First published: Summer 1996
Initially, starting in the second half of the last century up to the twenties of our century, only certain psychiatrists were dealing with the art that originated in mental institutions: Foremost, Cesare Lombroso, whose work Genio e follia (Genius and Insanity) was first published in 1864. In 1907, the French psychiatrist Paul Meunier published his L'Art chez les fous. Interestingly enough, for this he used the pseudonym Marcel Reja.
Walter Morgenthaler, whose book on Adolf Wolfli Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler was published in 1921, many years later told my friend Alfred Bader, that at the time this book had been more harmful than beneficial. His colleagues in psychiatry simply did not take it seriously. Similarly, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, published one year later by Hans Prinzhorn, while causing quite a stir among contemporary artists, remained without perceptible impact on the psychiatric establishment. As late as 1956, the famous psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger saw in the lack of any relationship to artistic images and tradition proof positive for his thesis that fine arts and the creations of schizophrenics were mutually exclusive concepts.
But now, precisely that criterion that moved Binswanger to not regard the work of psychiatric patients as art - the lack of a relationship to cultural art - has become one of the main criteria of a species of art which the French painter Jean Dubuffet called 'Art Brut' (Raw Art).
Even as a young man, Dubuffet had been fascinated by the illustrations in Hans Prinzhorn's Bildnerei der Geisteskranken. In 1945, Dubuffet travelled to Switzerland. There, in the mental asylum of Waldau near Berne, he viewed the works of the schizophrenic patients Adolf Wolfli and Heinrich Anton Muller. In Lausanne, he came to know the schizophrenic Aloïse Corbaz and her remarkable drawings. Dubuffet was deeply impressed by the originality of this kind of art, which had been created far from models and the artistic mainstream in the seclusion of life in mental institutions. To him, the art of these people represented a kind of extreme individualism, free from all social and cultural constraints.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #15