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Art brut

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

[Fr.: ‘raw art’]. Term used from the mid-1940s to designate a type of art outside the fine art tradition. The commonest English-language equivalent for art brut is ‘Outsider art’. In North America, the same phenomenon tends to attract the label ‘Grass-roots art’. The French term was coined by Jean Dubuffet, who posited an inventive, non-conformist art that should be perfectly brut, unprocessed and spontaneous, and emphatically distinct from what he saw as the derivative stereotypes of official culture. In July 1945 Dubuffet initiated his searches for art brut, attracted particularly by the drawings of mental patients that he saw in Switzerland. In 1948 the non-profit-making Compagnie de l’Art Brut was founded, among whose partners were André Breton and the art critic Michel Tapié. The Collection de l’Art Brut was supported for a while by the company but was essentially a personal hobby horse of Dubuffet and remained for three decades an almost entirely private concern, inviting public attention only at exhibitions in 1949 (Paris, Gal. René Drouin) and 1967 (Paris, Mus. A. Déc.). In 1971 Dubuffet bequeathed the whole collection to the City of Lausanne, where it was put on permanent display to the public at the Château de Beaulieu. At the time of opening (1976), the collection comprised 5000 works by c. 200 artists, but it grew thereafter.

Dubuffet’s criteria for art brut were elaborated in a stream of texts, many polemical, some analytical, which include prefaces and letters, studies of individuals published in the house journal L’Art brut, and the abrasive tract Asphyxiante culture (1968). Dubuffet’s ideal of autonomous inspiration rests on a model of the creator being somehow insulated from all social and cultural influences, devoid of all schooling in the arts, and unaware of traditions or preset compositional formulae. The authentic specimen of art brut should be the unsolicited fruit of its maker’s personal resources, being of value precisely as an index of the fertility and independence of individual vision. It should furthermore be made without thought of financial gain or public recognition. In due course Dubuffet had to relax his more stringent stipulations, conceding that even the most self-sufficient artist could hardly avoid some exposure to external influences. Nonetheless, he insisted, the concept of art brut remained an ‘ideal pole’ and a significant point of orientation. In practice the selection of items for his collection was sometimes determined by Dubuffet’s prejudices and hunches: thus he would occasionally attribute excessive virtue to lacklustre work that happened to meet his other criteria or would somewhat spitefully exclude exciting work by individuals who had transgressed his ‘rules’ by exhibiting commercially. Although the phenomenon of art brut is incontrovertible, debate seems likely to persist with regard to the precise delimitation of its territory. Some difficulties arise because Dubuffet’s thinking was focused on the status or posture of the creator rather than on the finished work. A purely aesthetic standard for evaluating works of art brut has never been agreed.

If Dubuffet’s definition avoided singling out any one medium or style, it can be shown that a remarkable proportion of the artists falling into the category were ill-educated, retiring persons whose impulse to create arose late in life, often under the pressure of an emotional trauma, and took the form of a compulsive proliferation such that an isolated piece is often less telling than the cyclical ensemble. The Swiss psychotic adolf Wölfli, for example, spent some 30 years amassing in his asylum cell an enormous pictorial autobiography in which imaginary travels on a galactic scale are represented in colourful, tautly knit designs backed by florid captions and a ceaseless textual commentary. The London housewife Maud Ethel [Madge] Gill (1882–1961) claimed inspiration from the spirit world and over four decades produced an astonishing profusion of ink drawings that depict staring female faces caught in uncanny, asymmetrical interiors. The French mental patient Guillaume Pujolle (1893–c. 1965) translated his deliriums into watercolours in which recognizable forms dipped in eerie tints of black and pink dissolve amid quivering arabesque lines, to create a strong visionary effect . The French farmer Emile Ratier (1894–1984) had to stop work at the age of 66 because he was going blind. His reaction to disability was to fashion toys out of rough wood and nails, and in due course he succeeded in constructing such large-scale working models as a two-metre high Eiffel Tower complete with moving lift and roundabouts on each floor. These crudely finished yet curiously assertive mechanisms have an ambiguous appeal. Whereas the Collection de l’Art Brut is predominantly composed of pictures and relatively small carvings and assemblages, it would seem legitimate to extend the term art brut to cover extensive environmental works fashioned in a similar spirit by creators such as Le Facteur (Ferdinand) Cheval (1836–1924) and Simon Rodia. Far removed from the mimetic aspirations of much naive art (with which it has erroneously been bracketed), art brut should above all be seen as an art of the subjective, the engrossed pursuit of inner obsessions, sign-systems and configurations. As such, its appeal is idiosyncratic and offbeat, although its marginal position on the general map of art does not preclude its products from exhibiting genuine power and a strange beauty.

Roger Cardinal
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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