Sunday, October 16, 2016

Art From the Outside (Looking In)

An untitled element from Emery Blagdon's Healing Machine. This photo and
the two inset below were found on this Дай зин! webzine page.
(Click to enlarge.)

"As a young man, he apparently lost his parents and three of his five younger siblings to cancer, and he designed his shed––which housed a system of elegant, spindly mobiles and delicate freestanding sculptures made out of baling wire and found objects––to produce energy fields with preventative, restorative, and curative powers. The objects’ reflective, kinetic, and color properties were intended to resonate and release an electromagnetic force to combat physical and psychic pain. Blagdon’s cure also relied on an equally remarkable, but smaller, group of abstract geometrical panel paintings, which display a transcendental sense of color, proportion, and pattern."

- From Rachel Brice's 2009 post: Emery Blagdon and His Healing Machines.

"In the past century the human spirit's great need for the creation of art has come sharply to the fore – not through the commercialized vulgarity that is now the art market (my GOD – could anything so high sink so LOW?), but rather through the intimate obsessive worlds of artists (outsider or otherwise) who create for themselves and themselves alone, without thought of monetary gain, public approbation or acceptance of any kind.

...Compelled to create a world of healing machines to stave off illness, Emery Blagdon gave light and meaning to his life through wire, tinfoil, and a variety of organic and inorganic materials. These machines, and the paintings that helped power them, brought down and focused healing energy to allow Blagdon to continue living. Did he create to live or live to create? As with all true artists, the answer is either elusive, or both - but in Blagdon's case it is particularly poignant because just a few months after his machines stopped working he tragically passed away."

- From composer John Zorn's (2016) .pdf: Emery Blagdon. (Inset, left: another element of Blagdon's Healing Machine.)

"Over the years, the parameters of Outsider Art have expanded dramatically to include art made by a wide variety of art-makers who share this common denominator of raw creativity. Outsiders come from all walks of life, from all cultures, from all age groups.

In recent years, Outsider Artists may have even come to outnumber Insider Artists who have achieved critical validation within the elite art world, and yet who speak with increasingly less clarity and relevance to us about the human experience. Dubuffet's description of officially recognized art has never been more relevant: 'everyone immediately sprinkles it with champagne, and lecturers lead it from town to town with a ring through its nose. This is the false Monsieur Art.'"

- Excerpt from a description of Outsider Art found on this Outsider Art Fair page.


It's probably interesting to note that two of the quotes (above) regarding Outsider Artist, Emery Blagdon, originate from a belly dancer (Rachel Brice), and a musician (John Zorn), as opposed to an art critic or an art historian. And, why is this? Well, it might have to do with the nature of Emery Blagdon himself. Born in 1907, he was a self-taught artist living in the outbacks of Nebraska, who spent over 30 years of his life assembling an art installation (of sorts) - his Healing Machine - which he never intended to exhibit, and one of which he never sold one molecule of. In other words, he was a creator's creator, following his own inner vision and instinct and, pretty much, ignoring the rest of world; specifically the art world. Had his work not been "discovered" in the 1970's by Dan Dryden - a Nebraskan pharmacist who would eventually work as a sound engineer for the Philip Glass Ensemble in New York - his monumental work may have been disassembled for scrap metal after his death and the world would be none the wiser.

Then again, creatives of all persuasions find inspiration in the realm of Outsider Art. Once again, the Outsider represents the true artist's artist... understood more deeply by artists themselves as opposed to the curators, the critics, the categorizers, and the culture mavens who flock to the carcasses of artistic endeavor. So, in the eyes of the world Emery Blagdon was an oddball. In the eyes of a fellow artist, Blagdon is both a hero and an anti-hero; a maverick who left his mark outside the mainstream before the "mainstream" ultimately absorbed him. (Inset, right: a third element from the Healing Machine.)

But, in many respects, Emery Blagdon's story is a happy one compared to many of the Outsiders who came before him. He, at least, managed to stay well outside the walls of a mental institution. In reality, what we now consider Outsider Art was originally the sort created by psychiatric patients, and other marginalized non-members of society. And, it was a genre of art which would've have remained under the radar - possibly forever - had it not been for the fine, observant eye of French artist, Jean Dubuffet, who in the 1940s identified what he referred to as Art Brut - raw art - that is, art created by those on the fringe of society: prisoners, loners, the mentally ill, and, in some cases, children...

Generally, the primitive, naïve, or folk artist is often assigned to this genre today, but for Dubuffet, the Art Brut artists were laws unto themselves; the truly authentic artists who did not pander to history, establishments, or contemporary aesthetics.

In Dubuffet's words:
"We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part (contrary to the activities of intellectuals). These artists derive everything...from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art."
“Our point of view,” Dubuffet explained, “is that . . . there is no more an art of the mad than there is an art of the dyspeptic, or an art for those with bad knees.”

Needless to say, Art Brut found it's champions in the Surrealist movement. And, it should come as no surprise that when La Compagnie de l'Art Brut was formed in Paris in 1948, André Breton would be amongst its most illustrious founders. After all, Art Brut and Surrealism shared a common generative ground, a sacred omphalos: the psyche, the unconscious mind.

That being said, while the work of the early Art Brut artists - much of it from Dubuffet's private collection - are currently housed in the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, many of the artists, themselves, died anonymously within the confines of madhouses.

So, yes... once again we are faced with the madhouse, and, not surprisingly, we find a few more female artists (and one male) there... living, and dying within those unhallowed halls.


Lost and Found: A Small Collection of Art Brut Artists


1. Séraphine Louis de Senlis

L’Arbre de vie (The Tree of Life) - oil on canvas - 1928,  Séraphine de Senlis

"Believing herself persecuted by voices, the old woman worked barricaded in her room, windows and doors fastened by 40 or more padlocks. A small sign at the bottom of the stairs warned would-be visitors: “Mademoiselle Séraphine sees no one.” What did she fear? That someone would steal her formulas, take her mixtures, those cryptic blends of mud and moss, holy oil and housepaint, blood? Uhde was doubly compassionate. He admired her work, found everything she asked for—stretcher bars, colors, varnishes—sent from Paris by express. The canvasses grew in size as the voices multiplied inside Séraphine’s head. She imagined a fiancé back from the war. Spendthrift, she dreamt of buying a town house and hoarded knick-knacks for her future wedding home. Once humble, Séraphine became arrogant, no longer wished to hear of other artists frequented by her patron. Her canvasses changed, she painted kneeling in a state of uncontrollable exaltation. Inner demons haunted her. Spiteful eyes stared from bouquets, unsettling insects lurked among the leaves."

- From Isabelle Spaak's 2010 Medicographia article: Art and Psychosis; Séraphine de Senlis (1864-1942).


Séraphine Louis de Senlis was working as a housekeeper for Wilhelm Uhde, a German Jewish art critic and collector (and purportedly homosexual), when he discovered her immense gift as a painter. Already championing other Outsiders such as Henri Rousseau, Uhde became Séraphine's patron and possibly the only friend she ever knew. Orphaned by the age of 7, it seems her life was divided between menial labor and an artistic gift she nurtured secretly at night... by candlelight... behind closed doors.

She was a mystic; her muse, the Virgin Mary, her subject matter, paradise. When Udhe featured her art in his 1929 exhibit "Painters of the Sacred Heart," Louis was to enjoy her greatest and last success in her lifetime. By 1930, however, the Great Depression began to drain her patron's resources, and, shortly thereafter, her tale seems to abruptly end; by 1932 she was committed to a lunatic asylum for "chronic psychosis." She died there - although the actual date of her death is unclear - and very much like Camille Claudel (found at the end of this post), she died alone and abandoned, finally buried anonymously in a communal grave.*

Madness? Or, despair and poverty? In any case, obviously (and also like Camille Claudel) her story was worthy of at least one movie. Another article about her can be found via the Musées de Senlis, where some of her works are exhibited. (Inset, right: L’arbre rouge, 1928, Séraphine Louis de Senlis. Found here.)

* Unlike Camille's grave - to my knowledge anyway - a plaque appears nearby which reads: "Here Séraphine Louis Mallard (without rival) rests … while waiting for happy resurrection."
(Found here, along with a few more of her paintings.)


2. Augustin Lesage

Composition Symbolique, Amour pour l’Humanité (Symbolic Composition, Love for Humanity) - oil on canvas - 1932, Augustin Lesage

"In 1911, when he was 35 years old, Lesage claimed he heard a voice speak to him from the darkness of the mine and tell him, “One day you will be a painter”. The only contact Lesage had had with the arts at that point in his life was a visit to the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille museum in Lille during his military service. The voice experience prompted him to explore communication with what he believed was the spirit world, and within a year of his first experience, Lesage was hearing more voices, this time specifically giving him instructions. The voice told him what to paint, what art supplies to buy and where to find them. It was his belief that the voice speaking to him was the spirit of his little sister who had died at the age of three."

- Via the Wiki entry for Augustin Lesage.


Ah, but no, this is not going to be another tragic madhouse tale. Augustin Lesage was - to my knowledge - never institutionalized. But, as to whether or not he was "self-taught" is a matter of your perspective on disembodied forms of instruction. However, he was from the working class - a coal miner to boot - and his work was certainly outside the mainstream, and, so Lesage is considered Art Brut.

As for the "voices," well, instead of sending him to the madhouse (a fate seemingly reserved for female artists) he was considered mediumistic, psychic, and a respected member of the spiritual movement by his contemporaries. Ultimately, he was able to support himself with his artwork, and, for an artist, this is about the happiest ending one can expect. More of his amazing work can be found in this article: Are we looking at a Madman’s Doodles or Messages from another World?; although, both the words "madman" and "doodles" hardly seem appropriate in describing the legacy of Lesage's work.


3. Aloïse Corbaz

Napoléon III à Cherbourg - coloured pencil and juice of geranium
on sewn-together sheets of paper - 1954, Aloïse Corbaz

"Aloïse Corbaz was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1886. She earned her baccalauréat in 1906. Although she dreamt of becoming a singer, Aloïse worked as a dressmaker until leaving for Germany in 1911. She eventually found work as a teacher and a governess, in Potsdam, at the court of German Kaiser Wilhelm II. While there, she developed an obsessive romantic passion for the Kaiser. The start of World War I necessitated Aloïse's return to Switzerland. Her imaginary romance with the Kaiser continued, leading to her being diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to the asylum at Cery-sur-Lausanne in 1918. In 1920 she was moved to an annex of the hospital, la Rosiere a Gimet, where she remained until her death in 1964."

- Via the Wiki entry for Aloïse Corbaz.

"The world as recreated by Aloïse is cosmic and insubstantial, free of physical contingencies, in opposition to the old natural world she knew before her ‘death,’ that is before her illness. It is a supernatural world, theater of the Universe, thronged with immutable, hieratic actors whose deeds and feelings are expressed by the tiny hieroglyphic figures around them. Furthermore, their very essence is uncertain. They may be themselves and yet simultaneously represent something else. A woman may be herself and at the same time her icon … or a living lantern … or an allegory."

- Jacqueline Porret-Forel (translated into English by Patricia Forel-Thrussell) found here.


And, then, we come to the strange, unfortunate story of Swiss artist, Aloïse Corbaz. It seems Corbaz's undoing came at the imaginary hands of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a man she was passionately in love with. Sadly, Kaiser Wilhelm was merely a dream lover, and from what information I could find, it may have been her erotic fantasy life which landed her in the nuthouse. On the other hand, we are also told it was her "exalted religious feelings,"  and, finally, schizophrenia, which comprised her mental crimes, but, you know, I'm not even going to touch this one. It's too depressing.*

Suffice to say, while in the asylum, she began to secretly create images "using graphite and ink. She would also use the juice from petals, crushed leaves and toothpaste. The support material for her expression was wrapping paper sewn with thread or alternatively envelopes, bits of cardboard or the backs of calendars."

Apparently, her tragic tale was also made into a biopic (or two). More information can be found on this French page.

*However, there is one happier footnote I just found here:

"Around 1947, Aloïse’s asylum art was “discovered” by the French painter, sculptor, and art theorist Jean Dubuffet, who was entranced by its unique, uninhibited expressivity. Dubuffet visited Aloïse regularly for the next twenty years. He gave lectures about her artwork and arranged a local exhibition to showcase it. For Dubuffet she typified “l’art brut—raw or rough art”—or image-making created outside traditional art establishments. By the time of her death in the mid-1960s, Aloïse had become a recognized artist in Switzerland, France, and Japan, and in 2012, the Fine Arts Museum of Lausanne mounted a major retrospective of her oeuvre, accompanied by a full catalogue raisonné."

Hooray, Dubuffet! :-)


4. Adolf Wölfli

Saint Adolph Bitten in the Leg by the Snake, - colored pencil and
pencil on paper - 1921, Adolf Wölfli

"Wölfli was born in Bern, Switzerland. He was abused both physically and sexually as a child, and was orphaned at the age of 10. He thereafter grew up in a series of state-run foster homes. He worked as a Verdingbub (indentured child labourer) and briefly joined the army, but was later convicted of attempted child molestation, for which he served prison time. After being freed, he was re-arrested for a similar offense and in 1895 was admitted to the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern where he spent the rest of his adult life. He was very disturbed and sometimes violent on admission, leading to him being kept in isolation for his early time at hospital. He suffered from psychosis, which led to intense hallucinations.

...The images Wölfli produced were complex, intricate and intense. They worked to the very edges of the page with detailed borders. In a manifestation of Wölfli's "horror vacui", every empty space was filled with two small holes. Wölfli called the shapes around these holes his "birds."

His images also incorporated an idiosyncratic musical notation. This notation seemed to start as a purely decorative affair but later developed into real composition which Wölfli would play on a paper trumpet.

In 1908, he set about creating a semi-autobiographical epic which eventually stretched to 45 volumes, containing a total of over 25,000 pages and 1,600 illustrations. This work was a mix of elements of his own life blended with fantastical stories of his adventures from which he transformed himself from a child to 'Knight Adolf' to 'Emperor Adolf' and finally to 'St Adolf II'. Text and illustrations formed the narrative, sometimes combining multiple elements on kaleidoscopic pages of music, words and colour."

- Via the Wiki Entry for Adolf Wölfli.


Well, it looks like we've come to a real Art Brut "madman:" the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli.

Nothing works like pedophilia to permanently erase a man from "polite" society. But, in spite of his apparent downward spiral, there is a foundation (English version) devoted to both Wölfli's life and his work, so, happily, Adolf's "adventures" have not been lost.


5. Jeanne Tripier

An example of Jeanne Tripier's work found here.

"Let us begin with French spiritualist, Jeanne Tripier (1869-1944). Having lead a relatively simple life of retail work and motherhood, Tripier became involved with spiritualism at the age of 58. She was hospitalized in 1934 for “chronic psychosis, logorrhea and megalomania” and denied her identity, assuming the channeled personas of Joan of Arc and Joséphine de Beauharnais. Spirits and prophetic visions spurred her work, which included fabric pieces as well as drawings crafted from hair dye, drugs, and nail polish."

- Excerpt from this Art Brut article.

"Jeanne Tripier was born in Paris, France. The daughter of a wine merchant, she spent her childhood in the country, then settled in the Montmartre district of Paris, where she was employed as a saleswoman in a department store. At the age of 58 she became fascinated by spiritualistic doctrines and divination. Her new activities monopolised her to the extent that she gradually stopped going to work. In 1934 she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in the Paris region.

Jeanne Tripier wrote texts and did drawings, embroidery and crochet work. She considered all her creations to be mediumistic revelations. In her writings she frequently inserted small compositions executed in black, purple or blue ink to which she occasionally added hair dye, nail varnish, sugar or medicines. She would also mix a number of colours together, obtaining cloths of subtle hues that she used for clairvoyance tables."

- Found on the Art Brut bio page.

"In 1934, she was hospitalized for “chronic psychosis, logorrhea and megalomania”. A “medium of first necessity, holder of the laws of the planet, and the reincarnation of Joan of Arc”, she created, during the ten years of her hospitalisation, a whole world for herself. In her Messages and Missions on Earth, she described her interplanetary voyages as well as her life in the hospital... The messages emanating from her many spirits file off in anarchy, creating a discontinuous line of a “litany of the absurd”. They utter prophecies that trigger wars, sometimes using secret codes, which Tripier called “a spherical language”. In offering herself to the spirits, who guided her needle, Jeanne Tripier denied her identity and made possible the emergence of shapes free from any preconceived representation. Protected by her anonymity, she was liberated from any conformity or triteness. Using her tool like a symbolic weapon, Jeanne Tripier became a great artist."

- Excerpted from this short article.


I could find only a few pages on the web - in English - regarding Jeanne Tripier, but, from what little I could find, she spent the last 10 years of her life in a mental institution. Unlike Augustin Lesage, her foray into Spiritualism was a tad more "over the top" - if the above quotes tell us anything - but, am I convinced she was a true madwoman?

Actually, not entirely. Besides which, I find her idea of a "spherical language" most captivating.


6. Victorien Sardou

Bernard Palissy - etching - 1860,  Victorien Sardou

"The rejection of one of his plays in 1857 led him to become involved in spiritism, probably through his father. He made several drawings and engravings using an automatic process, claiming to be guided by the spirit of Bernard Palissy, the main character in his play of the same name. He described his experience as a medium in the Revue spirite in 1858, explaining that he also ‘communicated’ with his grandfather, then ‘residing’ on Jupiter, and his two sisters, who had died in infancy and now lived on Juno.

His etchings—in an anachronistic, refined style—depict houses purported to belong to Mozart on Jupiter, to Christ, or to the ‘prophet’ Zoroaster. These ethereal, rococo edifices show Sardou’s astonishing skill as an engraver. His spiritist period came to an end when his plays were performed once more and his fortunes rose."

- Via the Collection de l'Art Brut webpage in which the image (above) was found.


When you come right down to it, Victorien Sardou wasn't known for his art as much as his plays, but, his etchings are housed at Lausanne and so I include him here. You will note, however, that, in spite of his grandfather's location on Jupiter - and their alleged communication - he managed to allude the obligatory straight-jacket... unlike his female peers.

I think what interests me is his automatism, which seems fairly coherent compared to many other artistic examples I've seen.

Then again, Sardou's flight of fancy seems to have been a mere glitch in his overall time-frame... apparently, he returned to earth once his "fortunes rose." So, go figure.


Well, if timing is everything then, synchronistically, I just happened to write this post at an opportune moment. Although there was an exhibition of Outsider Art in New York earlier this year, as it happens, the annual Outsider Art Fair in Paris takes place this month: October 20 - 23, at the Hôtel du Duc, 22 rue de la Michodière.

For those of us on the western side of the pond, PBS just happens to be rebroadcasting Emery Blagdon and His Healing Machine this month as well. Check your local listings.

For those of you fascinated by sordid tales of mad women artists and their unfortunate fates, few can surpass that of German Surrealist Unica Zürn. I almost considered creating a post exclusively about her life, but, in reality, I think I've had my fill of the subject, so, I'll leave it to you.

And, lastly, for those of you who are wondering why I'm not continuing where I left off in my Music Box series (all the way back in May of this year) (!), well, the reality is that the whole discussion emerges from a deeper place than what I've been able to handle lately... and a place which is currently not easily accessed because of ongoing (insecure) circumstances. I truly am sorry... maybe next month.

(Note: For another American Art Brut story, see this older Trans-D post: Forevermore, Dr. Evermor - In Praise of a Steampunk Pioneer.)


  1. Fascinating! I love outsider art.

    Thank youj for a wonderful post!

  2. Just visited our local museum -- the Hallie Ford Museum -- JUST to see an exhibit they're having of Outsider Art. All very interesting.

  3. Oh, most interesting in a very good's obvious a lot of outsider art is a form of compulsion, an outlet for 'voices' or a voice for something not felt by most - no matter the sophistication, but some of it is quietly elegant or so very other 'genius'.

    1. Hmmm... I guess I've never been quite sure what qualifies art as "outsider" art... specifically nowadays. Is it folk art? Anti-art establishment art? Art outside of all other genres? Art created by untrained artists? Art created by isolated madmen?

      You say outsider art is a form of "compulsion," but isn't all art? Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just "outsider." ;-)