HISTORY OF OUTSIDER ART
Maizels is Founder and Founder of RAW VISION, International
Journal of Intuitive and
Visionary Art, Outsider Art, Art Brut, Contemporary
Folk Art, Self Taught Art, and author of
RAW CREATION, Outsider Art and Beyond (Phaidon Press,
1996) and joint author of FANTASY
WORLDS (Taschen, 1999).
From the earIiest beginnings of society, art has
had a cuItural function. In primitive
communities it had its role in ritual and magic.
As time went by, magic was transformed,
turned into religion and art was harnessed to enhance
its power. As religion and government
became more entwined, art was employed to enhance
the power of the state.
society developed, so did the function of art. It
gradually became part of high culture,
its subject matter closely linked with the glorification
of the ruling classes of the time and their
accepted outlook. Practically all the art that has
survived over the centuries falls into this
By the mid-nineteenth century, art began to break
away from the cultural stranglehold that
surrounded it. But even the great avant-garde movements
of the twentieth century found
themselves firmly part of the cultural elite of
the day. The sequence of events, from the
Barbizon to Impressionism, to Post-Impressionism
to Expressionism and so on through the
twentieth century, have an easily defined logic.
One can clearly see how one thing led to
another, how the different movements have a firmly
defined place in the sequential progress
of art history.
all this time, there was another art. An art created
by people with no contact with
the great cultural and intellectual conventions
of the day. People who worked only for
themselves, with an inner compulsion to create.
There is little space for them in the annuls
of art history. Hardly any of their work was even
noticed at the time, let alone survived
beyond it. In the early years of the century there
was one situation where those of culture
and learning came into sympathetic contact with
some of the lowest elements of society
and were made aware that another art existed.
With the introduction of more humane practices in
the mental hospitals of Europe, lowly
patients were at last being treated as human beings.
Every detail of thelr daily exlstence
was examlned with great fascination. A few enlightened
doctors realised that some patients
were producing, entirely spontaneously, highly original
The German doctor, Hans Prinzhorn, made a huge collection
of works from mental hospitals
and in 1922 published the first serious study of
patient art, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Although
the text was in German it was packed with illustrations
and its influence among artists of the
avant-garde soon spread. Paul Klee, Max Ernst and
the Surrealists were all strongly affected
by it, but none more so than the young French painter,
Immediately after World War II, Dubuffet began his
own search for unusual works by mental
patients. He visited asylums in France and Switzerland
and began to build up a collection.
He soon realised that it was not only the mentally
ill who were capable of producing totally
original and unusual works, but also rare individuals
from other walks of life. He came
across the paintings, drawings and objects made
by mediums, pastry cooks, housewives,
junk dealers and postman - all manner of perfectly
sane individuals who nevertheless
possessed the ability to produce unique and compelling
works of art.
Dubuffet had made a major discovery. Art which had
its roots deep within the psyche,
art which owed nothing to art history or contemporary
culture, art that was produced
compulsively and intuitively could happen anywhere.
This was an art with no name, an
art with no history, an art with no place in books
Dubuffet gave this nameless art an identity and
an intellectual rationale. He termed it
ART BRUT, or Raw Art. Raw because it was uncooked
by culture, unaffected by art
school training or contemporary trends and fashions.
Art in its rawest and purest state.
realised that this art was not just the equal of
cultural art - it was a superior art
form.The directness of expression, the process of
pure automatism, the wealth of invention,
lack of artistic influence, all went to produce
the purest form of visual expression yet
Dubuffet became insplred by these unknown creators
who could work with total dedication and
involvement for years on end, and yet never exhibit
their works or even have the need for an
audience. He began to see culture as the great enemy
of true creativity. Culture had an
asphyxiating effect, smothering even the most aggressive
of avant-garde movements.
After 30 years of collecting, Dubuffet╣s great Collection
de l╣Art Brut was given a home by the
City of Lausanne and thIs new Museum opened its
doors in 1972. It remains one of the worlds
greatest art museums and has been an inspiration
to others to follow its example.
Outsider Art has been called OThe Hidden Face of
Contemporary Art╣, rather like the hidden
face of the Moon. It was the interest and enthusiasm
of contemporary artists that allowed it to
surface, although for many years it lived almost
a clandestine existence, in the shadows of the
The most well known outsider artist from Scotland
is Scottie Wilson. Born in Glasgow in 1888,
he left school at the age of nine, becoming a market
trader, joining the army, and emigrated to
Canada after the first world war. He opened a small
junk shop where, well into his forties, he
discovered, quite by chance as he tried out some
old fountain pens, a passion for drawing.
His pictures evoke strange realms of enchanting
beauty, populated with OGreedies╣ and
OEvils╣, as well as delightful fountains, fish,
birds and castles that evoked memories from
his childhood. Scottie realised he could make a
living by selling his pictures, and returned to
Britain where he was Odiscovered╣ by London galleries.
Both Picasso and Dubuffet collected
Scottie╣s work, and many of Scottie╣s pictures are
now in the major galleries of North America
Madge Gill is another classic and wonderful British
outsider artist. She was born in London in 1884,
an illegitimate child, who became a nurse and lived
with her aunt who was a spiritualist. She married
and had three sons, one of whom died in an influenza
epidemic. At the age of 35 she became
seriously ill and lost the sight of one eye, after
giving birth to a still-born daughter. Madge Gill
became a medium, and began to draw, paint, embroider
and knit, often working in bed by the light
of an oil lamp. She felt that she was guided in
her work by a spirit called OMyinerest╣ (perhaps
meaning Omy innerest self╣?). She created hundreds
of drawings, some on long rolls of calico,
many on postcards, using black Indian ink or coloured
inks. The main image is a recurring female
figure with an oval face, surrounded by complex
and decorative designs (see picture). She continued
drawing until her death at age 77. Her work is in
numerous public collections in Britain and abroad.
Art holds in question our established beliefs of
art education and art history. It is a
glorification of the individual, creating only for
themselves, without need of training or a critical
explanation or awareness of art history. It is the
purest and most natural form of visual expression.
Its influence can only grow stronger as more people
discover its power and its purity.
Further Reading CARDINAL, Roger. Outsider Art. Studio
Vista, London. 1972. MAIZELS,
John. Raw Creation. Outsider Art and Beyond. Phaidon
Press Ltd. 1996. THEVOZ, Michel.
Art Brut. (English translation). Skira, Rizzoli
International Publications. London and New York.
1976; reprinted 1995. von SCHWAEWEN, Deidi & MAIZELS,
John. Fantasy Worlds. Taschen,
1999. Images show (1) Scottie Wilson - │Mask▓ (
Pen, ink with colour crayon ) (2) Madge Gill -
Mother and Child ( Pen and ink on card)