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The Art of Madness

On the link between insanity and creativity and how the art of turn-of-the-century mentally ill asylum patients became the basis of contemporary art, from Duchamp to Twombly to Cattelan.

On July 5, 1945, the French painter Jean Dubuffet set off for Switzerland accompanied by two fellow Frenchmen, the publisher Jean Paulhan and the architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. The Swiss tourism board had organized the trip with the hopes that the men would return to Paris with a new view of Switzerland. Paul Baudry, the cultural ambassador of French-Swiss tourism, had organized for them to eat at the top restaurants, take in the rolling hills and meadows, and go to the Matterhorn.

But Dubuffet had little interest in all that. “He ran around the asylums,” Paulhan later wrote, collecting “different drawings and gouaches.” In Paris, Dubuffet had already begun purchasing art made by people who had been deemed mentally ill, but it was in Switzerland, across roughly half a dozen institutions, where he gathered the bulk of what would become his collection. 

He broke away from the group and went first to the Waldau Asylum, outside Bern, where he spoke with Walter Morgenthaler, a Swiss psychiatrist who had worked at Waldau as a medical assistant, collecting thousands of works made by the asylum’s patients. Dubuffet saw first the art of Adolf Wölfli, a sexually abused orphan who had been interned at Waldau after becoming an abuser himself. Wölfli’s twenty-five-thousand-page masterpiece combines texts, drawings, collages, and musical compositions that together outlined a reimagined history of his childhood and a fantastical, mythological future he dreamed up for himself. Dubuffet recognized the work’s brilliance immediately. Upon seeing it back in Paris, his friend, the surrealist painter André Breton, called the work “one of the three or four most important oeuvres of the twentieth century.”

In an asylum in Münsingen, a municipality inside the canton of Bern, Dubuffet also collected the work of Heinrich Anton Müller, an illustrator with severe depression. Müller’s work evokes the childish drawings of Paul Klee and Marc Chagall but also taps into Swiss folk, medieval, and modern art. With no knowledge of art history, Müller was unshackled from a rigid style. In Hermine, he drew what appears to be a biblical Eve—but in green and orange pencil. He has her holding grapes, beneath a tree, with a serpent gliding up toward her pregnant belly. Like most of his figures, she has great big eyes and a melancholy look. Thanks also to his frequent use of white chalk, Müller’s figures look like ghosts, creatures that understand—and accept—the brutalities of life.

Dubuffet continued throughout Switzerland, meeting with and collecting the art of the schizophrenic painter Aloïse Corbaz at La Rosière, an institution near Lausanne, as well as the sculptures of Joseph Giavarini, who had been imprisoned in Basel for the impassioned murder of a woman who had spurned him.

Dubuffet took all of these works back to Paris but found the art to be unpopular in French salons. Only a select few took interest—fellow outsider artists or surrealists like Breton—so two years later, in 1947, Dubuffet wrote The Art Brut Manifesto, laying out the cultural necessity and aesthetic beauty he believed was ignored by the mainstream art world. A year after that, he, Breton, and the critic Michel Tapié founded the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, which collected works from outsiders and the mentally ill.

In the end, Dubuffet’s movement never caught on with mainstream artists, galleries, and auction houses. The works that he had collected between France and Switzerland went on show only twice, in 1949 at the Galerie René Drouin and later, in 1967, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, both in Paris. And yet its influences have been far-reaching, inspiring the filmmaker Jean Cocteau, the painter Joan Miró, and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, among many others.

Art brut, or raw art, is “raw because it is ‘uncooked’ by culture,” John Maizels writes in Raw Creation, “raw because it came directly from the psyche, and, in its purest form, touched a raw nerve.”

In his own words, Dubuffet called art brut “works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim, and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”

The culture of mainstream art, Dubuffet reasoned, was driven by an urge to assimilate every inventive artistic development, and thereby robbed it of its power. Mainstream art would be sure to, Maizels writes, “asphyxiate genuine expression.”

In 2013, the French government took what was once Victor Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges and nationalized it, turning it into the Maison de Victor Hugo. Best known as a place where fans and tourists come to see the bed in which he died, it is a museum in which large exhibitions are seldom put on. But this winter, the museum is showing four European collections of art created by mentally ill patients, including those from which Dubuffet collected. The exhibit, called “La Folie en Tête,” or, roughly translated, “Madness on the Mind,” includes no well-known artists. (Most of them, in fact, are without last names or are entirely anonymous.) It is one of the most striking shows to be put on in the French capital in years. Across the entirety of the house’s second floor, the show underscores the way in which art brut directly informs mainstream art culture.

What is now considered edgy contemporary art—surrealism but also minimalism, found objects, even much of abstract expressionism—has its origins in the works of outsiders. In Morgenthaler’s collection, the works at once refuse to operate within the confines of art history‚the art he collected is especially childish, earnest, and done in “innocence” of outside knowledge—while also predating the art of future famous mainstream artists. For instance, throughout the twenties, Marie Füri, an essentially unknown artist and mentally ill woman who suffered from epileptic seizures, made dozens of drawings at Waldau, including an untitled lead-pencil work on paper comprised of tight, thin, continuous cursive ovals spanning the entire page. It is a work that might be easily confused for a study of Cy Twombly’s 1968 untitled drawing of white scribbles on a blackboard. While Twombly’s version sold at Sotheby’s just over two years ago for $70.5 million, Füri’s work is virtually unknown.

In the collection of Auguste Marie, the chief physician of the Sainte Anne Psychiatric Hospital in Paris from 1920 to 1929 and a consultant at the asylum in Villejuif for the two decades before that, the untitled drawing-cum-collage of a mentally ill man named Victor-François (his last name is unknown) uses Chinese ink and yellow-tinted pencil on transparent paper to create a complex figuration of a Christ who appears to have gone insane. Christ’s eyes are formed with squiggling circles, making it appear as though he has either gone mad or, more intriguingly, that a form of madness has become divine. Such religious parody would elude more mainstream sensibilities until, arguably, up until the late twentieth century, when artists like David LaChapelle and Maurizio Cattelan came to the fore. In the self-aware Objects of the Insane, an anonymously constructed wooden box full of tightly arranged black buttons, strings, rusty nails, and bits of metal precedes Marcel Duchamp’s found objects by well over a decade. In the work Contemporary History, a patient named Albert G. gorgeously deploys inky geometrical shapes and lines—pure automatism—in a style so original that it would only be taken up more than two decades later by André Masson. And in another work, an anonymous artist cut a German newspaper into a triangle and then colored in, seemingly at random, between many of the letters in orange, red, and green colored pencil. Of course, the work means absolutely nothing, and yet its just-off-kilter composition, its tiny vertical folds and brief bits of vertical print, are so stunningly new that when you see the date is 1897, you think there’s been a massive typo.

The question that these deeply original artworks pose is both simple and deceptive: What is art supposed to do? Is it meant to be in dialogue with history—to play within the confines of a certain style or set of visual rules—or is it meant to be an unfiltered portal to the subconscious, even if—especially if—that subconscious is perverse?

In the contemporary art market, outsider art remains undervalued. But if you look at what is most evocative and what, importantly, has the rare distinction of originality, art brut, raw and unfiltered, fulfills the distinction—the madness of the mind made manifest.

Read the rest of the essay at The Paris Review.


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