The Electrical Life of Louis Wain highlights a pure and powerful field of creativity. So why do we keep it in the shadows?
A new film, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, comes to cinemas this week. Its arrival has been accompanied by the suggestion that the illustrator it portrays, who suffered from mental illness, was a dishevelled “mad artist” – and thus a classic example of “outsider art”.
Wain (1860–1939) became well known for his whimsical cat illustrations, which depicted caricatures of the furry pets in human clothing and activities. In fact, like (say) Vincent van Gogh, he was not in the strictest sense an “outsider artist” at all, rather a trained professional who became mentally ill. Outsider artists can come from any background except, by definition, Wain’s: they are the “ordinary geniuses” of everyday life who transcend their backgrounds to create visual work that is uninfluenced by training or association with the mainstream art world. Their visionary work reflects their emotions, and is considered by its appreciators to be the purest form of visual expression yet discovered.
It is true that our awareness of outsider art has its origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and what were then known as “lunatic asylums”. Of course, outsider art – an art produced compulsively by self-taught creators – must have existed for hundreds of years or more, even though no examples were valued or preserved. But a few enlightened hospital psychiatrists were the first to see that certain patients produced work of great originality and power. Those psychiatrists kept the drawings that had been routinely swept away, and the first collections were gradually put together.
These items were not necessarily considered “art” as much as diagnostic aids or specimens that illustrated various conditions. Some early examinations of patients’ work took place in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1922 that the first serious study of psychiatric expression, Bildnerei der Geistesranken, was published by Hans Prinzhorn. His book, with its mass of illustrations and theories of creativity, was the first to herald patients’ works as art, and the 10 “schizophrenic masters” celebrated in his pages were judged to have created works as valid as any other mainstream forms.
Not everyone agreed with this assessment. In Germany, it was opposed by Adolf Hitler, who saw in Prinzhorn’s collection the proof that modern art was tainted by madness and degeneracy. The works from Prinzhorn’s collection were duly exhibited alongside those of Franz Marc, Oskar Kokoschka and Paul Klee to prove the connection, in the series of Entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) exhibitions that took place across Germany in the late 1930s.
Untitled, Scottie Wilson, c.1946, ink on paper, Henry Boxer Gallery, London
Prinzhorn’s book, however, had a great influence on modern artists. It was Jean Dubuffet and André Breton who saw the connection between Surrealism and the art of schizophrenics. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Dubuffet began to collect works he deemed “art brut”: “raw art”, produced by people with no training or contact with the wider art-world, working in unique and compulsive ways. For Dubuffet, such artworks – known as “outsider art” in the Anglosphere as a result of Roger Cardinal’s 1972 book of the same name – could come from anyone: farmers, factory workers, cleaners, housewives, miners, labourers, tradesmen, cooks, peasants – anyone from any walk of life.
And yet, as the recent links between Wain’s mental illness and his supposed “outsider” status show, for too many people outsider art is still seen as the preserve of “mad” people. This is in spite of the fact that many giants of outsider art have never shown any signs of mental illness: they just happen to be highly creative individuals uninfluenced by the mainstream art world. For example, the Surrealists adored the work of the Facteur Cheval, a French country postman who over 33 years built the Palais Idéal in Drôme, a vast fantasy palace adorned with grottoes and sculptures. Nek Chand Saini, another environmental builder and sculptor, was simply a natural genius: his 20-acre sculpture park and landscaped Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India, which he began in 1957, is the largest outsider art environment in existence, visited by thousands of people every week.
And yet the stereotype remains. The first comprehensive exhibition of outsider art in Britain was Outsiders at the Hayward Gallery in 1979; it attracted a record attendance, but was slammed in the press as the “daubings of madmen”, with headlines such as “You don’t have to be madman but it helps”. Some of the same outdated opinions were being wheeled out by one London newspaper critic (who shall remain anonymous) as late as 2006, when the Whitechapel Gallery presented the survey exhibition, Inner Words Outside.
Nek Chand's Rock Garden, Chandigarh India, 1965–2013. The Animal Kingdom
To this day, Britain is one of the few Western countries that has no specialist public museum of outsider art. This makes the low awareness of the genre more difficult to counter; even deceased artists of renowned international status, such as the London housewife Madge Gill, do not have a single work, even in storage, at Tate Britain. The sometime junk/antique-dealer Scottie Wilson, another of Britain’s great outsider artists, is similarly ignored in his homeland. Yet works by both Gill and Wilson are in museums and collections around the world.
Followers of outsider art do not really differentiate between those with disabilities and those without. The work is all-important: work that many enthusiasts see as more direct, spontaneous and expressive than the art of the mainstream. The origins of outsider art may lie in those bleak hospital wards of the past, but today it is sometimes known as the “hidden face of contemporary art”, like the hidden face of the moon. Ever since Max Ernst was strongly influenced by one of Prinzhorn’s schizophrenics, the field has become an influence and inspiration for many contemporary artists. Rarely, an artist such as Grayson Perry freely acknowledges this stimulus; many others keep it well out of sight. Until outsider art is allowed fully out of the shadows in Britain, however, the misconceptions and prejudice shown by cultural commentators are in danger of continuing.
by John Maizels, Courtesy: Telegraph Media Group Limited 2021