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Topics in Art

Art Brut

Ever hear of "art brut?" Chances are, especially if you have children, that you may have some. If they're young, it's probably on the refrigerator door. If not, check the old trunk in the attic where you keep their school report cards and scrapbooks. If you have no children, you may have some of your own art brut, especially if you have "pack rat" tendencies. What is "art brut?" Translated it means raw art. French artist Jean Dubuffet called it, "Art (that) doesn't lie down in the beds you make for it." If you collect weird things, rocks, seashells, dead flowers, funny shaped potato chips, or if you make weird things - wood carvings, indecipherable drawings and paintings - or even write weird things, music, poetry, especially if it's accompanied by illustrations, chances are you're into art brut. Perhaps it's easier to define by its limitations - art without training.

Though he had some early training in art, no one knew more about art brut than Jean Dubuffet. Though technically a Post-WW II painter, Dubuffet often used paint more like glue, merely as a colourful binder to incorporate just about anything else into his paintings. If it could be ground up and mixed with paint, it was fair game. Dubuffet became enthralled with the art of young children and attempted to carry this innocence into his own work. And he began to collect such things, primarily the work of the insane and mentally disturbed. When he died in 1984, he left a sizeable collection of his own work, and that of others which he'd amassed, to the Swiss city of Lausanne where he'd spent much of his youth. Even before his death, in 1975, in an 18th century chateau he owned there, Dubuffet opened his Collection de l'Art Brut, a sort of "anti-museum" to display some 5,000 pieces of such work. Today, the museum has about 30,000 pieces, of which only about 800 can be displayed at one time (a plight apparently shared by anti-museums as well as those of the regular sort).

So, what might you find on the dark, blackened walls of an "anti-museum?" How about stones collected by an Austrian prince which resemble animals or figures. He believed they were prehistoric sculptures. Or the work of Aloise, a former governess at the court of Germany's Kaiser Willhelm II. Her brightly coloured drawings were her only communicative outlet as she did all the ironing at an asylum to which she'd been committed for her "extreme pacifism." Then there's the collection of people and animal figures once belonging to a telephone operator (thought by her to have magical powers). There's also the amazing, colourful costumes sewn together by an American drifter from scraps of cloth he begged for on the street. You'll find figurines made of bread crumbs and unbaked clay dipped in glue - a whole orchestra of them in fact. The anti-museum even has an entire wall of intricately carved wood from a French asylum, hewn with a broken spoon by a French shepherd confined for trying to set fire to his family home with burning bank notes.

One of the anti-museum's most amazing works is a 15-volume manuscript with hundreds of illustrations, some more than ten feet wide, detailing the adventures of seven sisters in a bloody war of liberation against the Landelinians, a fictional group of villains who enslaved children. The watercolour paintings and their accompanying manuscript, The Realms of the Unreal, were the work of Henry J. Darger, a Chicago hermit and part-time hospital custodian, who died in 1973. His landlord found them and donated them to the museum. About the same time, a Swiss psychiatric patient wrote music, not words, accompanying himself with similar fanciful drawings of exquisite detail and beauty. It was music no one as yet been able to decipher. For all its varied forms, art brut is art from the frontiers of mental excursion. It is art in revolt. Some of it is art only by the broadest definition of the term. All of it is art in its purest, rawest, unrefined form - art which operates within its own realm of creative expression.

contributed by Lane, Jim

26 January 2001
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