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European Self-Taught Art
Brut or Naive?

January 18, 2000 to March 11, 2000

Self-taught art has been an important adjunct to the contemporary art scene for roughly one hundred years. Yet, though the field (as distinct from the art itself) originated in Europe, its American component has frequently been viewed in isolation. The term “Outsider art” was initially intended to be the English-language equivalent of European Art Brut, but American Outsider art--with its quirky mix of folk objects, environments, amateur paintings, works by the mentally ill, ethnic expressions and religious proselytizing--at times differs markedly from Art Brut. Indeed, surprisingly few American collectors of the native product have much awareness of the genre’s European antecedents. While European self-taught art of various kinds has been exhibited and collected sporadically in the United States since the 1930s, the exhibition "Private Worlds," held at the Katonah Museum of Art last winter, may be considered something of a watershed. Exemplary both in its scholarly rigor and aesthetic standards, "Private Worlds" was the first systematic attempt to introduce the American public to Art Brut. The present exhibition builds upon "Private Worlds," but is somewhat looser and broader in its orientation. While many of the artists in our show are classical exemplars of Art Brut, others would be classified as Naives in Europe. By exploring the differences and similarities between these artists, we hope to shed light upon the manner in which the field of self-taught art, as a whole, is constructed.

Whereas American Outsider art often shades indistinguishably into the broader umbrella category of self-taught art, Europeans maintain a rigid boundary between what they call Naive art and Art Brut. This boundary has been established and reinforced over the course of many years, but European self-taught art was not originally so strictly demarcated. The early modern artists, such as Picasso and Kandinsky, who were looking for an alternative to the academic idiom, promoted a whole host of nonacademic material. With no concern for the works' inherent differences, these artists indiscriminately collected tribal art, peasant crafts, and pieces by children, mental patients and untutored "normally" functioning adults. All of these works were held to be freer, fresher and more authentic than the productions of conventionally trained artists. Created outside the commercial marketplace, these objects were also deemed to represent an expressive purity unattainable to artists laboring within the capitalist establishment. In the work of self-taught artists, a somewhat jaded avant-garde sought nothing less than a return to an artistic Eden.

The field of self-taught art was constructed in early twentieth-century Europe as an alternative to a civilization perceived to be in irreversible decline. However, unlike the other kindred modernist movements, such as Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism, that arose around the same time, self-taught art allowed for practically no input from the creators themselves. In fact, the creators were elected by virtue of their distance from the self-conscious art world, which projected onto those creators ideals that often could not be met. The myth of absolute originality was shaken every time it was revealed that a self-taught artist had been influenced by an outside source. The myth of purity crumbled almost as soon as an artist was discovered and taken into the evil commercial marketplace. Convinced that the hypothetical tree falling in an empty forest does make a noise, the art world set out on an impossible mission to record the sound.

Almost everyone knows that the first self-taught artist to be anointed by the art world was the French toll-collector Henri Rousseau. Discovered in the early years of the twentieth century, he was the original "Naive," and much was made of his supposedly gullible, childlike character. (Rousseau's "gullibility" actually consisted primarily of being foolish enough to take himself seriously as an artist.) Other discoveries in the Naive mode quickly followed after Rousseau's, particularly in the period between the two world wars, when modernism began to develop wider international recognition. Both in Europe and the United States, these first-generation Naives were relatively conventional picture-makers. Denied formal training due chiefly to economic circumstances (or, particularly in America, geographical remoteness), these painters nonetheless pursued goals shaped by the traditional academic genres of landscape, portraiture and still life. Their originality lay in the ad-hoc methods the artists invented to achieve these goals, drawing on whatever visual sources they could muster and combining those sources with direct observation and trial-and-error experience. If Art Brut and Outsider artists tend to look inward (depicting the "private worlds" referenced in the Katonah exhibition title), the Naives looked outward, reflecting more public, generally accessible views of their surroundings.

Alongside the Naive movement, another related but distinctly different phenomenon was quietly developing. In 1921, Walter Morgenthaler published his monograph on Adolf Wölfli, A Mentally Ill Person as an Artist. And in 1922, after a marathon three-year collecting spree, Hans Prinzhorn issued his landmark survey, The Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Both authors were psychiatrists who had initially encountered their subjects in clinical settings, but they broke new ground in recognizing that the work of the mentally ill could also be appreciated as art. Unlike Naive art, which in the interwar period was finding its way into galleries, museums and private collections, partly aided by the artists themselves, the art of the mentally ill remained largely the province of a few specialized connoisseurs. Such art was too difficult to attract a wide public at this time, and hospitalized artists were for the most part unavailable or unable to engage in self-promotion. However, the Morgenthaler and Prinzhorn books did reach the right people. A number of German Expressionists made pilgrimages to the Prinzhorn collection at the University of Heidelberg's Psychiatric Clinic, and Prinzhorn's book became the "Bible" of the French Surrealists.

Undoubtedly, Freud's reification of the unconscious and his seminal work on dreams contributed substantially to the surge of interest in the art of the mentally ill that developed after World War I. In the ensuing decades, this interest continued to percolate through the European health-care and artistic communities, which worked in tandem to preserve and celebrate psychiatric art. Indeed, the persistent intertwining of these two intellectual communities is one of the chief characteristics that distinguishes the development of European Art Brut from American Outsider art. Following Prinzhorn's lead, the Royal Bethlem Hospital in Kent, England, the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris and, more recently, the Lower Austrian Psychiatric Hospital in Gugging and the Hospital Art Center--La Tinaia in Florence, Italy, all developed various kinds of programs revolving around artist-patients. Among the mainstream artists who drew inspiration from these psychiatric programs during the postwar period were Arnulf Rainer in Austria and, above all, Jean Dubuffet in France.

By the late 1940s, when Dubuffet began his efforts in earnest, the prewar European avant-garde was establishing itself as a new "academy," and the Naives whom these artists had once fostered, with their comforting landscapes and idiosyncratic but endearing portraits, were welcomed warmly by a public chafing against the ascendancy of abstraction. It grew increasingly difficult to distinguish real from faux Naives, as the style became a staple of greeting cards, children's book illustrations and calendars. Whereas once economic and/or geographic circumstances had been sufficient to segregate self-taught artists from received culture, in the age of mass communications, a further degree of remove seemed to be required. Dubuffet started by collecting the art of mental patients, but like other members of the avant-garde before him, what he was really looking for was an art untainted by the influence of bourgeois civilization: an art that was (as he put it) Brut, or raw.

Art Brut was literally Dubuffet's invention, and in coining the term, he also created the field. Almost from the outset, however, the term proved impossible to define. Psychiatric art was at least objectively identifiable, even if it raised the ugly specter of classifying artists according to their degree of emotional impairment. But once Dubuffet acknowledged that Art Brut could as readily exist outside the hospital walls as within, he became reliant on far more subjective criteria. How, finally, could one judge an artist's distance from received culture? Trained artists, after all, do strive to break new ground, and cultural influences penetrate even mental institutions. Admitting that no artist exists either fully beyond or within received culture, Dubuffet instead proposed the idea of a continuum, along which artists might be situated in accordance with their degree of proximity to or distance from the conventional art scene. Nevertheless, particularly as one moves away from the extreme ends of the spectrum, certifying an artist as Brut entails a very personal assessment of the artist's motives and mental state. At a certain level, the determination of who is or is not Brut rests as much in the eye (or mind) of the beholder as it does in the art itself.

If there is such a thing as a canon of accepted Art Brut artists, it would have to be those in Dubuffet's collection, today housed at the Musée de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. Work which Dubuffet did not consider quite Brut enough, he dubbed "Neuve Invention" (New Invention) and housed in a separate annex. In 1972, the British art-historian Roger Cardinal introduced the English-speaking public at large to Art Brut through his book Outsider Art, and in 1979, he and the late Victor Musgrave organized a major exhibition of "Outsiders" for the Arts Council of Great Britain. Today, Monika Kinley continues Musgrave's work, and the collection she and he formed is on extended loan to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Meanwhile, in France, Madeleine Lommel and the self-taught artist Michel Nedjar established the Collection de l'Aracine, which is in the process of being donated to the Villeneuve d'Ascq Museum. Among the other public European collections of self-taught art that have proliferated in the last years are the Haus Cajeth in Heidelberg, the Museum im Lagerhaus in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and the Stadshof Museum for Naive and Outsider Art in the Dutch town of Zwolle. In the small German village of Bönnigheim, Charlotte Zander calls her collection a Museum of Naive Art, but in fact her holdings include a number of Art Brut pieces.

Each of these collections of European self-taught art situates the parameters of the field somewhat differently, and even partisans who stick exclusively to Art Brut are capable of maddening theoretical hair-splitting when it comes to selection criteria. The Naive and Art Brut camps for the most part have little to do with one another, but once one accepts Dubuffet's idea of a cultural continuum, it can become difficult to draw the line between the Naive and the Brut. Dubuffet, after all, was essentially looking for the same kind of untainted creativity as the original champions of Naive art. And while it is true that the first generation Naives, who created easel paintings in the manner of Rousseau, have an entirely different "look" than the Brut artists, the differences may be more ones of style than substance. Today, the Naive category contains a number of artists who do not do conventional easel paintings.

Of the artists in the present exhibition, those who were or are institutionalized, such as Corbaz, Wölfli, Zinelli and the Gugging artists (Fischer, Garber, Kernbeis, Korec, Reisenbauer, Tschirtner and Walla), may be positioned near the most distant end of Dubuffet's cultural spectrum. The others, however, are less easily placed. Anselme Boix-Vives is generally classified as a Naive because his subjects loosely conform to such traditional types as portraiture and still-life, while Scottie Wilson is considered Brut because he depicted mythical characters he called "greedies" and "evils." Yet it is hard to argue that Boix-Vives, a semi-literate produce vendor who spent decades concocting elaborate plans for world peace, was any closer to received culture than Wilson, who showed in prestigious London galleries, counted some of the leading Surrealists as patrons and saw his work reproduced on dinnerware. Some of the artists in the present exhibition (for example, Fejes, Nikifor, Wallis and Wey), created landscapes that are more like inner mental maps than they are records of recognizable places. Others (Crépin, Gill, Lesage, Schröder-Sonnenstern and Zemánková) were propelled by arcane visions or, like Nedjar, have sought to salvage archetypal images from history and personal memory. Is it really proper to classify the landscapists as Naives and the visionaries as Brut, simply because reality is more dominant in the former group and fantasy in the latter? And if so, what of the many trained artists who have pursued fantastical or spiritual subject matter?

There are no easy answers to these questions, just as there is, today, no satisfactory definition of Art Brut or Naive art. Perhaps the most that can ever be said is that self-taught artists, as a broad group, are those who fail to partake of the ongoing dialogue amongst artists, critics, curators and collectors that constitutes the mainstream art world; even if discovered and brought into the art world, self-taught artists will never participate fully in that dialogue, because they are by background and nature incapable of doing so. As a result, the intentions, methods and desires of self-taught artists are often given short shrift even by their most impassioned advocates, and self-taught art is instead interpreted in accordance with the mainstream's agenda. For example, those who oppose bourgeois capitalism are outraged at the idea that anyone (sometimes including the artists) should make money from self-taught art. Many avant-garde artists have used self-taught art to validate their own achievements: to prove that they, unlike their less enlightened colleagues, were not corrupted by the evils of modern civilization. In America, Outsider art has come to represent such quintessential national virtues as rugged individualism, grassroots vitality, ethnic diversity and boot-strap self-reliance. Our beliefs about self-taught art often tell us more about ourselves than they do about the artists. Whether Naive or Brut, self-taught art has, throughout the twentieth century, been a repository for our fondest dreams: when we have despaired of civilization, of justice, of the indomitability of the human spirit, self-taught artists have been there to redeem us. In an era when intellectuals tended to cultivate negativity, optimism went underground and emerged in the life-affirming creativity of the unschooled.

We would like to convey our heartfelt gratitude to Sam and Betsey Farber and Anthony Petullo for their generous loans, and to thank as well the various colleagues who contributed to this exhibition.