Art Brut has been a well-established movement in the arts since the first exhibition of 'Raw Art' curated by Jean Dubuffet in 1948. But what about extending the idea of 'Raw Art' to 'Raw Poetry'? Can be there a 'Poesie Brut'? John O'Donoghue explores...
7 September 2011
In 1937 the Nazis mounted an exhibition in Munich they called Degenerate Art. Degenerate Art comprised modernist artworks mounted alongside the work of prisoners and the inmates of mental asylums. These were accompanied by text labels deriding the pieces exhibited. Artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Paul Klee all came in for Nazi scorn, as did the work of those on the margins of the Reich.
Designed to ridicule modernist art, ‘Degenerate Art’ was banned on the grounds that it was un-German or Jewish Bolshevist in nature, and ‘degenerate artists’ were subjected to sanctions. They were dismissed from teaching positions, forbidden to exhibit or to sell their art, and in some cases forbidden to produce art entirely.
This conflation of the work of prison inmates and mental asylums with leading modernist painters would not have struck intellectuals and artists of the time as in any way novel or disruptive. Modernist artists such as Gauguin, Picasso and Breton had looked to the ‘primitive’ and the ‘unconscious’ as sources of inspiration and as the site of liberation from the Academy. And interest in work by prisoners and the inmates of asylums harked back to the previous decade.
In 1921 Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his book Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) on Adolf Wölfli, a patient in his care. Wölfi’s most outstanding work is an illustrated epic of 45 volumes in which he narrates his own imaginary life story. With 25,000 pages, 1,600 illustrations, and 1,500 collages it is a monumental work. He also produced a large number of smaller works, some which were sold or given as gifts. A defining moment was the publication of Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) in 1922, by Dr Hans Prinzhorn.
This enlightened approach to art and to those artists who existed on the margins of society was cruelly shattered in the Degenerate Art exhibition. The Nazis sought to promote a volkisch, gemutlich art, and modernist experimentation and work by ‘misfits’ had no place in the Third Reich.
It took the work of another artist, the French sculptor and painter Jean Dubuffet, to resurrect interest in Degenerate Art. But Dubuffet came up with a different name for the work created by prisoners and the inmates of asylums. He called this art Art Brut, literally ‘Raw Art’. Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut in 1945 when he made his first trips to research marginal art work in Switzerland and in France.
Dubuffet was particularly struck by Prinzhorn’s Bildnerei der Geisteskranken and began his own collection of such art. Two years later the art dealer René Drouin put the basement of his gallery, Place Vendome, Paris, at Dubuffet's disposal, which became the “Foyer de l'Art Brut”. Art Brut is now an international art movement with its own aesthetics and canon of works. It features work by people on the margins – inmates of asylums, prisoners, the homeless, the very ‘degenerates’ the Nazis sought to eradicate.