LAUSANNE, Switzerland — The roots of art brut, as a field of research, may go back a century or more, effectively (if perhaps unwittingly) tracing the evolution of this unusual art genre in parallel with but separate from that of modern art. However, it is possible to shift the focus on art brut and its progeny — outsider art and so-called self-taught art (terms that are sometimes used synonymously, but whose meanings, strictly speaking, are nuanced and distinct) — away from an art-historical narrative or classification system and more toward various art brut creators’ respective bodies of work. To do so is to realize again and again just how one-of-a-kind each deeply personal oeuvre really is.
That label-defying uniqueness was one aspect of this art that captivated the French modern artist Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), the scion of a wine-selling family in Le Havre who, in the mid-1940s, from his base in Paris, began exploring and documenting the work of visionary, self-taught art-makers who were situated by chance or by choice on the margins of mainstream culture and society. He called their creations “art brut” (“raw art”), shared his passion and findings with such collaborators as the Surrealist leader André Breton and the literary critic Jean Paulhan, and assembled a definitive collection of works representing the genre.
Now, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Collection de l’Art Brut, the world’s first museum dedicated to the examination, preservation, and presentation of the unusual art forms that so fascinated Dubuffet and his colleagues, is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its founding with Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut: The Origins of the Collection (on view through August 28).
This illuminating survey features more than 150 works that were originally shown in an exhibition at the René Drouin Gallery in Paris in 1949. The Drouin show was the first that Dubuffet and his colleagues presented outside of a regular venue run by La Compagnie de l’Art Brut, an organization they had founded in 1948 to serve as a clearinghouse for their research and curatorial activities. In time, most of the works from the Drouin exhibition became part of a larger group of some 5,000 objects that Dubuffet donated to the lakeside city of Lausanne, in southwestern Switzerland, in 1971 as the seed holdings of the future Collection de l’Art Brut.
Funded by the city, the museum opened five years later in the renovated, 18th-century Château de Beaulieu. Dubuffet preferred calling the new institution a “collection,” rather than a “museum,” as Michel Thévoz, its founding director, who served from 1976 until his retirement in 2001, points out in the current exhibition’s catalogue. He notes that the latter word, Dubuffet felt, “was overburdened with connotations of Greek mythology.” After all, as he had indicated in the 1949 Drouin show’s catalogue, art brut — the authentic, unaffected kind of creative expression in which he was interested — was to be found in “works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture,” who “derive everything […] from their own depths.” He and his fellow art brut prospectors knew that they were not likely to find what they were looking for in ordinary museums; similarly, in championing an art that could not be easily categorized, they eschewed what they saw as the stuffy traditions and attitudes of established, bourgeois cultural institutions.
In the catalogue, Thévoz, who was a friend of the French modernist, writes that Dubuffet considered Switzerland something of a “touchstone for anti-cultural anarchists” and figured that it might offer “a suitable location” for the peculiar artworks he had amassed. The Collection de l’Art Brut’s current director, Sarah Lombardi, notes in the catalogue that, for Dubuffet, Switzerland appeared to be “open to rebellious and non-conformist” ways of thinking, a characteristic that “chimed in with his rejection of elitist culture and Parisian snobbery.” Given the small, central-European country’s past reception of certain people fleeing religious or political persecution, she adds, Dubuffet viewed Switzerland as a place of “refuge,” perhaps even for a very unusual art collection.
Keeping in mind Dubuffet’s rejection of conventional aesthetic values and cultural institutions with regard to art brut, it is ironic that this showing of Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut: The Origins of the Collection comes at a time at which the mainstream art establishment appears to have embraced the work of self-taught artists more enthusiastically than ever before. Evidence of this development is plentiful. Numerous academically trained, “professional” artists have been looking hard at outsider art; the British contemporary-art star Grayson Perry, for example, has found inspiration in the work of the legendary American outsider, Henry Darger, a visionary storyteller, draftsman and collagist.
Meanwhile, in recent years, blue-chip dealer David Zwirner has shown works by inventive autodidacts at his galleries in London and New; in 2013, the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale brought together works by well-known modern and contemporary artists, as well as by their self-taught/outsider counterparts; and in January of this year, Christie’s in New York held a dedicated outsider art sale, at which a small limestone sculpture by William Edmondson (1874–1951), the son of freed slaves and a stone carver from Nashville, set a world record at auction for the category, fetching $785,000.
By focusing on definitive works from the earliest period of art brut research, as Dubuffet theorized and pursued it, Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut: The Origins of the Collection offers an informative sense of just what he considered appropriate for inclusion under his new-genre label. The Frenchman Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve’s faces of the 1920s made of shells; mediumistic drawings by his countrywoman, Jeanne Tripier, from the 1930s; a ghostly, ink-and-pencil drawing of silhouetted figures connected by cables by the Swiss carpenter Robert Gie, who experienced hallucinations; and exuberantly colored drawings in pencil and gouache by the Swiss artist Aloïse Corbaz, who became known simply as “Aloïse,” are among the many notable works on view.
So are the Swiss visionary Adolf Wölfli’s drawings in pencil and colored pencil, many of whose complex, ornately patterned compositions illustrate his alter ego’s tale of creating the universe; Paul End’s drawings of buildings and urban scenes in gouache, colored pencil and pastel; and Pierre Giraud’s untitled sculpture from 1947 in carved birch bark, which resembles a totem or a strange forest creature standing en pointe. Although many of the self-taught art-makers whose works Dubuffet began discovering in the 1940s had spent time in psychiatric hospitals or suffered from mental illnesses, the core collection he assembled and the broader holdings (some 70,000 items today) of the Collection de l’Art Brut both include works by artists who were not mentally ill. The character of these collections reflects the fact that art brut, outsider art and the creations of self-taught artists in general should not be called “psychotic art,” as they were, inaccurately, in the past. (In a recent interview at the museum, Lombardi pointed out that “of special interest [in the exhibition are] works by anonymous artists Dubuffet had collected and shown at Drouin in 1949, and which have never been shown at the museum since it opened in 1976, including works of popular art, in which he was also interested.”)
In addition to publishing a substantive French-and-English catalogue for the current exhibition — it includes valuable summaries of Dubuffet’s ideas about and activity in the art brut field, leading up to the opening of the museum in Switzerland — the Collection de l’Art Brut has created a new, permanent gallery space in which additional works from the French artist’s original holdings are on display, along with letters, exhibition announcements, and Compagnie de l’Art Brut publications. Together they capture the spirit of excitement that surrounded a fledgling field whose discoveries resonated with those modern artists who were searching for stimulation far beyond the mainstream art world.
In the exhibition’s catalogue, Lombardi points out that its featured works were dismissed as “lacking finish” when they were shown at Drouin in 1949, and that most news reports were “violently critical of the event.” However, some observers understood and supported Dubuffet’s aesthetic initiative, with one Parisian reviewer noting that the works even had the power to make viewers “forget Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse.”
Nowadays, Lombardi writes, the question of whether or not “such objects belong to the world of art” is not even “on the agenda.” In fact, she notes, “certain professionals in the field today are even inclined to dispense with the term ‘art brut’ altogether, seeing it as devaluing the works.” However, she adds, to do that “would be to forget or to deny the specificity of pieces made by individuals operating from outside the domain of culture and motivated solely by [their] creative drive.”
Against such a backdrop, as it enters its fifth decade, the Collection de l’Art Brut retains a strong sense of its mission. “We want to continue to be the place where the public can see big, monographic exhibitions of the work of art brut masters,” Lombardi told me during our recent conversation at her office. (Disclaimer: In recent months I’ve served as a voluntary member of its advisory council, a group of scholars who share their research with its curatorial staff.)
Through such focused presentations, Lombardi added, the museum aims to maintain its position as the leading “pole of reference” in its field. She said, “We’ll also continue building the permanent collection, adding to it and keeping it current. We’re using it in new ways, too, such as in our development of thematic biennial exhibitions, which we began presenting in 2013.” So far, those shows’ themes have included vehicles and architecture. The theme of next year’s biennial: the body.
Similarly, the museum has introduced smaller thematic shows, such as People, which just opened and, like its biennials, culls works from its permanent holdings. People features portraits of well-known figures in showbiz and the news — movie and sports stars, political leaders, European royals. Among the works on view: Curzio di Giovanni’s pencil-and-colored-pencil depictions of rock star David Byrne and composer Philip Glass; Yves-Jules Fleuri’s acrylic-and-ink-on-paperboard portraits of Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife, the former Camilla Parker Bowles; and Dominique Hérion’s pencil-on-paper picture of Marilyn Monroe, with its unexpected revelation of the monstrous, Hollywood-crafted “beauty” that shaped the star’s public image. For works derived mostly from published, photographic sources, many of the pictures and sculptures on view in People accomplish what the best portraiture always does — they uncover and project their subjects’ psychological aura.
In early November, in conjunction with the University of Lausanne and its affiliated theater, La Grange de Dorigny, the Collection de l’Art Brut will sponsor a symposium on issues in the art brut field. In conjunction with two partners, it will also release a facsimile edition of the Almanach de l’Art Brut, an encyclopedic survey of the then-new research field, which Dubuffet, Breton and others worked on in the late 1940s but which was never published. This volume will contain archival photos and more recent photos of artworks, as well as essays recounting the history of Dubuffet’s original, ambitious, big-book project.
One wonders what Dubuffet might say if he could see how far the appreciation of these formerly overlooked art forms, which so powerfully seized his imagination and influenced his own art-making, has evolved. A hint of how he might react today may be found in a remark he made forty years ago when the new institution opened in Lausanne. Thévoz recalls, “It suddenly dawned on him that what had once been hidden away was now in a public museum, a real museum, complete with, for the time, cutting-edge equipment….” At the time, Dubuffet quipped, “Imagine some peasants putting their little daughter in the hands of some aristocrats and returning to see the little girl two or three years later. They’ll find her without her clogs, she’ll no longer have jam on her nose, she’ll look clean and well dressed.”
Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut: The Origins of the Collection continues at the Collection de l’Art Brut (11 Avenue des Bergières, Lausanne, Switzerland) through August 28.
People continues at the Collection de l’Art Brut (11 Avenue des Bergières, Lausanne, Switzerland) through November 13.