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"Our Beautiful and Tormented Austria!": Art Brut in the Land of Freud

January 18, 2001 to March 17, 2001

The Galerie St. Etienne's latest exhibition of Art Brut (the European counterpart to what Americans frequently call "Outsider Art") takes its title from the work of one of Austria's foremost exponents of the genre, Johann Fischer. A member of the renowned artists' group at the Lower Austrian Psychiatric Hospital in Gugging, near Vienna, Fischer has for years been executing large inscribed drawings praising his beloved homeland while at the same time lamenting its frailty. It seems fitting that Austria, birthplace of Sigmund Freud, should have produced a substantive body of Art Brut, not just in today's Gugging colony, but also going back to early twentieth-century psychiatric clinics. The works in the present exhibition span the last hundred years, reflecting not only the historical circumstances of their creation, but changing attitudes toward the art of the mentally ill. As Fischer's message implies, one of the chief lessons of Art Brut is that beauty can arise from the tormented souls of a nation and its people.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Freud's pioneering work established the unconscious as an area of serious study and in the process helped validate the hallucinatory worlds of the dreamer and the psychotic, which he saw as virtually identical. However, Freud himself eschewed work with psychotics (whom he did not believe could benefit from his analytic techniques) and perhaps as a result was not much interested in their artistic creations. The primary thrust of psychological investigations in the second half of the nineteenth century had been scientific, with the result that psychiatric symptoms were seen as being essentially neurological in origin. The art produced by mental patients thus became just one more problem of which the patient should ideally be cured. This attitude permeated the treatment of Josef Karl Rädler from the time he was first hospitalized, in 1893, until his death in 1917.

Rädler was a master porcelain painter who, after leading an apparently ordinary life, began to experience profound mood swings in his early forties. When his family could no longer deal with his irascibility and the elaborate and costly business schemes hatched during his manic phases, Rädler was committed to the Viennese asylum at Pilgerhain. He was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from "secondary dementia" (roughly akin to what we today call schizophrenia), but it has more recently been suggested that his symptoms could have been the result of temporal lobe disturbances caused by latent epilepsy.

Although his prior profession had predisposed him to image-making, it seems Rädler did not start painting until 1897. His watercolors are all meticulously worked over on both sides of the sheet. One side usually centers on a relatively realistic image, while the other is covered with intricately nested skeins of symbolic figures and words that frequently taper off into illegible scribbles. In 1905, Rädler was transferred to a new state-of-the-art sanatorium at Mauer-Öhling. Among the institution's special features were its large, park-like grounds, which even included an amusement area where inmates could meet for folk festivals, dancing, bowling and the like. After his transfer to Mauer-Öhling, the range of Rädler's subject matter increased markedly. Whereas formerly he had painted mainly birds, he now did portraits of patients, scenes depicting them at their various activities, and renderings of the landscape surrounding the hospital.

Rädler spent most of his time painting and writing, consuming copious quantities of paper and paint. This activity, it appears, was permitted if not encouraged because it kept the artist from causing trouble. Not much loved by his keepers, Rädler could be nasty and belligerent, and when not writing often harangued his fellow inmates with long philosophical discourses. Frequently signing his watercolors "The Laughing Philosopher," he believed himself to be both a great thinker and a great artist. Many of his pieces are marked with exorbitant prices, though he was ready to sell for considerably less, provided the buyer signed a promissory note for the balance. The doctors, it perhaps goes without saying, did not think much of Rädler's art. Hospital records describe his pictures as "mannered, wooden, spiritless." Rädler's artistic ambitions were seen as further evidence of delusional megalomania.

From our present-day perspective, one may well wonder whether Rädler was branded a madman at least in part because he overstepped the boundaries of his prescribed social station. Although he was a voracious reader and even taught himself English, his self-styled philosophizing clearly breached the standards upheld by the educated classes. Nor, of course, did his paintings meet the academic requirements that still prevailed throughout Europe. Had Rädler come from a more privileged background, he might have been welcomed into the then nascent avant-garde or at least been shielded from confinement in a mental hospital.

It is an ironic coincidence that at the very moment when Rädler was incarcerated for his delusions of grandeur, the unbearably self-important Viennese intelligentsia was meeting at a coffeehouse that was sarcastically dubbed "Cafe Megalomania" in their honor. Regulars at the "Cafe Megalomania" included the poet Peter Altenberg, an oddly dressed character who scrawled aphoristic notes on postcards and had an unsavory fascination with little girls. Rather than being committed to a mental hospital for his bizarre behavior, however, Altenberg lived comfortably in Vienna's fashionable First District and saw his poetry praised, published and set to music by the leading composers of the day. He and others of his circle were part of a pan-European movement to unseat the academic standards that had heretofore defined art.

Throughout Europe, the old forms of imperial and aristocratic governance were breaking down. By the end of the First World War, existing regimes had been toppled in Russia, Germany and Austria. With the old ruling order went the ordering devices that had heretofore dominated the arts: realism and perspective in painting, tonality in music. In tandem with the new science of psychoanalysis, artists became much more interested in unconscious dream states. Modern artists championed the integrity of idiosyncratic personal visions and were constantly struggling against externally dictated rules. In this new climate, the art of the mentally ill seemed to provide invaluable guidelines, a direct route into the unconscious. Rather than being perceived as aberrant, the work of psychotics was seen by some to tap into primal forms of expression, beyond the pale of social engineering.

However, the larger public and most psychiatrists remained indifferent--not to say hostile--toward the art of the mentally ill. This is the reason that so little is known about Emanuel Navratil, one of the greatest Art Brut masters to be discovered in recent years. Considering that the Nazis were actually murdering ("euthanizing," in their bogus parlance) mental patients during the years when Navratil was institutionalized, he was lucky just to have made it through World War II. No records survive of his hospitalizations, and only sixteen of his drawings are said to exist. Whether there were once more drawings is unknown, just as it is not known whether Navratil showed any artistic inclinations prior to 1940, when he apparently underwent a schizophrenic break after receiving a shrapnel injury in an air-raid. His drawings, mostly quite large in scale, were executed at Vienna's Steinhof Mental Institution on the versos of medical record sheets glued together with flour paste, and with bits of colored pencil brought by his wife. Some have claimed to see evidence of Navratil's former profession as a lathe-operator in the drawings' symmetry, their organization around a central axis, and their ability to be "read" from all sides. The artist's granddaughter believes that it was mainly pain caused by his war wound that brought Navratil to the Steinhof, where he received analgesic medication in addition to psychiatric treatment. At any rate, Navratil came to feel more comfortable at the mental hospital than he did in the outside world. He eventually checked himself into the Steinhof permanently, and lived there until his death in 1956.

After World War II, attitudes toward the art of the mentally ill slowly began to improve, owing in large part to the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Like many artists before him, as well as his colleagues in the Surrealist movement, Dubuffet was seeking a way out of socially sanctioned artistic rules. His quest for unadulterated creative freedom ultimately blossomed into a wholesale condemnation of civilization. Whereas Freud had theorized that civilization imposed necessary restraints on the unruly tendencies of the unconscious, Dubuffet believed that these restraints were the enemy of true creativity. Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut ("raw art") as a catch-all for art created beyond the confines of received culture and proceeded to assemble the definitive collection of that work. As John MacGregor, the leading American scholar on the subject, has pointed out, Dubuffet removed Art Brut from the madhouse and repositioned it in the museum world. Disdaining the psychiatric profession as much as every other established institution, however, Dubuffet vehemently insisted that Art Brut was not the same as psychotic art. While it is true that the majority of the artists in his Collection de l'Art Brut were hospitalized patients or suffered from severe emotional problems, the criterion for inclusion was not mental illness per se, but quality and the a-cultural stance of the art work.

Dubuffet's pioneering work prepared the ground for the efforts of Leo Navratil (no relation to Emanuel Navratil) at the Gugging Psychiatric Hospital. While Navratil had no background in art and had probably never heard of Dubuffet when he first started out, he was unusually sensitive to the artistic abilities of his patients. He began using drawing as a diagnostic tool in the 1950s, but soon noticed that some patients produced work of exceptional quality. Although artistic talent is no more common among psychotics than it is in the population at large, Navratil came to believe, with Dubuffet, that unbridled access to the unconscious can indeed release an unusually pure form of creativity. Unlike traditional art therapists, Navratil worked one-on-one with specially selected patients, keeping in mind the individual artistic strengths of each, as well as their personal stumbling blocks. Mental patients who made art in the early twentieth century had done so of their own volition, without any assistance from their doctors. Navratil, however, was inclined to place less importance than did Dubuffet on the spontaneity of the creative drive. Most of the Gugging artists would never have turned to art without his encouragement.

In the mid 1960s, Navratil published two small books about his work with the Gugging patients: one focusing on the visual arts, the other on writing. In the counter-cultural climate of the times, these books proved an immediate success. Leading Viennese artists began making pilgrimages to Gugging, and exhibitions in galleries and museums followed. Navratil found that while "his" artists had never pursued success and even now were incapable of courting it, they nonetheless benefited socially and therapeutically from their newfound recognition. In this, he adopted a more moderate view than Dubuffet and other Art Brut advocates, who saw total isolation as the ultimate creative ideal. While the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer attempted to approximate the freedom of psychosis by experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs and collaborating with the Gugging artists, Navratil cautioned that true psychotics suffer enormously from their isolation and actually crave "normalcy." In his view, psychotic art was not intrinsically different from any other type of art, in that both types serve as productive communicative links between the creator's inner and outer worlds.

Unlike earlier psychiatrists who had seen art-making as a negative symptom, Navratil recognized the process as an attempt at self-healing. By bringing order to the chaos of the unconscious, art helps establish an alternative world or narrative to replace the reality which the psychotic has lost through his or her illness. Navratil, like many psychiatrists before him, spent a great deal of energy analyzing the stylistic characteristics of his patients' work. He identified a group of distinct creative building blocks: the anthropomorphizing of inanimate objects and of movement; the "mixed profile" (familiar to all from Picasso's paintings), in which one sees the face both frontally and from the side; fantasy; distortion; the rhythmical repetition of like objects; exaggerated contours; geometric schematization; and symbolism. While these formal devices can perhaps most readily be accessed in a psychotic state, Navratil saw them as basic elements of human expression. Such archaic ordering devices are no more arbitrary than the system of academic perspective which ruled Western art for centuries, and once the academic order broke down, many "normal" artists began using the same devices as psychotics.

Navratil has written that, whereas creativity is a universal psychological function, "art" is a cultural or historical construct. Over the course of the twentieth century, our definition of what qualifies as "art" changed radically, as did conceptions of what it means to be "normal." Mental patients are ostensibly hospitalized because they present a danger to themselves or society, but evaluations of that danger are invariably subjective. The fear that strange ideas can harm society found its ultimate expression in the Nazi death camps, and it is no coincidence that artists and mental patients were among Hitler's first targets. The new artistic norms that sprang up following the collapse of the old order were as threatening to many people as the new politics of communism and fascism. Hitler imposed his own twisted ideas of "normalcy" and attempted to exterminate everything else.

Art Brut is a European concept, and it arose from the cultural and historical circumstances peculiar to that continent in the twentieth-century. Art Brut was a cry for freedom, a protest against the grinding mechanisms of an often brutal state and its attendant cultural apparatus. Ironically, however, the broad reach of the European welfare state also facilitated the accumulation and study of vast troves of this material in mental hospitals. American "Outsider Art," by way of contrast, has never been so centrally organized or accessible and is a far more amorphous, ill-defined entity than European Art Brut. The fact that an artist like Henry Darger was only briefly institutionalized may speak less for his mental stability than it does for the comparatively high tolerance Americans have for eccentricity. We adopted European ideas, such as modernism and Art Brut, but made of them something intrinsically more egalitarian and democratic.

Despite its alleged position beyond culture, Art Brut is not entirely immune from external influences. If we are to seriously appreciate this work, we must acknowledge the idiosyncratic circumstances that condition its creation and reception, alongside its links to the universal spectrum of human creativity. Rather than idealizing Art Brut, as artists have often done, or stigmatizing it, as has sometimes been the practice of the psychiatric profession, we might better allow the disciplines of art history and psychology to enrich one another. Perhaps in this way Art Brut can finally be established as a legitimate field of study, rather than being seen merely as the poor cousin of modern art.