Thursday, October 23, 2008

Art Brut in Europe & Australia

(Psychiatric clinic/golf links? Youbetcha!)

Art Brut is seemingly enjoying increased attention in recent decades & there is ample evidence of this all over Europe. The Olomouc Museum of Modern Art just staged a revelatory survey of Czech Art Brut (this same gallery exhibited an exhaustive collection of Czech film poster art, Flashback, a couple years ago - the catalogue is stunning: seek it out if this is yr caper). Like previous exhibitions of its kind, this most recent one drew upon works from the private collection of Jan Svankmajer; among them, the botanical fabulations of the medium/mystic, Josef Kotzian.

(Josef Kotzian, Studie, 1922)

Meanwhile...Switzerland is seemingly populated by a crew of evil preppies from an unmade John Hughes film, but it is also home to the Musee de l'Art Brut - thus making it the essential centre of the known universe in respect of 'Outsider' creativity. My friend John Blades describes this place as "the greatest Museum in the world" and I totally concur: distinguished by the best collection of works I've ever seen in an art gallery, as well as sensitive presentation (tho' often in dim light, to retard fading of fragile & non-archival materials) and a scrupulous documentation. A viewing here is a profound & humbling experience. The works, synthesised from extremities of the human condition, consistently approach a quality of the absolute: uncompromising & intransigent.

(Henry Darger room at the Musee de l'Art Brut, Lausanne)

My first trip to Europe, I chanced upon some remaindered back-copies of the Italian journal, KOS; prized collectables now (Editor/Publisher, Franco Maria Ricci, since enjoys a much greater success with his journal, FMR), back then every bookshop in Firenze was throwing them out at 1000L apiece. My girlfriend & I did the rounds & tried to grab a complete set. Issue 36, Aprile-Maggio 1988, was a monograph on Adolf Wolfli, "Il creatore schizo".

The appeal of Art Brut for contemporary audiences is made nakedly apparent in Wolfli's art: more than 25,000 drawings, and 45 volumes of fantastic, fictionalised autobiography, proceeded from an adult life confined almost exclusively within institutions. But his work relates less a quality of obsession, than one of transcendance: a quasi-monastic dedication to his instinctive vocation.

Outside of hours attending the Lausanne Underground Film and Music Festival, I spent most of 2 days at the Museum, before making a pilgrimage (of sorts) to the site of Wolfli's internment, the Waldau Asylum, on the edge of the Northern suburbs of Bern.

(the view along WolfliStrasse, Waldau Asylum. In the distance is the former residence of Doctor Walter Morgenthaler)

The Swiss are a genuinely strange bunch (and forgive me for being so unkind a couple paragraphs earlier). For all their bourgeois reserve and discretion, they can be wonderfully humane as well; the Red Cross is only 1 instance of this and the Musee de l'Art Brut is definitely another. Here in Waldau, Adolf Wolfli - a recidivist sex offender and dysfunctional psychotic - has a street and a lecture theatre named after him.

(view towards the Kunstwerkstadt - occupational therapy art workshop. Not visible, but located behind it, is the Psychiatrie Museum)

The grounds at Waldau are beautiful, but inescapably melancholy. I'm not suprised when I discover that the writer, Robert Walser, was another inmate here: the paths and parkland recall settings for so much of his own work.

Anyway. The purpose of my visit: over in the Psychiatrie Museum the pride of their collection are Wolfli's wardrobes, which are covered every inch in his drawings and musical notation...

(Robert Walser's portrait, on the (viewer's) left; Morgenthaler, on the right)

The presentation here is very different to the Musee de l'Art Brut; this Museum serves principally in support of the pedagogical function of the University Psychiatric Department, so the context is strictly diagnostic. Visitors are infrequent (and yes, it did occur to me that I might be, err, 'mistaken', for a roaming nutter, & sectioned in consequence. Happily, I was able to make my return to Lausanne unimpeded).

(sadly, a lot of detail is lost in these images, and the pencilmarks are beginning to fade in any case. Essentially, they combine Wolfli's singular musical notation, and freize-illustrations of his cosmology: the life of St. Adolf II)

Back to Aus! I originally flew out via Sydney so I could scope Without Borders down at Cambelltown; now I figure to head back up there for John Blades' Brut Loops, next Thursday 30th October at Artspace. Details:

Brut Loops
A special night of Art Brut and Loops featuring: - an introduction to Art Brut by Professor Colin Rhodes (Dean of Sydney College of the Arts and internationally recognised authority on Art Brut and outsider art).
-a visual journey through incredible outsider environments in France with Philip Hammial .
- poetry readings by Phil Hammial.
- two short documentary films about Henry Darger and the anarchitect, Richard Greaves.
- talk about machines in the Journals of Anthony Mannix by Gareth Jenkins.
- exhibition of Australian outsider art.
- audiovisual performances by Ian Andrews and The Loop Orchestra.
- a short experimental film by Rik Rue.

The Loop Orchestra will be launching their new split CD released in China with two Chinese artists and a Swedish artist.

MC: Brent Clough from Radio National

Without Borders suffers from an elementary deficiency: the quality of the work, especially in respect of the Australian content. This will not be the case next Thursday evening (I am confident).

... and plus of which: John Blades clues me up, Professor Rhodes' personal collection of American & European Outsider Art is showing at the Orange Regional Gallery. So maybe I pass thru there on my way back to home?

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Blogger Beverly Kaye Gallery said...

I cannot thank you enough for the vicarious thrill I got reading about your Art Brut adventures. The Wolfli wardrobes are stunning! And the presentation of the double sided Darger drawings are superb. I'd give anything to see Colin Rhodes' collection. Thanks for laying out this trip......I must copy it someday soon.

1:31 am  
Blogger jim knox said...

You're welcome, Beverly. To get to Landau from Bern Central train station: catch the 24 suburban train (its a limited express) to Bollingen. Then take Bus 44 from the stop near the station - Waldau is the very next stop (though its a couple kms away). The drivers have limited English (French or German is fine) but if you tell them, "Waldau", "Wolfli", etc, they'll know what yr talking about.

Switzerland has some stunning landscapes, but the Art Brut is sensational; back in the city, KunstMuseum Bern is also home to the Wolfli Foundation, run by Elsa Spoerri.

11:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great read - and I'm really glad you saw the Czech stuff.
Shame you didn't like the Without Borders content. I think Dos Santos and Judith Scott are superb. And I enjoyed seeing Oz and NZ work that is relatively unfamiliar.
Hope you made it to Orange.
regards, Colin Rhodes

9:31 am  

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