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Movements, Styles, and Tendencies Art Brut and Outsider Art
Art Brut and Outsider Art Collage

Art Brut and Outsider Art

Started: 1923

Ended: Present

Art Brut and Outsider Art Timeline


"We will not cease until justice has corrected the blind and intolerant prejudice under which works of art produced in asylums have suffered for so long, and so long as we have not freed them from the aura of worthlessness which has been created around them."
André Breton
"The madman is a reformer, an inventor of new systems, intoxicated with invention. ... This is exactly what is required of the artist, and explains why the creation of art is so worthless when it does not originate in a state of alienation, when it fails to offer a new conception of the world, and new principles for living."
Jean Dubuffet
"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim, and social promotion do not interfere - are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that... cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."
Jean Dubuffet
"Nobody knows why I made them, not even me."
Fred Smith
"Nowadays people are calling me 'artist'. I don't like this word 'artist', only God pushed me to do this work. I never knew people would see it. I just made it for my own pleasure."
Nek Chand
"Totally alien, the new art (an art that has always been) proliferates quietly around the outskirts of the cultural city."
Roger Cardinal
"God wanted me to take this junk and make something out of it and show people who got things that they could do something where they stand. You see, I'm an example from God."
Howard Finster

"These are primitive beginnings in art, such as one usually finds in ethnographic collections, or at home in the nursery. Do not laugh, reader! Children also have artistic ability and there is virtue in their having it! . . . Parallel phenomena are provided by the works of the mentally diseased; neither childish behavior nor madness are insulting words here, as they commonly are. All this is to be taken seriously, more seriously than all the public galleries when it comes to reforming today's art."

Paul Klee Signature


Driven by an unflinching creative intensity combined with a talent for rousing humanity's deepest desires and fears, Outsider Artists present a visionary interweave of the fabric of life. As a way to categorize the artwork that he loved made by introverted, isolated, and exceptionally imaginative characters, the French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut, or "raw art"; also known as Outsider Art, this latter term provides the most succinct way to reference the artist within the movement. Although Dubuffet's own art sought to imitate freedom from societal constraints - both in subject and in technique - in the same way as the art that he admired and collected - his position and status within the art world makes him far from an Outsider Artist. In many ways, founding a movement in this case is the very antithesis to the art gathered within it. However, the grouping he championed does help to direct attention onto a body of art made by people who have no interest in self-aggrandizement or self-promotion.

Outsider Artists usually experience some sort of revelatory moment, akin to a religious calling when they become "artists". They typically have no formal training within an art institution and exhibit in their work a sense of heightened connectivity within the intricate system of universal balance. Without having necessarily experienced tragedy, these artists hold within an acute awareness of the forces of darkness as well as those of light. The Outsider Artist deals incessantly with a war in mind (which is often mistakenly labeled as mental illness), always navigating emotional conflict in order to create outwards paths to find inner peace. The closest more conventional movement comparable is Surrealism, as the premise of the latter is also based on the power of the human unconscious. Indeed, as well as Dubuffet, other famous artists, including Picasso, heralded this work as inspirational. The Outsider Artist however does not feel the same impetus to share and disseminate ideas, often they only ask, humbly and without expectation, to be left quiet and uninterrupted to make art.

Key Ideas

As they were coined by theorists thinking in particular about the usefulness of the terms in relation to art and artists, the definitions Art Brut and Outsider Art are used in this article interchangeably. The term, Outsider Art, was introduced in 1972 (eight years after Art Brut) by the English academic, Rodger Cardinal, and like Dubuffet he intended to shine a light on art made by artists usually untrained, living quietly, and possibly somehow sheltered. Related terms that are also introduced here, such as Folk Art, Naïve Art, and Neuve Invention, have some more specific characteristics and will not be used generally. Primitivist Art will be avoided, as this is bound to problematic social and ethnological dimensions.
Outsider Artists almost always employ techniques of pattern, and obsessive repetitive design features. There is an attempt to create simple and satisfying order when they themselves are typically touched by an awareness of chaos. The repetitive mark making also reveals a profound understanding of the passage of time, of the continuum of a cycle, and the eternal linkage between past, present, and future. The tendency towards the repetitive is highlighted not only in endless similar marks made in drawings, but also through the acts of sewing, knotting, and binding.
Within Art Brut we discover a rare understanding of the key paradox that resides at the heart of being human; that is, that as individuals we are at once nothing and everything (one tiny fleck in a vast cosmos, and also with only one point of reference). Through the ongoing use of portraiture within this movement, Outsider Artists expose an effortless personal knowledge of philosophical connectivity that most people must study at length and even then do not really grasp the concept.
Materials used by Outsider Artists are not necessarily art materials. It is rare for artists categorized in this way to make straightforward oil paintings or sculptures from bronze or clay. More typically, and thus showing an unusual and robust resourcefulness, "outsiders" use whatever they can get their hands on, be it mud, blood, crayons, or a simple ink pen. This immediacy of material exposes the intense need to create, and furthermore illustrates that the works made are very much extensions of an ongoing reflective selfhood, rather than separate art works.
Religion and spirituality play a huge part in the oeuvres of most Outsider Artists. Whilst Madge Gill signed her works with the name of her spiritual medium rather than with her own, it is often the case that artists working in this realm incorporate biblical quotations, ancient hieroglyphs, and indeed their very own languages into the work that they produce. The result is clarification that such art really does provide insight to another world, to a dimension beyond reality from which there is much to learn.
There is a big question, perhaps even a problem, as to who should be termed an Outsider Artist, especially because many artists work very close to the edge of this definition; Niki de Saint Phalle, Hilma af Klint, Yayoi Kusama, and Joseph Cornell (with Kusama and Cornell interestingly having had a relationship) are all good examples. It seems that extreme rawness in art, and thus true Art Brut, can never become part of a convention, even if that convention starts to promote unconventionality. The artists mentioned above perhaps have the ability to shift in and out of the art world according to situation and need, whilst for an outsider this capacity to adapt is more painful and sometimes impossible.


Art Brut and Outsider Art Image

Early Interest in the Art of the Mentally Ill

The first noted case of interest by artists in the art of the mentally ill is traced back to the Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group who were active in Germany from 1911 to 1914. Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter, Lyonel Feininger, and Albert Bloch, believed in the expression of spiritual values through color and form. In this quest, these artists were interested in the linkages between music and painting, as well as the concept of synaesthesia, whereby the stimulation of one sense can cause an involuntary reaction in one or more other senses. In 1912, the group published their Almanac, Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, which included theoretical essays by Kandinsky and Marc, as well as over 140 reproductions of artworks, the majority of which were classified as "primitive" art, folk art, children's art, and art of the mentally ill. In this way, they demonstrated their belief that the traditional Western Art Historical canon was suffering a particular lack that could be remedied by turning to sources outside of its purview.

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Art Brut and Outsider Art Overview Continues

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
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