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Art Brut – Every Artist’s Creations Have a Right to Be Seen

The debate around modern art, its values, criteria, and how it’s perceived by an audience and critics, will exist as long as art exists. In other words, it will always exist.

The art world, currently, is overcoming such global challenges as the pandemic and financial and economic crises, which directly impacts both the artists and the collectors. Art galleries are inventing new methods of artist promotion, investors are making predictions, while artists explore new content and styles and keep a close eye on current events to posit a new point of view on today’s world. Yet, the art world is not as insular as before: the borders are melting away, and communication across those who make up this world is not only still there, but is also actively evolving.

There existed, however, another form of art where artists and their creations occupy a space completely outside this environment, free of any frameworks and stereotypes. This is outsider art, or art brut, which is considered the ‘purest’ form of art based on incidental psychological content taken from the artist’s deep consciousness and subconscious, existing on paper or other kinds of material.

Vladimir Abakumov, who founded the first and only Russian Museum of Outsider Art, helps us understand the details of this ‘raw’ art.

Vladimir Abakumov,Director of the Museum of Outsider Art

The Insular History of Art Brut and the Artists Who Create It

Hello Vladimir. Thanks for taking time to speak with us. For starters, can you please clarify, which term is better to use, art brut or outsider art?

Art brut is a French term coined by Jean Dubuffet, which literally means ‘raw art’ or even ‘low art’. Meanwhile, outsider art was originated by Roger Cardinal, an art expert, in 1972. This is the best English equivalent of art brut (Iskusstvo postoronnikh – its Russian equivalent). Both are terms are good to use. However, there are subtle stylistic differences: the French term is more applicable to the art itself, while the English one denotes the artists and their way of life outside the traditional artistic environment.

Alright, now that we have a better idea of the terminology, can we talk a bit more about the artists that followed this style? Who actually are they? People with mental illness, freaks, or, perhaps, even criminals?

Art brut artists are kind of outcasts, both socially and culturally. Most of them,indeed, have psychic problems, but their need for creative work is inevitable. Their works are rather imaginative and unconventional, based not on perception of reality, but on reflection of an internal alternative world of the creator.

It is believed that this style appeared thanks to Jean Dubuffet, a successful French artist and sculptor. Not only did he coin the art brut term, but also built one of the most significant collections of outsider art works, which is now a part of the Art Brut Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Jean Dubuffet turned his attention to the art of [clinically] insane people after a book by Hans Prinzhorn called Artistry of the Mentally Ill was published in 1922.

It is generally accepted that France and Switzerland are historical centers of outsider art. In the early to mid-20th century, France was the home of a rather focussed artistic environment, which proved fruitful for various artists, helping them to find new styles and forms.

The same period in Switzerland was the era of psychiatry, with art therapy gaining particular influence. Psychiatrists could now access and analyse the work of talented mentally ill people . Naturally, while all works were important in terms of psychoanalysis, around 85% of them were considered to have no artistic value, or, putting it bluntly, were straight trash. Yet, there were some very good and interesting examples, too.

According to Dubuffet’s definition, there are two most important criteria of art brut: no contact with the artistic environment (personal or professional), and a kind of artistic impetuosity. Once having found their own touch, an artist may continue working with it for a lifetime. Another thing is that even a few dozen of works is not enough for an outsider artist: there should be hundreds or thousands. When it comes to art brut, one should not also be oriented towards the common artistic world benchmarks and try to find some particular ideas in the outsider creations; more often than not, those are just products of fevered imagination.

What is Art Brut? What is it Not?

Speaking of Dubuffet, he once compared the traditional artists with monkeys and chameleons, because of their changing style and dependence on public opinion.

This is what he actually said: ‘Nous entendons par là des ouvrages exécutés par des personnes indemnes de culture artistique, dans lesquels donc le mimétisme, contrairement à ce qui se passe chez les intellectuels, ait peu ou pas de part, de sorte que leurs auteurs y tirent tout (sujets, choix des matériaux mis en œuvre, moyens de transposition, rythmes, façons d’écriture, etc.) de leur propre fond et non pas des poncifs de l’art classique ou de l’art à la mode. Nous y assistons à l’opération artistique toute pure, brute, réinventée dans l’entier de toutes ses phases par son auteur, à partir seulement de ses propres impulsions. De l’art donc où se manifeste la seule fonction de l’invention, et non celles, constantes dans l’art culturel, du caméléon et du singe.’[1]

Which animal do you think is best to compare with outsider artists?

I believe my comparison is not at all flattering, but their style and way of life reminds me of moles and platypuses.

When isolation is one the fundamental criteria of of art brut, how do connoisseurs get the outsider artists’ works? How did you personally build your collection?

Just like Dubuffet, I had to visit a lot of psychiatric clinics where I met both psychiatrists and artists. When I was a director at the Humanities Center, my coworkers and I ran very successful projects in the USSR and other countries. Then, my collection turned into a museum; first, artists’ family members arrived to bring more works, and then general audience appeared. Most of the works cannot be analyzed traditionally, and many of them are not interesting, neither to connoisseurs nor to the audience, I had to base my expertise on my own emotions and perception. I picked the paintings where I could feel the powerful artistic energy – the bursting troubled soul, if I may put it this way.

It may sound surprising, but art brut did influence the artistic world in general. Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist and art historian I have already mentioned, believed there were no large differences between the traditional art and that of mentally ill people. A progressive expert, he deliberately included the works that could, in his opinion, influence art in general, into his book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. This book became a desk companion for Pablo Picasso, André Breton and other renowned influencers in the world of art.

Transformational Potential – Purveyance of Outsider Art

Do people buy art brut works to keep them at home?

I know some cases, but this is rare. It is known that David Bowie, Robbie Williams, and Madonna have large art brut collections, but this is, most likely, not for home decorations.

Does outsider art have any investment potential?

Of course. One can buy art brut works in the Outsider Art Fair, which takes place every year. Outsider art is also promoted by many charity organizations.

When it comes to pricing, the artist’s name, their awareness, interviews, and other information matters. When there are no connections with the artistic environment and very little promotion, where does the valuation come from?

Initially, outsider art was never expensive. What has a good investment potential now are rare works by those who already died. My museum has 4,000 creations, and the authors of 70% of them are no longer alive. The Outsider Art auction run by Christis offers works by Henry Darger or Bill Tailor, among others. They are dead as well, and their works may cost up to $75,000.

On the other hand, art brut is gaining popularity, and the audience is getting interested, which also impacts the pricing. The Gugging Gallery, formerly a psychiatry clinic, and now an art brut center, is worth mentioning in this context. Outsider artists’ works are both exhibited and sold here. A single work might have cost a few dollars here in the 70s, while now the price has gone well up. Most outsider artists, however, are not very much worried whether their works are going to be sold or not; the process of creation is what matters to them.

The ironic thing, however, is when the artists say they belong to art brut. In this case, they become ‘commercial’ artists at once. This most often happens in the US, a country with a huge number of galleries, including art brut ones.

Alright, then, do you mean that Yayoi Kusama, an artist working out of a psychiatric hospital, is not an outsider because she is recognized by the global community? That being despite her reclusive life and an officially diagnosed mental disease?

Correct, she is not. You can use another term here, though: a psychotic.

A traditional example of a psychotic artist is Rosa Zharkikh. For over a decade, she worked with graphics, then with fine textile art. She was a hermit and died alone in her chaotic house. Her body was discovered after a while, because she had no contact with the outside world.

Rosa Zharkikh, Parallel World

It is also worth mentioning that art brut implies various criteria, not just mental illness. You won’t be able to understand whether this is an outsider art example or not, just by looking at a painting. Surrealist artists alter their consciousness on purpose, just to create psychedelic works, but this can’t be called art brut, because it is done deliberately.

Dealing with artistic people in general is hard. One can imagine what may happen if you liaise with mentally ill people…

I always tried to communicate with outsiders like I would do so with artists, not with insane people. There were some issues, of course. Sometimes we would arrange an exhibition, get some works from the artist, and get brochures and invitation cards, while having severe financial problems… Then, just imagine: the artist would say: ‘Stop it, I don’t want to do this anymore, you don’t have my consent.’

When it comes to art brut, the works, not only the artists, also require a special approach. Michel Thévoz, an art expert who arranged the first art brut exhibition in Lausanne, understood that better than anyone else. This is why he did not provide any names or information on the technique, only a photo and a short bio.

He’d ask, ‘Why would we give a name to a work created by mere chance?’

Challenges Facing a Disruptive Art Form in Eastern Europe

Can you please tell a bit more about your Outsider Art Museum? How did it all start?

It started with the Humanities Center, which focused on modern art and theater. We had some fashion shows, with which we traveled around the USSR. In 1990, we arranged an exhibition in the Medicine Museum, showcasing works by mentally ill people. These works were taken from various psychiatric hospitals by Alexey Ivanov, my friend who was working with a charity at that time. Year after year, we eventually built an extensive collection, which helped us open the first Outsider Art Museum exhibition in 1996. That was the first exhibition of this form of art, which helped add to the comprehensive view of a modern art process in Russia. We had a brilliant team then; Anna Yarkina deserves special mention, she did a lot to let the Russians know about the outsider art.

Is there any interest in art brut in today’s Russia?

While in France and Switzerland primitive (including psychopathological expression) was perceived as a source of inspiration and development of artistic ideas, in totalitarian Russia, creations of mental patients were considered manifestations of a disturbed conscience for a very long time.

Art brut still does not have such a large niche in Russia as the one in the US or Europe, where the interest towards it appeared at the same time as the relevant style and psychiatrist studies. In Vienna, for instance, mentally ill people’s works have been popular with connoisseurs and experts for decades, and are exhibited in museums on a regular basis, side by side with the world-renowned paintings. On the other hand, in the US there are so many private collections and galleries, that the line between ‘true’ art brut and commercial art is really blurred. In Russia, on the contrary, most financing goes to academic art, and experts are mostly after the same.

My museum was the only venue in Russia to solely exhibit art brut. We’ve got the Naive Art Museum, that has cross-section of non-academic art, connected in some way with Outsider Art, but that’s another story.

Why did you move to Montenegro, and was it successful in terms of art promotion?

I had to move mostly due to financial reasons. We had a discounted rent in Moscow, but it started going up by around $15,000 every single quarter. Keeping art works in Croatia is less expensive. Yet, when it comes to artistic promotion, it’s not that successful, since this is mostly about sandy beaches and tourism in general. Russians are mostly considered moneybags here. We are not supposed to have any issues with business promotion or financing.

In neighboring Serbia, however, the interest towards art brut is substantial. There is a famous non-mainstream art museum with many exhibitions, and the Art Fair for Outsiders, as well biennial and triennial exhibitions for non-mainstream art arranged by the Ministry of Culture and Information. In 2016, I was a member of the jury for these exhibitions and contests.

Thank you very much, Vladimir, for telling us about this reclusive art brut world. We do hope the Russian audience will become more interested in this style. We wish you success in working with your museum now based in Montenegro.

Thanks for your interest towards outsider art, Victoria. Good luck in working with your gallery.


[1] By this, we mean the works created by people free from artistic culture, in which mimicry, unlike what happens with intellectuals, plays a small or no part at all. Such authors use everything (themes, materials, means of transposition, rhythms, ways of writing, etc.) from their own background and not from the clichés of classical or fashionable art. We are thus witnessing a very pure, raw artistic action, reinvented in its entirety at all stages by the author, based solely on their own impulses. This means, the art where the mere invention function manifests itself, and not that cultural art of chameleons and monkeys.