Art Art

Outsider Art

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 18 May 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1222
  1. Gavin Yamey, deputy editor, wjm—Western Journal of Medicine
  1. Oakland, California, USA

    The Musgrave Kinley Collection from the Irish Museum of Modern Art

    Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until 2 June 2002

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    What is the last piece of art that you looked at? The chances are that it was in a gallery, produced by an art school graduate, and that it was worth a small fortune in the lucrative art market. Even if it was a radical or conceptual piece—a cow sliced in half, a pile of bricks—it was probably deeply rooted in a cosy art establishment.

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    Untitled, Johann Hauser

    But there is another kind of art being made that is “exhibited” in psychiatric hospitals and orphanages, on prison walls, and in bus shelters and public lavatories. The artists are usually socially excluded, untrained, and often severely mentally ill. They are “outsiders”—not part of the sophisticated art world—expressing their inner lives through art, with no intention of becoming professionals.

    The Whitworth Art Gallery is showing one of the most important collections of such art, a collection initiated in 1981 by the poet, film maker, and gallery director Victor Musgrave, with his partner, Monika Kinley. It is easy to see why “outsider art” is also called Art Brut (raw art), since the paintings and sculptures are informal, unfettered by art conventions, bursting with colour, and laden with powerful, often bizarre, imagery.

    Looking at this imagery as a doctor, it is tempting to focus on the clues that it contains about the artists' psychotic illnesses. For example, many of the paintings include writings, such as neologisms and jumbled sentences—often in painstakingly tiny script—that suggest disordered thought. There are religious symbols and repetitive motifs that may represent automatisms. Indeed psychiatrists from as early as the late 19th century began collecting their patients' art as “specimens” to help guide diagnosis and treatment.

    But there is a danger in viewing “outsider art” in this way. By dismissing it merely as diagnostic clues, we risk seeing the creative process of the outsider artist as a byproduct of illness, and one that is fundamentally different to that used by “real” artists.

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    Maisons, Frederic Vaudour

    It was the psychiatrist Dr Hans Prinzhorn, of the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, who first rejected the idea that art produced by mentally ill artists must somehow have different roots from the “normal” creative process. In his 1922 book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, he presented a detailed analysis of art by patients, including 10 known as the “schizophrenic masters.” Visual creativity, Prinzhorn argued, was not the preserve of the cultured or educated, but was a basic human trait within each of us.

    The biographies of the artists shown in the Musgrave Kinley collection are as complicated and fascinating as the art itself. For example, there are two line drawings by the Californian artist Dwight Mackintosh, who was nicknamed “the boy who time forgot.”

    Diagnosed as mentally disabled as a boy, Mackintosh lived most of his life in psychiatric hospitals, and was finally released at the age of 72, after 56 years of institutionalisation. After his release, he became a prolific artist, using mostly felt tip pens to draw an array of damaged machinery, cars and buses, animals, and musical instruments, most of which are accompanied by intriguing snippets of text.

    Perhaps the best known artist in the collection is Henry Darger. His intricate pictures show strange creatures and androgynous, fused femaleforms, involved in epic battles of good against evil. Darger's life story sheds some light on these recurring themes.

    Darger's mother died when he was four, shortly after giving birth to his sister, who was subsequently given up for adoption. The loss of his sister is thought to have been the pivotal event in Darger's life. Abandoned at the age of 8 by his father, at the age of 12 he was committed to the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in Illinois. The diagnosis? Masturbation.

    He escaped five years later, and ended up living most of his life in a single room, working as a bandage roller and toilet cleaner in hospitals in Chicago. It was in this room that Darger secretly painted, while also writing an eight volume autobiography and a 12 volume epic called The Realms of the Unreal featuring a mythical group of siblings called the Vivian girls.

    Not all the works on show are as complex as Darger's. There is a beautifully understated line drawing of a pair of spectacles by Oswald Tschirtner, and simple rooftops drawn with coloured pencils by Frederic Vaudour.

    So much of contemporary art, said Victor Musgrave, is “bland and supine in the well-crafted chains of its own making.” In contrast, the outsiders “give a great and joyous shout: ‘We are artists, we are explorers, we go where no man has trod before. Follow us if you dare!’” This is a fitting invitation to this refreshing, uplifting exhibition.


    • Thanks to Joan Beadle for information on the history of “outsider ar.”

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