Saturday, 14 November 2009

Art Brut in Gugging

A poem expresses what comes from the heart by way of the intellect, according to the poet R S Thomas. But what if the intellect is badly damaged? Does that make the poetry, or any work of art for that matter, any less valid?

Pablo Picasso, went further than Thomas. Picasso said that the artist must not seek but find - finding is a letting go and falling into a state beyond intellectual choices. Adolf Wölfi° filled 25,000 sheets of paper with drawings and writings during his 35 years at the Waldau Lunatic Asylum in Switzerland. Artist or madman?

Art is born in the unconscious. The poet's inner ear is open to his inner voice. He doesn't over-employ the intellect but he uses it, to bring order to his work, in almost the same way that a bricklayer uses a string, a trowel and a spirit-level.

Truly original artists are the few not touched by convention. They belong to no school. They are as Michel Thevoz says: masters of the unstable, traitors to the guild, intellectual slaves to truth, brilliant bootleggers and double agents.

These then are the art brut artists. And whatever such an artist produces is bound to be autochthonous. The work stems completely from himself. He owes his creation to nobody. You cannot teach him what is taught in your guild. It is pointless. He will ignore it. He is instructed only by his subconscious. By his own letting go.

Jean Dubuffet who coined the term art brut describes the art brut artists and their friends the primitives as being driven by inner forces which draw upon a true source. The artists of the Occident have lost touch with their roots. It might be possible for us to learn something from these so-called savages. It might be that the refinement, spirituality and emotional depth are with them, Dubuffet says.

Johann Feilacher, who regards himself as an artists' assistant, at Gugging Artists reckons that the work of art brut artists such as August Walla (All Kinds of Many Gods) is on the same level as that of household names like Miro, Warhol, Kokoschka and Klee. Art world trends are immune from compassion, he points out. By purchasing works like Net of Roses and Red Zebra museums were admitting that the works were of equal value to those of Miro & co.

In the early 1940's Central Europe's psychiatric wards were cleared out by the Nazis and the patients systematically murdered. After the war the same wards were replenished with greater numbers. By the 1950's conditions were catastrophic.

At Vienna's Gugging Sanatorium there was for a time only one doctor for 1,500 patients. Things gradually improved to a more managable 2 doctors with 500 patients each. One of these doctors was Leo Navratil, a pioneer of diagnostic drawing tests. Conducting the tests he soon recognized a specific symbolism at work and in 1965 he published his Schizophrenia & Art. This and other of his publications exploring the psychological link between artistic creativity and pathological conditions became known as signposts.

At Gugging the focus is on the patients artistic strengths rather than their illnesses. In the Gugging House of Artists each of the 14 artists finds himself a place, a table, a corner, where he can be creative. Some do this of their own accord. Others like a second person to be present when they work. There is no time pressure and no pressure to succeed. Every artist invited to live in the House of Artists is allowed all the time in the world.

Sadly, there have been some recent instances of faked art brut being sold as originals. Gugging art, I was told, is sold on a contract and commission basis. The artist receives 70% of the sale price. The remaining 30% goes to Atelier Gugging and the Gugging Artists' Gallery.

The Blue Star - the society's journal is published twice yearly.

°In 1921 Walter Morgenthaler wrote Adolf Wölfi - insane man as artist. Morgenthaler was the first to dare call an insane person an artist.
*The above painting is a Poet-in-Residence attempt at art brut. It's a bird.
'More at 'zen my ass' 16-Feb-2017


  1. I shall have to think about this one Poet - all too much for me to take in at one reading.
    But it all reminds me of a wonderful man in the Hebrides who, although thought of as "an imbecile" to quote the locals, made the most beautiful woven artefacts with exquisite workmanship - makes one think doesn't it.

  2. People said Van Gogh was mad.
    Nowadays people fly from Japan to sprinkle dead people's ashes over Van Gogh's grave at Auvers in France.

    I guess the answer, like the case of your Hebridean artist, depends on the standpoint, your life's experience, and the breadth and dimension of your thought.

    One man's madman may well be another man's prophet or genius.


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