First published: Summer 2022

The world of outsider writing is still in the shadows but shining a light on these enigmatic texts reveals work that is beautiful and absorbing.

What is “outsider writing”, or what could it be? As readers of Raw Vision will be well aware, its companion “outsider art” has a pedigree arguably going back to Europe in the 1920s, when Hans Prinzhorn took an aesthetic interest in the artworks produced by psychotic patients, his curatorial project then inspiring Jean Dubuffet’s postwar art brut, in turn re-oriented by Roger Cardinal in the 1970s as a model for engaging the untapped horizontal proliferation of creativity. But throughout that 100-year history, a parallel category of outsider, psychotic or visionary texts, or “raw writing”, never consolidated itself to the same degree – perhaps for a number of reasons.


Dwight Mackintosh, Untitled, 1980, felt pen and gouache on paper,
37.5 x 26 in. / 95.5 x 66 cm, Collection de l’Art Brut

The artworks assembled by Prinzhorn, Dubuffet and others make an immediate visual impression. Modernist artists had already begun to collect such work early in the twentieth century. But texts – which defy conventional reading habits, whose sense is obscure or awkwardly expressed, meandering or obsessively repetitive, and whose provenance disconnects them from traditional literary networks – do not achieve recognition in the same way. They can also be a struggle to read – in which case, how do you get to know them? A densely detailed image by Nick Blinko can draw us in endlessly, but a densely worded passage, full of puns, neologisms and non sequiturs may have the opposite effect.


Constance Schwartzlin-Berberat, untitled notebook pages, 1891–1909, ink on paper, 12 x 8 in. / 30.5 x 20 cm,
Walter Morgenthaler Collection, Psychiatry Museum, Bern

In some cases, the writings defy publication altogether, through sheer volume, or the adoption of enigmatic or illegible alphabets. There are other issues in the building of a category of “outsider writing” – writers are rarely self-taught in the same way as more visual artists (though some, such as American farm-worker, turned religious visionary JB Murray, may fit this bill); and also it is extremely hard to translate – and therefore to circulate – such material beyond its original language.




This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #111

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