First published: Winter 2019
Roger Cardinal, termed here as the “father’’ of outsider art, was interviewed for a Japanese publication by Roger McDonald in 2017
Cardinal, 2017, photo: Roger McDonald
RM: It would be interesting to begin by asking you what you were doing just before you wrote Outsider Art in 1972, what guided you to writing this book?
RC: I wrote a book on Surrealism with a friend, Robert Short, called Surrealism: Permanent Revelation which came out in 1970. Our publisher was a small press called Studio Vista who were working on the idea of putting out a library of books about Surrealism and about the avant-garde generally. I had been researching the movement in Paris, and I was asked if I had something I would like to write about. I said that I would like to look at the writings and the verbal imaging of Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet and general traveller and miscreant, who fascinated me. Beyond that I realised that there was something else happening in the world, in the visual field, and I suspect part of the reason I switched into that had to do with the long work we’d had tracking down visual material for the book on Surrealism. With that context, I looked about and realised that Rimbaud was going to be a matter of tracking down material that I already had, but that was overtaken by another trend whose origin I can’t be sure about, but a move to the visual was taking place. I think it was probably part of my career profile in my move from French literature through to comparative literature to a more lenient definition of what literary study would be. At some stage, I was asked if I had thought of Jean Dubuffet’s idea of art brut. It took me very little time to warm to this suggestion and, with the little knowledge I had at that point of what was going on in the world of non-academic art, I saw that here was a demonstration of some of Rimbaud’s ideas: to take seriously the dream, to let the imagination be a primary element in any creative work and to rely on things going wrong, in a different direction from what you had planned. Felicitous accidents have always attracted me anyway, and I think a lot of the thinking around the principles of Surrealism had to do with whether I could make something out of it myself, to know about it – homemade collage-making, cutting out pictures from magazines has always been an interest of mine.
I had heard about Dubuffet, but hadn’t realised that he was producing a kind of revolutionary movement by letting loose a few statements that other people took up, wondering what he meant and how that fitted into their own knowledge of the avant-garde. In his pronouncements he is saying something like: I think I know that there is something else that you’ve missed entirely, and if you take a look at these people who happen to be thwarted in their normal life and development, or have had a bad accident happen to them, or a girlfriend that never wrote back – there can be so many reasons why people drop into some kind of mood of apathy or depression. Surrealism sensitises me to that too, because they studied things like suicide. Surrealism made use of anti right-wing positions. For example, they took up the Marquis de Sade as one of their heroes just to get everybody mad. They found the way forward to do something off-putting to the enemy which is the bourgeois, the educational system and the political right. So these things are bouncing around in the background. It became obvious that I found something really good in Dubuffet’s theories and I began to read his polemic and thinking that here is another Surrealist! He belongs in the same kind of pantheon of people that one should know about and that one should respect; one should travel with these people in mind, they are part of your intellectual equipment.
So, to get back to Dubuffet, I was invited by someone to think about Dubuffet and my publisher said that this was interesting and go and find out more about it. At some point I wrote a proposal for a book on “The Art of the Artless”. This was a title at one point, I remember.
A lot of outsider art rotates around issues of personality, of who I am. So this kind of research could be dangerous and provocative and damaging to you in such a way that you may never be able to write a book again. I was in my early 40s and still young enough to feel that I could take charge of this. So I went to Paris to get ammunition for this book, effectively like a kind of intellectual raid on Dubuffet, who didn’t seem to mind very much. When I went to see him and spoke to him he had seen my proposal and the first chapter or so of my book. So, day by day over about three weeks, I was looking at this material – taking three or four artists per day for study and research, with guidance from Dubuffet himself through his writings, because he was the author of several pamphlets about the general sphere of art brut and also of a series of books containing articles which he masterminded. Dubuffet was a guerrilla warfare man really; he was launching these things onto an unsuspecting Parisian world and not many people took any notice unfortunately.
RM: You speak about an “alternative kind of art” in the book and how during this period Dubuffet is critiquing an academic idea of art. From today’s perspective, where the art world is so expansive and incorporates anything, it sounds like a different world. Was it so rigidified and policed then?
RC: Well, this all happened long ago, and it’s long dead. At the time, I was starting to write and recognise names of artists that I had never heard of. The time was right for certain things to happen. The fact is that my book was largely ignored. There was a paperback version for America, and a hardback version in England. It didn’t sell at all. One’s pride is also part of this, of course! You think that the book was so good that nobody wants to read it because it will upset them, in a good way, and make them doubt their own premises about art. I think many artists found out about it and were ready to be indoctrinated into this alternative world.
RM: Do you think that initially it was perhaps artists that read the book, and later critics and historians?
RC: We had an exhibition later in 1979, the “Outsiders” exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. Dubuffet had already shown some of his collection in public – up until then it was mostly secret. This was another reason that I was so grateful to him for approving my work. I don’t think he read it – his English was not that good – but he could see where I was headed and he seemed to be quite pleased about the whole enterprise.
So there we are in 1972 with a book that summarised the best of Dubuffet, that added in some other people that I had found out about, so that I was able to have a more impressive grouping of intellectual references: namely to Prinzhorn, the great collector of psychotic art, Walter Morgenthaler who looked after Adolf Wölfli and wrote the first book about him, and Leo Navratil of the Gugging Collection who was also looking at art made by people with mental problems. Gradually things became normal to me: “Oh here’s another person that had visions, here’s another artist that’s said to be suicidal and then began to see things on the wall that they began to copy, and here’s another person that’s had this bad luck in their life and started bringing pebbles from the sea home and stuck them all round their house”.
If you look carefully, you will see many recurrences in the Dubuffet collection, as in my book, that people in the world need to express themselves and find the way to do that largely through their own efforts to make a picture. They may have heard about picture-making usually – one can hardly avoid it in our culture – but they haven’t any reason to go and get help to make pictures. Nowadays, they may be given instructions and backup and material blessings like fountain pens. Scottie Wilson started his career fiddling around with fountain pens in an old second-hand shop in Toronto, improvising on the table top.
Many people that we call outsider artists have very banal beginnings. Their work is extraordinary and we often recognise that it comes from some event in the past, a wound, a disappointment, a bullet wound – there are many ways that people have a really bad thing happen to them. Not all of them turn to making a picture or make patterns or visual forms, but some do. People make pictures with a reason to express themselves, and the next question is whom are they addressing? Are they telling themselves, “This happened to me and I am going to make a picture because other people seem to be interested... ”? Other people will feel very happy about life – maybe they have never had a disappointment, they have always been looked after – but at the age of 80 they are ready to round things off and with some stimulus they might launch themselves bravely into the activity of picture-making. So why do people do pictures? Well, they do them because something makes them feel that that’s a good thing to be doing, it makes you feel happier. You don’t want to be rushed. If you had to do a picture by five o’clock you would say, I will first do a sketch for a picture but it won’t be my best. If you bully people into doing pictures, like they sometimes do in school, you don’t bring the best out in people.
Does it have to be a picture? It can be a picture, a carving, a scribble, a graffiti, chalk on the pavement in front of the National Gallery. It is a way of transmitting something that you feel is urgent into the outer world where it can be read by other people and, more importantly, read by you the maker. I suppose this is something that you find in artists generally; they know that the work has come from them, they remember the parts they got wrong or the part where they went off the edge of the paper and had to stick it on later. Artists know their work intimately, even years later they will recognise their own work. I think Picasso said, “If I like it, I’ll sign it”! He couldn’t remember every single drawing that he ever made. Generally, artists are very attached to their work and don’t always like to sell it. If you are a genuine artist, you know that it is going to come back tomorrow, this urge to make a picture.