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Outsider Art the Musée de L’Art Brut

One of the most engaging and inspiring exhibitions I have been to this year was the collection of works at the Musée de L'Art Brut, in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The three floors of art in this cleverly curated gallery are dotted with intriguing works and equally intriguing background information about each artist, with works ranging from paintings to sculpture to huge installation pieces. After looking at each piece, the observer is further amazed to read the background information for each, and myself, having a medical background, found it absolutely mesmerising.

This is because the information revealed a shocking truth, that these were not officially artists, instead, the people who created the works had serious problems, ranging from diagnosed mental illness and learning difficulties, to people whose works have been 'stumbled upon' who are isolated, in the background, hidden away, some with potentially undiagnosed illness, their artwork being an expression of their situation. Even though none of the artists have been trained as artists, and even though most have such mental illnesses, they have produced mind-blowing pieces of artwork.

Take for example the room full of a length of comic-strip style paintings, reminiscent of the drawings in little girls' annuals or storybooks, painted by Henry Drager, a gentleman who is now suspected of having some sort of mental illness – some say schizophrenia, others, autism or Asperger's syndrome, based on what is known about his erratic life.

This work is called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Looking closely at these paintings reveals a tense darkness behind the seemingly pleasant watercolour drawings of little girls.

Sinister scenes of torture, violence and fear on closer inspection, with the girls displaying male genitalia. These paintings, of which there are hundreds, were found after Drager died; pages of work which line up to create a continuous powerful visual story that makes the observer quite unnerved.

Another room is full of blue paintings by a woman who believed she was in touch with spirits, and drew their messages. The paintings are absolutely stunning in their use of different shades of blue; intricate, repetitive patterns which result in complex wave shapes, in which the artist believed were hidden messages she was expressing from another world.

Every floor displays works like this, some accompanied by quite horrendous stories of how the artist suffered severe mental illness, institutionalisation, and on their journey, a facilitated chance to express themselves through art, resulting in surprisingly consistent and wonderful works. Artists from abroad are included also, people who have been excluded from their society for their eccentricities and created large works in the process.

A good example is the Indian artist Nek Chand, who found a forest space, isolated, and then illegally created beautiful sculptures of people made out of old bangles and other discarded materials found on rubbish tips. His work at the Rock Garden of Chandigarh is a site of pilgrimage for thousands of art lovers.

What makes this exhibition unusual is that none of these people have had formal training in the arts, and most of them have suffered some sort of mental illness. Dubuffet, an artist in the 1920s, started the Art Brut movement, believing that people who did not have formal art training, and who were not 'real artists' should have their work recognised regardless of this.

He collected these works from non-artists all around the world and created the concept of 'outsider art' and art brut, 'raw art', meaning work that is not conventionally known as art or is by non-artists.

Most of Dubuffet's collection is by people who have been institutionalised, or diagnosed with mental illness, but some works are not accompanied with a formal diagnosis, although the observer, as a doctor, found herself thinking about the sorts of disorders that could create such interesting works.

Most of these artists are outsiders in some way, and have never ad any formal training in the arts, but it is quite certain that many of the works at the exhibition are better than those classified formally as 'real artworks' by 'professional artists'.

Does this mean that anyone is an artist? That everyone is an artist? Or does this mean that the new world of art - that of art buying, art connoisseurs, art as a superspecialty - is separate from the work of unrecognised artists because art has become commercial, and the art world pretentious?

And how has mental illness and disability influenced the power of these artworks? These people obviously had a gift, whether they were conscious of it or not, and part of the excitement of the work at the Musée de l'Art Brut is its purity, created naïve of the trappings of the art world, out of sadness, desperation, release, reality and life.

It is an eye-opening museum, and a must-see if in Lausanne, Switzerland.


The picture used above shows an example of outsider art: Adolf Wölfli's Irren-Anstalt Band-Hain, 1910