For years, visitors to the Galerie St. Etienne have been baffled by our dual interest in Expressionism and self-taught art, but in fact there are deep historical and aesthetic connections between the two fields. The present exhibition pairs works by selected Expressionist masters with art created in the well-known Haus der Künstler (House of Artists) at the Lower Austrian Psychiatric Hospital in Gugging, outside of Vienna. To some extent conceived as two separate exhibitions, this presentation dovetails with the material that the Galerie St. Etienne will be showing at the annual Outsider Art Fair (from January 24 through 26) and at the Art Dealers’ Association’s Art Show (from February 20 through 24). Our exploration of the interplay between modern art and madness, a phenomenon which today is being more widely recognized and studied, comes as a natural outgrowth of the gallery’s past involvement with self-taught art. Indeed, it is a happy coincidence that the first public exhibition of Gugging artists took place in 1970 at the Galerie nächst St. Stephan, occupant of the Galerie St. Etienne’s original Viennese location.
Interest in the art of the mentally ill has ebbed and flowed over the course of this century, surfacing with particular vigor at certain times and in certain places. However, there has always been a special connection between this subject and Germanic culture. Some observers even accused the German Expressionists of cultivating a faux madness, and in fact these artists openly acknowledged their admiration for the art of the insane. The first books to take psychiatric patients seriously as artists were published in German: Walter Morgenthaler’s study of Adolf Wölfli (1921) and Hans Prinzhorn’s landmark Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922). Prinzhorn’s collection in Heidelberg and the Wölfli archive at the Bern Kunstmuseum remain two of the largest collections of their kind. These collections and appreciation of the genre as a whole developed in tandem with the science of psychiatry, an effort that was also spearheaded by German-speaking pioneers.
More recently, Art Brut (the conception of the French artist Jean Dubuffet) and its Anglicized variant, “Outsider Art,” have attempted to reposition the work of the mentally ill within the broader context of self-taught art. Seeking an idealized creative purity, many partisans have focused on the artistic achievements of isolated visionaries (who may or may not be institutionalized), while dismissing the therapeutic and diagnostic uses of visual art that occur in many mental hospitals. The artistic colony which the psychiatrist Leo Navratil established in Gugging fits uneasily between these two stereotyped views: this is certainly not traditional art therapy, but neither are these artists self-propelled visionaries in the classic sense.
All too often, the art of the mentally ill has been seen not on its own terms, but as a repository for the fantasies and fancies of mainstream culture. The notion that genius and madness are in some sense kindred states can be traced back to Plato, but its modern incarnation dates to the Romantic era in the early nineteenth century. Whereas there have always been naysayers who saw irrationality as inimical to creative achievement, the Romantic craving for the instinctual perversely privileged insanity. In defiance of what they perceived as the artificial and suffocating constraints of civilization, the Romantics sought a return to an untainted state of nature. Creativity was recast as an individual rather than a social pursuit, and the artist’s goal became the introspective exploration of his or her subjective personal experiences. The separate reality occupied by the insane was suddenly deemed capable of yielding profound insights.
The latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed a new age of reason and an emphasis on scientific and industrial progress that momentarily eclipsed the Romantic agenda. However, in its monolithic advance, civilization was bound to trigger a backlash, and the ground proved particularly fertile in Germany, which had always been a stronghold of Romantic sentiment. Combining their rejection of civilization with a rejection of academic aesthetic tradition, the Expressionists essentially picked up on the Romantics’ ideals and carried them to previously undreamed of stylistic extremes. While the Expressionists’ emphasis on inner emotional experience had Romantic precedents, it was the upending of artistic convention that created not just a spiritual but a perceptual bond between their work and the art of the mentally ill. A summary of the concordances between pathological imagery and modernism overall would include a fascination with geometric patterning, the distortion of realistic subject matter, color and scale, the repetition of single objects or parts of objects, and the juxtaposition of objects that do not ordinarily belong together.
These stylistic parallels, still distressing to some critics of modernism, have been attributed to a pathological malaise within twentieth-century society, and it may well be that artists were unconsciously responding to the collective insanity of our war-torn, holocaust-wracked epoch. It is also evident that artists consciously emulated both the ideal and the reality of the madman. Vincent van Gogh, the iconic mad artist par excellence, served as a key role model for the Expressionist generation, though he himself suffered enormously from his illness and hardly considered it a boon to creativity. Richard Gerstl, hailed as the “Austrian Van Gogh” twenty-odd years after his 1908 suicide, similarly left an oeuvre that was demarcated by alternating bouts of manic exuberance and intense depression. Among the more psychologically stable Expressionists who nonetheless experienced nervous breakdowns that influenced their work were Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Oskar Kokoschka. The depiction of extreme emotional states evocative if not indicative of madness is a hallmark of Expressionist portraiture and, especially, self-portraiture, as exemplified by Egon Schiele.
The special affinity that the Expressionists had to the trappings of madness paved the way for the publication of Morgenthaler’s and Prinzhorn’s books in the 1920s, and also for the acceptance of Gerstl and other emotionally disturbed artists who in their lifetimes had been shunned. To this era, too, date many of the misconceptions and self-serving interpretations that have hampered proper understanding of the art of the mentally ill. Pathological imagery entered the realm of the avant-garde along with other non-academic forms such as tribal art, folk objects, the art of children and that of self-taught but sane painters such as Henri Rousseau. Paul Klee, who was probably the first artist to appreciate seriously the art of the mentally ill and who kept a copy of Prinzhorn’s book in his studio for easy reference, stated bluntly that “only children, madmen and savages” properly recognize “the in-between world” wherein spiritual and existential truth resides. Alfred Kubin, whose earliest work had been shaped by several severe hallucinatory episodes, found in the Prinzhorn collection a hermetic dream world that tied in with Freud’s explorations of the subconscious. This exaltation of the state of insanity, on the one hand, and the conflation of pathological art with a host of unrelated creations, such as tribal art and children’s art, established the dubious parameters within which the genre has since been presented and judged.
The art of the mentally ill shares with other forms of unschooled art only a general lack of contact with mainstream Western culture; that is to say, these forms are linked together as “the other” in patronizing contrast to the mainstream viewpoint, and not by any significant internal kinship. Furthermore, the quest for absolute creative purity sets standards which are unsupported and insupportable by any sort of reality. From the observation that schooling can be (though obviously is not necessarily) detrimental to creative authenticity derives the illusion that all psychotics are potentially great artists and that their work is inherently better, truer than that of trained artists. Obsessiveness regarding outsider “legitimacy” attempts to deny the fact that all visually sensitive persons pick up some influences from their environments, and even institutionalized patients do not live in a cultural vacuum. Sometimes it seems the only good outsider is a dead outsider, since discovery of a living artist inevitably sets up a dialogue between that artist and the broader culture. Lastly, the myth of the isolate artist, working solely to satisfy some inchoate inner necessity, ignores the need for external recognition and, most important, the urge to communicate that is an essential aspect of the creative mission.
In contrast to the foregoing false paradigms, the very real working situation at the Haus der Künstler in Gugging offers a much sounder basis for the study and appreciation of the art of the mentally ill and, by extension, for understanding the fundamental aspects of creativity which that art represents. The Haus der Künstler resulted from Leo Navratil’s decision to impose qualitative judgments on the products of art therapy, a realm that has customarily been considered value-free. By imposing standards--that is, by recognizing that certain patients generated work that was clearly superior--Navratil became not just psychiatrist, but mentor and ultimately dealer to his charges. He found, surprisingly or not, that the patients required structure to create, and that those who painted or drew spontaneously usually produced less interesting material than those who worked in accordance with an externally dictated regimen of regular exercises. Though Navratil never interfered with the actual act of creation, he did set his patients assignments and encouraged them to pursue those directions that he considered aesthetically most rewarding.
The Haus der Künstler, a separate structure erected on the hospital’s grounds in 1981, provides a communal, pseudo-familial residence for a select group of artists, long-term patients who have no realistic prospects of ever functioning within a family or community outside the institution. The exhibition and sale of their work (on which the hospital takes no commission) allows these artists to feel valuable and productive, and creates a substantive bond between them and the outer world. The Gugging artists are, admittedly, an elite, for the vast majority of mental patients do not have their talent. By the same token, however, the success the Gugging group has achieved, both in human and in artistic terms, would not have been possible if they had been treated as ordinary mental patients and their art valued merely as a diagnostic aid or therapeutic “busy work.” One of the most important lessons of Gugging is that, even within the mental institution, quality counts.
Above all, it is Navratil’s recognition of art’s social function that accounts for the triumph of the Gugging colony and yet, paradoxically, flies most blatantly in the face of the romantic shibboleths that have dominated the outsider field. Some artists do create purely out of inner necessity--in defiance of society’s neglect or even overt derision--and if their work is good, perhaps they will one day be recognized and appreciated. But the fact that an artist creates alone and out of some inner compulsion does not automatically make him or her good. An equally important goad to creativity is the encouragement of society: the child whose work is praised will more likely go on to become an artist, and the adult who sees that his or her efforts are appreciated will usually become more prolific and possibly, in the process, more adept. Ultimately, even the most extreme outsider must connect with tradition if his or her work is to be survive: even if approbation is imposed from above and without the artist’s conscious collusion, the work will not be acknowledged unless something about it reverberates within the culture at large. It is not, therefore, so much in its difference from “normal” art that the importance of the art of the insane lies, but in its similarities: in the things it can teach us about what it means to create and, ultimately, what it means to be human.