First published: Fall 2023

Historically, outsider art has eschewed all art rules and categorisations but has it established its own traditions?


At first sight, it seems as though outsider art cannot have anything to do with tradition. Jean Dubuffet’s definition of art brut depended on the concept of a radical, creative originality that owed little or nothing to outside influences, and this idea has been incorporated into the broader definition of what constitutes outsider art. Above all, Dubuffet sought to distance art brut entirely from the world of fine art and all that it implied. The post-Renaissance, fine-art tradition – enshrined in academies, museums and galleries – exerted a powerful and conservative authority, based firmly on technical and aesthetic criteria. In addition, it was governed by its own art history, which reinforced that robust tradition so that it seemed beyond question.


Augustin Lesage, Composition Symbolique (Symbolic Composition), 1932, oil on canvas, 28.5 x 38.5 in. / 73 x 98 cm, courtesy: Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne


This may seem to make the absence of any traditional signature or influence on outsider art a straightforward matter. However, tradition is not just a conscious choice or imposition, it is also an inheritance at a subliminal or unconscious level, and this is what makes it harder to escape from. Being seen as belonging to a tradition can sometimes be something that we recognise from the outside, and it does not necessarily depend on the artist’s conscious intentions or professional formation. This situation is complicated by the fact that, although “traditional” is often used as a marker that is taken for granted, in actuality there is not just one single, coherent tradition in art: under the umbrella of orthodox “tradition” there are buried or neglected traditions that may still exert powerful influence.


Aloïse Corbaz, Isotta Rimini, between 1941 and 1951, graphite and coloured pencil on paper, 9.5 x 26 in. / 24.5 x 66 cm, courtesy: Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne


Some of these enter into works in the art brut canon: such as the Spiritualist iconography in Augustin Lesage or the Catholic imagery in Martín Ramírez. More recently, there are echoes of these themes in the work of outsider artists such as Margot, or Edmund Monsiel. There are also other traditions that are used, for example the design of institutional medals as subverted by Emile Josome Hodinos. But these are still traditions with a historical weight behind them.


Margot, Construction Utopique n30 (Utopian Construction n30), c. 2017, collage and ink on paper, 19.5 x 27.5 in. / 50 x 70 cm, Henry Boxer Gallery, © Marjorie Dohogne


However, the evolution of Modernism throws up what might be called alternative traditions that are a more recent invention: for instance, those set out in a quite authoritarian way by Surrealism or those inherited from a more anarchic movement such as Dadaism. Indeed, the very suffix “ism” points to a cluster of stylistic or programmatic features identified with a particular movement, and these could soon be seen as a new or substitute tradition. Because the rejection of more orthodox traditions is a key factor in establishing their new identity, these innovations can also be thought of as a kind of shadow or negative tradition.



This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #116.

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