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Outsider art

By Brian Evancic

Outsider artists are those who "… may be self-taught or trained: they are all devoted to their creative practices, and come from a point of view that is outside the mainstream art world trends." Outsider art is usually associated with “socially or culturally marginal figures” who don’t seek fame.

The concept and term of outsider art—originally art brut in French—were conceived in the 1940s by French painter Jean Dubuffet who collected art from prisoners and psychiatric patients. His interest in such art comes from what he perceived as the purity and singularity of works generated by such people and their unconventional mindset.

A Henry Darger watercolor from La Collection de l’Art Brut
A Henry Darger watercolor from La Collection de l’Art Brut, photo from cometstarmoon

The exemplar of outsider art would probably be Henry Darger. The Chicagoan artist secretly created a 15,000-page novel in his apartment that was only discovered by his landlord upon Darger’s induction into a nursing home in 1972. Complementing the novel, titled In the Realms of the Unreal, were 300 watercolors illustrating the conflicts between two fictional belligerents: the emancipating Vivian Girls and the child-enslaving Glandelinians.

Another notable outsider artist is German painter August Natterer. In 1907, at the age of 38, he was committed to a mental institution, where he painted his hallucinations. During that year, on April Fool’s Day, Natterer had a particularly vivid vision of a witch that he believed to be the “evil creator of the world.” In his The Witch Head painting, he blends a profile of this witch’s head into a panorama of the German city of Stuttgart.

The Witch Head by August Natterer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Witch Head by August Natterer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Outsider artists are important because they provide a unique insight into people on the fringes of society. They also can serve as inspiration to more conventional artists who want to stir things up a bit (indeed, Natterer influenced the Surrealists, for instance). But most of all, they give us a rare glimpse into that oft-reclusive part of the human soul that Jean Dubuffet was so enamored by: the one uncompromised by status-, praise- or profit-seeking.


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