorien Sardou, Fernand Desmoulin, Léon Petitjean or works characterized by superficial proximity to folk art : the palace built by facteur Cheval, the masks by Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve. In his investigations, André Breton benefited from his experience acquired during the First World War when he worked as an army doctor. He was always fascinated by insanity, already revealed in his meeting with Nadja (in 1926), an emblematic figure of the Surrealist quest. However, the first Manifesto of Surrealism contains only one quick reference to drawings by mentally ill. Between 1924 and 1929, La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution) reproduced only one work by an alienated, an assemblage which belonged to Breton. Art by the insane played only a limited role in the Surrealist aesthetic ; it seems to have served as an illustration of their own explorations of the unconscious. Even if André Breton’s membership in the Compagnie de l’Art Brut did not last very long, he affirmed his complete agreement with Jean Dubuffet to celebrate, in L’Art des fous : la clé des champs published in October 1948, this “pool of moral health” constituted by works of mentally ill, in which “the mechanisms of creation are freed from any constraint.”
This has not been reciprocal. With the concept of art brut, Jean Dubuffet broke for good with the psychiatric notion of art of the insane to which Breton continued to refer. In the field of art and madness, the invention of art brut was like a thunderbolt. Dubuffet’s stroke of genius was to inscribe his theories on the terrain of combat, using paradox combined with provocation and - when necessary - resorting to mischief and cunning in order to achieve his ends. Everything to shock, stir up, provoke action. Everything to cut the cord binding the ill creator to hospital and the authority of his supervisor : psychiatrist. In search of “spontaneous art without exercise,” the painter nevertheless entertained a friendly relationship with Walter Morgenthaler and other doctors who allowed him access to the productions of their patients. During a trip to Switzerland in 1945 with Jean Paulhan, he discovered Adolf Wölfli’s work, as well as the production of Heinrich Anton Müller, which exercised a certain influence on his own creation, revealed for example in L’Homme à la rose from 1949. In 1947, with René Drouin’s offer to use the basement of his gallery for exhibitions of Dubuffet’s collection, Jean Dubuffet’ founded Foyer and later on the Compagnie de l’Art Brut. The company, one of whose members was also André Malraux, attracted several great names, such as Henri-Pierre Roché, Charles Ratton, Jean Paulhan, Michel Tapié and André Breton who did not take well the hegemonic rule exercised by Dubuffet. That was without any doubt a real problem : the seats became soon empty and the Company was dissolved. More and more absorbed in his painting, Dubuffet used the company’s dissolution to stand back from the collection which had become too demanding and transferred it for the following 10 years to the United States, at his friend’s, the painter Alfonso Ossorio. When the collection came back to Paris in 1962, Dubuffet bought a building and reactivated the Compagnie de l’Art Brut. Afterwards, the collection was considerably enriched. Its importance was recognized in 1967 thanks to the exhibition at the Musée des Arts décoratifs. Jean Dubuffet, at that time a sixty-year-old man, looked for a permanent space for the collection. In France his official partners did not propose any satisfactory solution. In 1972, Dubuffet donated the collection to the city of Lausanne which accepted to exhibit the collection in its totality, without associating it to modern art. The museum was inaugurated in 1976 ; it carries the name Collection de l’Art Brut.
Even if Dubuffet never pretended to create art brut himself, we cannot dissociate his passion for art brut from his own creation. At both sides, he searched for art that would be pure expression of one’s individuality, of one’s instincts and one’s being in the world. A sort of transcription of essential functions defining the mental landscape of the creator. Dubuffet did not attempt any profound analysis of such “functions,” affirming this opinion by resorting to anti cultural declarations. He had in his mind art freed from occidental rationality, classical notions of beauty and tradition, more or less emancipated from cultural conditioning, characterized by the fact that “its creator is not aware of being subjected to the latter.” (Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, vol. 3, p. 298). This would lead Dubuffet to his essay against “stifling” (“asphyxiante”) and stifled (asphyxiée) culture, calling for virginity and tabula rasa. We, Dubuffet’s successors, who are also nurtured by the contributions of psychoanalysis, linguistic and social sciences, Dubuffet’s ideas, whose beneficial consequences have long been recognized, have still several unanswered questions. For example, Jean Dubuffet’s introduction of the third term in his theory. The concept of Neuve Invention situated between art brut and cultural art. Was the concept supposed to be an answer to the more and more insistent demands of artists “who felt close to the creations of art brut” or was it invented to spare him from making tricky choices that Dubuffet accepted to inaugurate his “annexed collection” in 1982 ? In any case, this decision brought about very soon some perverted consequences. From mid 1980s, there appeared a number of collections, mixing Neuve Invention artists - called also “singulier,” “outsider,” “outside norms” (“hors les normes”) etc. - with authentic creators of art brut. Moreover, frequently in a strong disproportion. Gradually, a semantic shift in meaning was operated. The term Neuve Invention having no distinct characteristic, too many heterogeneous exhibitions used the word art brut to show works which have nothing in common with it. The works of Neuve Invention were easy to find, whereas art brut has been very rare and therefore could not fill in galleries ; this movement has been amplified by the emergence of a market which cannot afford to be too demanding in respect to labels. It is hard to understand what Dubuffet expected from the notion of Neuve Invention ; he spent the major part of his life vigorously defending the purity of his concept. We can ask if he was well inspired at that point or whether he did not give in to some late, slightly nihilistic reflex. Dubuffet knew better than anyone else that what we expect from an artist is to disturb the established order. Art brut describes a precise territory. Its creators are strangers to any aesthetic strategy, be it marginal, revolutionary, singular. From that moment, the initial theory which opposes two antagonistic poles, appears to be sufficiently valid, under the condition that we recognize, without any Maniacheanism, that from one to the other, there are several stages which are not always easily distinguished.
Thanks to the effort of Geneviève Roulin and Michel Thévoz, the Collection de l’Art Brut, today under the direction of Lucienne Peiry, continues to grow. In the history of theory on art brut, Michel Thévoz has been one of the key figures. Faithful heir to Jean Dubuffet’s theses, he has been also influenced by the theories of Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein, together with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. His broad-mindedness allowed for openings from psychiatrists-psychoanalysts such as Lise Maurer, the author of studies on Emile Josome Hodinos’ and Jeanne Tripier’s works, or from other art historians and collectors.
From the slightly confusing recent period there emerge several noteworthy collections. The collection of L’Art en Marge in Belgium, created in 1984. Directed by Françoise Henrion and later by Karine Fol, it is devoted to the art of the “mentally handicapped.” Even if this approach seems remote from that of art brut collections, it shares with them the search for works that are elaborated in the direct contact with the unconscious. In Great Britain, the collection Outsider Archive, constituted by Victor Musgrave and Monika Kinley, is today preserved in the Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Gugging is the only art therapeutic workshop that has had aesthetic results comparable with the spontaneous production of the mentally ill before 1950. Gugging, for a long time under the direction of Leo Navratil who handed it on to Dr Johann Feilacher, is too well-known to be described here in detail.
In the same country, Arnulf Rainer began collecting in 1963. Today the artist owns over 2.000 “classical” works as well as numerous anonymous productions. Rainer has collected not only pictorial production, but also psychiatric literature, medical files, texts and even photos of people because he is very much interested in body language of psychotics. In his own creation, exploring the archaic language of the body, he incessantly converses with his collection which he uses as a catalyst. His experience sometimes resembles a physical dual, especially when he intervenes on the works of Johann Hauser, Antonin Artaud, Louis Soutter or Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern.
With the exception of Betsey and Sam Farber’s or Robert Greenberg’s collection, it would be difficult to find veritable collections of art brut in the United States. The former has been constituted by two very active founders of the new American Folk Art Museum which houses a collection of outsider art and research center dedicated to the work of Henry Darger. The second collection has been assembled by the inventor of cinematographic special effect software. As to the rest, the United States count numerous beautiful collections mixing art brut, folk art and Neuve Invention productions ; sometimes it is hard to understand what the owners find in common to all these works.
In France, diverse initiatives testify of the growing curiosity of doctors for the productions of their patients. That is, curiosity exceeding mere therapeutic interest. The research initiated in 1954 by Robert Volmat at St. Anne hospital, within the Département d’Art psychopathologique (department of psychopathological art) was continued by Centre d’Etude de l’Expression (center of study of expression) under the direction ofDr Claude Wiart during thirty years until 1992 and prolonged since then under the aegis of du Dr Anne-Marie Dubois. This center, which counts more than 75.000 works, continues to assemble, even now, the productions of patients. Founded in 1964 by Wiart, the Société Française de Psychopathologie de l’Expression and its special department called Section du Patrimoine, co-directed with Dr Béatrice Steiner, aims at establishing a national inventory of works created in psychiatric environment and at preservation of certain of these productions.
To conclude, France has seen two collections that are exclusively devoted to art brut. There is the collection of L’Aracine, assembled by Madeleine Lommel, Claire Teller and Michel Nedjar - himself an artist - which was donated to the Musée d’Art Moderne of Villeneuve d’Ascq.
Then there is the collection of Bruno Decharme which became in 1999 abcd collection. The approach of Bruno Decharme is part of a more encompassing project. First of all, the project of a collector whose goal is the creation of a very selective whole of high quality. It is a cinematographic project too - Bruno Decharme has directed a series of documentary films on works and creators of art brut. It is also a research project - thanks to the foundation of an association (Art Brut Connaissance & Diffusion) he has created a pole of reflection which has taken its form in books, exhibitions, films and terrain search. At heart of this project, an interrogation in respect to the concept of art brut, analysis of Jean Dubuffet’s theses from the point of view of different intellectual disciplines and enlightened amateurs.
This article has been published in the book A corps perdu. abcd, une collection d’art brut.