L´ART BRUT: Wild Creativity
The older I get, the clearer I realize the meaning of what the somewhat peculiar book publisher Bo Cavefors told me when I agreed he could publish my first novel: ”You are still a young man, but you have already now an impressive experience reserve.” I do not know if ”experience reserve” is a common expression, though it has followed me throughout life. Now when I am well above sixty years of age I might look back on that reserve. It may not be as impressive as the one of other people. Unfortunately, much of it has also a large degree faded away and disappeared far down into the darkest depths of my brain. However, occasionally I find a key to some door that may be unlocked and reveal a recollection chamber where some half-forgotten memory is slumbering.
As the educator I have become, I should admit that I hope that you – dear reader – just as well as me, may be inspired to open some door leading to your specific experience reserve. Because I assume that each one of us has one of those and that opening the gates to a memory deposit, good or bad, helps us to live on.
Let me enter into the depths of the mind, inspired by a partially incomprehensible poem – Carrion Comfort, by the strange English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins:
O the mind, mind has mountains cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne´er hung there. Nor does long or small
Durance deal with that steep or deep.
It was probably in 1977 I worked at St. Lars Mental Hospital in Lund. The more time that passes, exact dates are becoming increasingly foggy, supported by the fact that over the years I have lost papers, letters and diary entries. However, I can still imagine the gloomy atmosphere in the meticulously cleaned ”day room”, with its greyish, wall-to-wall, vinyl carpet, the sharp scent of washing powder mixed with the body fumes and odour of night-stalled urine from patients who sat aimlessly staring in sofas and armchairs, placed between flower pots and stands with unread magazines, while crunching on dry wheat bread and sipping overcooked coffee, or drinking what they called ”vicky-water”. The staff wore civilian clothes, several of them were quite nice, but some were in my opinion even crazier than the patients.
During my first week in the ward, two unusually sadistic wardens took me to one of the single rooms while one of them declared: ”Now you will see something quite funny.” On a well-made bed sat an elderly lady dressed in a nightgown. One of the caregivers asked me to remain in the doorway while he entered the room. The lady got up and worriedly pressed herself gainst the wall as the warden opened the window, turned to the patient and declared: ”Now I am letting them in, Ada!” The terrified lady pressed herself screaming tightly to the wall while the caretaker who had been standing next to me rushed into the room and violently pressed down the frightened Ada on the bed, while the other one closed the window. Ada immediately began to breathe more calmly. With a big smile, the warden who had taken me to the room closed the window and with a nod to his his colleague, who was speaking reassuringly to Ada, he stated: “There you see, Jan, what you may expect here by us. They're crazier than you can ever imagine.” Shocked by the behaviour of my two colleagues, I could not help wondering what the terrified Ada actually had seen and experienced after the departmental sadist had opened the window.
Since then, I harboured a badly repressed hatred for that man. I do no longer remember his name or what he looked like. During a party a month later, when I drank, ate and danced in one of St. Lars’s staff flats I ended up by a kitchen table where the drunk warden expressed his great admiration for the by me then completely unknown Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whom I have since read several books by and about, though never learned to appreciate, probably due to the unpleasant warden, who took pains to convey a superior impression of knowledge and intellectuality.
That warden and my daily contact with the patients, some of whom were severely schizophrenic, taught me it is impossible to generalize. There are always exceptions to rules and self-evident opinions. Among the caregivers, who all had the same profession, the same tasks, there were completely different personalities – some of them were compassionate, pleasant and easy to socialize with, others were intolerant and difficult to become friends with. The same was true about the patients. They were all mentally ill, several had received the same, or similar, diagnoses, but as the case was with the caregivers, there were different characters among the patients as well. Some I was able to spend time with and learn from despite their often grave, mental disabilities, others seemed to be completely ”normal”. A few of them could by me, even if they were completely inaccessible, nevertheless create an intense feeling of sympathy, while others left me unaffected.
Something that had a strong influence on the patients' speech and behaviour was the extent to which they were medicated and the kind of psychoactive drugs they received. Each of them also had her/his very specific life story, which some of them were willing to tell me in a surprisingly frank manner. A young man had once been an elite athlete, but as his results deteriorated and his name disappeared from newspaper columns, he became a pyromaniac. He set fires in various places, but before he did so he sent anonymous letters to the press, indicating where he intended to ”strike” next. Soon he could follow the press's urged ”hunt for the murderous arsonist” with the same interest and satisfaction with which he had previously read comments about his sports achievements.
In the ward there was also another tragic case of pyromania. An elderly, quiet man had been incarcerated for more than forty years. He had been taken into custody after being convicted of arson in connection with a socialist demonstration among farmworkers who had demanded higher wages. Apparently he had put fire on a barn belonging to a wealthy landlord. All the wardens told me that he had once been completely sane. The designation of him as mentally distrurbed had been politically motivated. However, over time he had become ”institutionalized”; medication and hospital routines had made it impossible for him to manage life outside of the hospital, something he told me on several occasions.
It was an ”open ward”, meaning that most of the patients could come and go, though under certain predetermined conditions. The patients, most of whom had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, were not allowed to go outside without their Hibernal hats and several of them had to be accompanied. One side effect of Hibernal was that the patient became sensitive to sun rays and could easily develop a painful rash. Hibernal is the brand of an antipsychotic drug, chlorpromazine, which was obviously the first really effective drug used to mitigate, and maybe even cure, psychotic conditions.
Every day I took one, or a couple of patients on walks within the hospital area, and it could even happen that I followed one of them ”into town”. A young man I quite often accompanied seemed to be perfectly normal and he could with amazing candour tell me about his ”strange” urge to ”expose himself”. It was hard to believe him. However, once he flashed himself in broad day light right in front of a group of people waiting for a bus. I hade been forewarned that this could happen, but was nevertheless completely taken by surprise and did not know how to behave. However, I sharply told him that he had immediately stop masturbating, pull up his pants and cover himself. As if he had expected my reaction he obeyed me at one, while we returned to the ward he was talking as if nothing had happened. However, at other times I often saw him huddled up in the corner of a sofa corner, crippled by anxiety.
Something that surprised me was that most patients were fully aware of their mental disabilities. Before I had come to work at St. Lars I had assumedd that mentally ill persons would deny their state of mind declaring themselves to be quite sane, though I soon found some of them told me that their state of mind was incurable and that they wer doomed to spend their entire life in a twilight zone characterized by anquish and alienation. Several were out-patients living in ”training apartments” and came to the ward just to meet the doctors and get their medication. In fact, I found that some of these out-patients would have preferred to ”stay within the ward”, something most of them had done before. Among the ”free-walkers” was a rough-cut and grumpy man who, according to my colleagues, originally had been locked up within the storied ”closed pavillion”, hidden away in secluded part of the hospital´s park and surrounded by a high mound. Sometime in the past this hefty man had murdered not only one person, but three. After several years of medication and therapy he had ended up in ”our” ward and after a while considered to be ”healthy enough to move freely in society”. One day he had ended up next to me on one of the vinyl clad sofas, while drinking the flat coffee and crunching on the dry wheat bread he explained: ”I cannot stand being with people and have always preferred being be locked up and supervised.”
While working at the asylum, I read a book about a French artist named Charles Meryon, which I randomly had bought at a sale at the Municipal Art Gallery in the close-by town of Malmö. Meryon (1821-1868) had been a naval officer and had among other endeavours circumnavigated the world and spent some time in South Pacific. When Meryon, with lieutenant's degree, left the navy, he engaged in artistic activities.
Meryon was a skilled watercolour artist, though over time he became completely colourblind and was thus forced to devote himself to etching. He studied with one of Paris's most esteemed engravers and was soon able to support himself by skilfully engraving paintings made by other artists. Soon Meryon began to produce and sell their own work, mostly detailed and original views of Paris.
Charles Meryon was a bachelor and deeply committed to his art. Several artists and connoisseurs, including Charles Baudelaire, greatly appreciated Meryon's skills and original angles of both well-known and generally neglected Parisian sights. Meryon was also able to describe with great enthusiasm what he wanted to achieve through his art and he also attracted some devoted students. However, Meryon was over-sensitive to criticism and became increasingly suspicious of people around him. He lived miserably, did not sleep much, ate poorly and behaved in a progressively strange manner. He began to remake and change his earlier etchings, adding odd figures and shapes to his popular Parisian views. For example, in a picture he made of the Paris morgue where he added several disproportionate individuals.
Over time, Meryon's additions became even more noticeable, though he found no difficulties in explaining why he had added various aircraft, dragons, gods and apparently incomprehensible structures. His increasingly strange works sold poorly, while Meryon's poverty and persecution mania worsened.
He isolated himself in his flat, began to hallucinate and exposed increasingly strange, fixed ideas. Among other things, Meryon began sketching a ”standing bed”, a kind of contraption which would allow him to sleep in an upright position similar to the position of Jesus on the cross. Meryon made several etchings of this device, just as skilfully executed as his other works.
Charles Baudelaire knew Meryon well and together with him planned to produce a book they intended to call The Swan. However, Baudelaire, considered that Meryon’s mental stat was constantly getting worse and in a letter he described a visit to his talkative friend:
In one of his large plates, he substituted a flock of birds of prey for a small balloon, and when I remarked to him that it was unusual to put so many eagles in the Parisian sky, he replied that it was not groundless, since ”those people” (the government of the Emperor) often released eagles to study omens after the rite; and that this had been put in print in the newspaper, even Le Moniteur. I should say that he doesn´t conceal in any way his regard for all superstitions, but he interprest them poorly, and sees intrigue everywhere.
Baudelaire went on to describe how Meryon reinterpreted what he had obviously read by Edgar Allan Poe. For example, he told Baudelaire that a woman had been killed by a great ape, only to shortly after identify himself the beast while admitting to the ”moral murder” of two women. Baudelaire noticed how he himself was almost imperceptibly drawn further and further into Meryon's crazy, imaginary world and to his own surprise Baudelaire surprised himself by accepting his friend's ”deeply personal and psychotic ideas”. Baudelaire concluded his description of the incident by noting: ”Don´t scoff at this sorry fellow. I would not be prejudicial to the talented man for anything in the world.” Meryon eventually became even more unruly and was a few months later confined to an asylum, where he passed away.
Baudelaire's description of his visit to Meryon was mirrored by a conversation I had with a lady in the ward’s day room. She noted:
- I had a difficult night. It seems like I ate way too late last night. I can't stand fish so late in the day. He, the fishmonger, is the one who troubles me. He sits down there exclaiming “Is it going to be any fish today? If you say no, I will rotate your spine.” And then he does what he said he was going to do and it hurts terribly.
It was not the first and only time I got involved in strange conversations. On another occasion I had ended up beside a patient who was stroking an imaginary cat, while mumbling: “Such a nice, little cat. Nice pussy cat. Soft and kind. Don't you want pat it as well?” As I made a stroking gesture, stating: ”It´s a nice cat”, the lady jerked and stared at me: ”Are you quite sane? There’s no cat around here.” I could not know if she was making fun of me. This particular patient seemed to be focused on embarrassing me. Another example – I had been told to help her during her visits to the toilet, since she apparently had troubles pulling down her panties. When I once tried to help her with that she peed on my hands while pointing out: ”That was because you are sloppy and not doing your job properly.”
Despite such incidents, I do not regret my time at St. Lars. I was there for just a few months, though during that time I learned a lot that has followed me throughout life. Among other things, my time at the asylum made me increasingly fascinated by other people's imaginary worlds and taught me patience while listening to their tales. I benefited from this when I began to study History of Religions and during my conversations with deeply religious people.
Today I was reminded about my time at St. Lars when I on the net came across a collection of portraits painted by a British artist, Ben Edge, who in 2015 had paid tribute to a number of outsider artists. Since he included his self-portrait in his gallery of odd creators Ben Edge probably considers himself to be an outsider artist as well.
It was just after World War II’s mass slaughter that the then forty-four-year-old artist Jean Dubuffet in a letter to his friend and fellow artist René Auberjonois, coined the term Art Brut. The concept may be translated as ”raw” art, but not in the sense of ”brutal” but rather ”original”, with sub-meanings such as ”unrestrained”, ”shocking”, ”popular”, and ”unbound”. Dubuffet was the son of a relatively wealthy wine merchant in Le Havre and had between 1930 and 1935 in Paris been the proprietor of a small wine agency. I assume Dubuffet accordingly considered the term brut to be a quality stamp like Champagne Brut – in the sense of ”dry, raw, unrefined”, i.e. the exclusive drink is less sugared and thereby drier and ”nobler” than other Champagnes.
Ever since his early youth, Dubuffet had struggled to find an ”original” means of expression and searched for it in many quarters and manifestations, not least in nature - stones, herbs, butterflies, constantly chasing after an unrefined force which could be turned into art. In his letter of August 28, 1945, he wrote to his friend Auberjonois that after the madness of World War II, which ravaged so many of Europe's art treasures and destroyed the Europeans´ belief in their own superiority, artists like him and his friends should within themselves try to find an original mode of expression, liberated from all ”highly cultured” ballast. Perhaps a path leading to an inner source of creativity could be found withinin mental hospitals, asylums where marginal visionaries had been locked up, but nevertheless allowed to create art.
Like many of his friends within the Parisian surrealist circles Dubuffet had with great interest interest read epoch-making descriptions of the ”inhibited” art of mental patients, especially Walter Morgenthaler's Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler, Madness & Art, The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli, from 1921 and Hans Prinzhorns Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, Artistry of the mentally ill: A contribution to the psychology and psychopathology of configuration. Inspired by these books, Dubuffet traveled by the end of 1945 together with the well-known architect Le Courbusier and author Jean Paulhan to visit a number of Swiss asylums, where they knew ”mentally disabled” patients had engaged in artistic activities.
Paulhan was well-known in Paris's intellectual circles – he had edited several literary journals and been a leader within the resistance movement. After the end of the War Paulhan was by some writers even referred to as ”The Pope of Literature”. With an academic background in psychology and sociology, Paulhan was a committed advocate for ”free creation”, which meant that he felt we should seek and accept the unbound creative power of every human being. Something that made Paulhan becoming friends with the crazy genius Antonin Artaud, imprisoned at an asylum in Cordez, where he was plagued by electric shock treatments, though also allowed to undergo art therapy, which for Artaud meant an intense period of writing and drawing.
Of course, Artuad was visited by Dubuffet, Paulhan and le Courbusier, who together with other avant-garde artists made sure that the tormented genius in 1946 was transferred to a clinic in a suburb of Paris, Ivry-sur-Seine, and thus escaped electric shocks and enforced confinement. The clinic was expensive, though Artaud had to Dubuffet claimed that he had deposited a large fortune in the form of gold bars in a Paris bank. It turned out to be another of Artuad's fantasies, though the economically astute Dubuffet arranged a collection among Artaud's Parisian friends, which he then turned into a fund for Artaud's upkeep. At the clinic in Ivry-sur-Seine, Artaud enjoyed great freedom. However, he did not want to be surrounded by the clinic's other patients and thus settled in an isolated, unheated hunting pavilion located within the clinic's huge park, there he devoted himself to writing, wild dances and continued his experiments with psychoactive drugs, until he died two years after his move to Paris. It was Paulhan who organized Artaud's funeral.
Jean Paulhan was interested in languages. How they arise, develop, are used and structured. Paulhan's concern Artaud was based on Artuad's notions about an intimate interrelation between body, mind and language – how bodily pain can be expressed through language. His theater productions, art and poetry interpret various forms of disintegration of language, mind and body. Artaud's means of expression – body, images, language – did not describe pain, they were identical with it. To him art, drama and poetry were manifestations. They were not merely demonstrations, or reenactments, or what Artaud called ”disclosures of a standpoint”, a specific manner of seeing and acting. Scenic manifestaions were according to him more akin to ”science”, where manifestations designate how a substance or organism behave under certain conditions and how such a process can be replicated and demonstrated in front of a group of spectators. Intense feelings had to be acted out through bodily expressions. Artaud labelled actors as ”athlets of the heart”.
Art was for Artuad, and perhaps also for several other ”insane”, or rather ”obsessed”, individuals, an urge, a need – not something they devoted themselves to in order to be noticed, appreciated or maybe even rewarded for, but something they felt compelled to do. It was probably this unity between body and soul, art and defence, the mental and the physical, that made the linguist Jean Paulhan so fascinated by Artaud and convinced him, together with Dubuffet, to explore how the insane expressed themselves through an art that was not intended to be appreciated by others, but created for the sake of temsleves, and no one else.
Although Paulhan was known to be a convinced anarchist and a staunch, active opponent of Nazism and Fascism, he did nevertheless after Wold War II with great intensity defend Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the world-famous author, who generally was considered to be ”of unsound mind” and was interned in Copenhagen after in France, having been convicted in absentia as a war criminal and collaborator. Céline was pardoned in 1951 and returned to his mother country, however, without taking back his tributes of the Aryan race and attacks on Jews, continuously denying that the Holocaust had taken place. However, Céline's reprehensible stance did not worry Paulhan, as he considered that in all his madness Céline´s outbursts had been, and still were, well-worded and thus worthy of some respect due to the fact that they merited similarly well-formulated reactions.
It was an unrestrained creative drive the three friends were looking for when they set off on their explorative journey to Swiss asylums. Like the European explorers who during the preceding century had penetrated ”unknown” territories with the intention of describing, mapping and exploiting them, the artist, the architect and the psychologist/writer intended to enter the ”white spots” of the human psyche to find out if they could be inspired by and maybe even exploit what they encountered there. Like explorers of the actual world they made their trip for their own gain. As artists, they wanted to enrich their art through their experiences and discoveries.
As a matter of fact, the paintings that Dubuffet created after his ”research trip” to Switzerland's asylums are among the most interesting and inspiring in his entire production. Like Picasso's artistic activities, Dubuffet's creations are generally divided into widely different periods.
Just as nineteenth-century expeditions into the ”interior of Africa” had their specific prerequisites, presumptions and expected results, the Dubuffet/Poulhan/le Corbusier Swiss journey found its inspiration in decades of experiences and studies. Crucial, was the three artists´mutual friend Julien Michel Leiris and in particular his participation in the so called Dakar to Djibouti Expedition expedition which between 1930 and 1933 travelled from coast to coast just south of Sahara. The enterprise was headed by the social anthropologist Marcel Griaule and included several scientists and engineers who investigated the ”thinking and customs” of people living just south of the Saharan desert.
Leiris´s experiences during the expedition became crucial for his future career, After his return to Paris he wrote a successful book L'Afrique fantôme in which he combined ethnography with autobiographical notes and psychological-philosophical considerations. A few years later, Leiris returned to the French Sudan, i.e. today's Mali, where he spent several months in the core area of the Dogon people.
Before his trip to Africa, Leiris had been active within Paris's avant-garde circles and collaborated with Antonin Artaud. He was married to the influential art dealer Anton Kahnweiler's stepdaughter, engaged in jazz and poetry and a close friend with several of the leading artists of the time, not the least the most influential Surrealists. This combination of ethnography, psychology and art became crucial for the great influence Leiris had on his artist friends. For example, for more than twenty years Leiris was chief ethnographer at Musée de l'Homme, which collections of ”primitive art” were an important source of inspiration for Parisian artists and writers.
Like many of his contemporaries, Leiris was fascinated by what he in ”African art” perceived as a counterbalance to ”Western civilization”. However, his views were coloured by a great measure of racism characterized by fanciful notions about ”black culture”, imaginings not at all muted by his African experiences. According to Leiris, Europeans were ”passive spectators who should be provoked to participate in the arena of life.” He had a rather perverse interest in death, suicide, sadomasochism, ritual sacrifices, cannibalism and raw violence, something that Leiris to a great extent projected on to ”primitive cultures”, which he hoped would contribute to a revigoration of an increasingly tired and insipid ”European” culture. .
The board of the Musée de l'Homme also included Claude Lévi-Strauss. A Belgian anthropologist, philosopher and author who between 1935 and 1939 had been active as university teacher in Brazil, where he also had visited indigenous peoples in the Amazonas. Even if Lévi-Strauss was quite famous among academics and artists, it was not until 1955 that he with his book Tristes Tropiques became known to the general public. Tristes Tropiques is a travelogue combining an exquisite prose with philosophical meditations and ethnographic analyses. The book has by many been considered as a masterpiece, not least the least by my teacher Tord Olsson, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Lévi-Strauss. Like Lévi-Strauss, Tord was interested in music, literature and ”alternative thinking”.
As I wrote in a previous blog post, my friendship with Tord has had a great influence on my views of life and he did of course make me read Lévi-Strauss. In his four books on the savage mind collected under the heading Mythologiques, Lévi-Strauss studied the underlying ”structures” of a variety of myths. For him, as for many linguists, the thinking, expression, combinations and patterns behind a story are at least as interesting as the story itself. I read inspired byTord with great interest Lévi-Strauss, and several other authors influenced by his thinking, though their generalizations and profound speculations eventually made me rather irritated. I was more impressed by Tord's emphasis on personal experiences, how important encounters with other people are, something that also was essential for Dubuffet and his encounters with outsider artists.
The first stop during Dubuffets/le Corbusiers/Paulhan's search for artistically gifted maniacs was Waldau's Mental Hospital in Bern, which dated back all the way to the 16th century. There they met with Walter Morgenthaler, one of the world's leading psychiatrists, trained in Vienna by members of the Freud circle. Morgenthaler was a friend of Emil Kraepelin who in a comprehensive work had classified mental disorders into two main groups – manic-depressive psychosis and dementia praecox. The latter had by one of Morgenthaler's other acquaintances, the former Freud colleague Eugen Bleuler, been named schizophrenia. As a pioneer within the drastically changed landscape of psychiatry, Morgenthaler was fortunate enough to have at Waldau the violent paedophile Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) as his patient. As a child, Wölfli had been severely abused, both physically and mentally, and had become an orphan already at the age of ten. After a miserable time in poorhouses and later as a farmworker and soldier, Wölfli was interned for life as a ”dangerously perverted criminal” after being caught in flagrante delicto while raping a child. He was forcibly detained at Waldua's Mental Hospital where his violent behaviour meant that Wölfli had to be kept isolated.
Walter Morgenthaler found that Wölfli, who previously had not shown any interest whatsoever in creative activities, was artistically gifted and he gave him notebooks, as well as every morning two large sheets of paper and crayons. At his death twenty-three years later, Wölfli had produced a variety of paintings, often containing texts and sheet music, as well as an autobiographical epic of 25,000 pages, with 1,600 illustrations.
In his texts and pictures, Wölfli occasionally transformed himself into Emperor Adolf, or St. Adolf the Second. No one knows where Wölfli´s talent originated from, or how he had learned to write notes. You can actually play what he wrote and Wölfli's confusing music has inspired contemporary composers such as Per Nørgård and Terry Riley. Like many other schizophrenic artists, Wölfli had a very special style and rarely repeated a motive. Wölfli's images often incorporated poems, like:
Nostalgic Song for my Beloved
Nothing more beautiful have I, ever seen!
In God´s Eter-,nity:
And today I must sink down!
?Whyy: I am, too broad!
I can truly, no longer stand:
So good day, Herr Veit!
If I could see my beloved again!
I would go for a walk with her.
Nothing more beautiful have I, ever seen!
In God´s Eter-,nity!
Peace can, no longer remain!
?Whyy! I am, over-heated!
I feel hot, the winds blow!
Th´rooster is there, let in!
Oh Maria, oh Maria!
In the wood the cucko, cries.
This is a March in 32 beats.
Wölfi generally incorporated his texts within the complicated patterns of his paintings, though he could also write them down on pieces of paper and illustrate them, seemingly at random, with pictures he cut out from magazines. Oddly enough, he once wrote a poem next to a picture of a lady and an advertisement for Campbell's soups, forty years before Andy Warhol's obsession with the same soup cans. Warhol's rhythmic repetition of Campbell cans actually seem to reflect a rhythm similar to the one Wölfli's quite often obtained in his images.
When the three artist friends visited Waldau, Wölfli had been dead for fifteen years, but Dr. Morgenthaler was happy to provide them with information and stories about his strange patient, whose biography he had written and the visitors spent several days studying the items of the vast stockpile of Wölfli's posthumous works of art.
After their visit to Bern, the explorers in the world of madness continued to Lausanne where they in the Asylum of Cercy-sur-Lausanne met with Aloïse Corbaz, an elegant lady who had been interned there since 1918. Aloïse had in her youth dreamed of becoming an opera singer, but had instead begun working as a milliner. She was cultivated and well-educated and in 1911 Aloïse was in Berlin appointed as governess to the children of the court chaplain of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This meant that she came to stay at the Emperor's Court in Potsdam, where she developed a great admiration for Wilhelm II. When she was forced to return to Switzerland during World War I Aloïse entered a psychosis that soon led to her being diagnosed with severe schizophrenia, a state in which she imagined that Wilhelm II had fallen in love with her.
In secret Aloïse began to write poems and on pieces of paper she had found in various places she made colourful drawings of intimate encounters between dream princes and opera prima donnas. She coloured them with substances she had extracted from plants and medicines. It was not until 1936 that a female doctor, Jaqueline Porret-Trout, who had read Hans Prinzhorn's epoch-making study of the art of mental patients, noticed how Aloïse while humming on opera arias depicted how women like Maria Stuart, Elisabeth of Austria and Cleopatra met with strapping men in dress uniforms.
Dr. Porret-Trout provided Aloïse with the material she needed for cerating her art work and until her death in 1964 Aloïse continously created her dream worlds, in the same manner but with endless variations. A strange feature was that all people in Aloïse's visual world had blue eyes lacking whites or pupils, something Aloïse explained with that the gaze of all her different characters radiated the depth and infinity of the blue colour.
In a short time, Jean Dubbuffet collected a large amount of outsider art and was already 1949 able to exhibit no less than 200 works by 60 different artists at Galerie René Doruin in Paris. The exhibition became a sensation. In the exhibition catalogue, Dubuffet wrote:
By this [Art Brut] we mean works created by people who are free towards an artistic culture where creation, contrary to what happens among the intellectuals, assumes that the artists use everything (subjects, choice of material used, rhythms, what they write, methods to reshape, etc.) they find in their own heart and do not apply clichés from classical art or anything considered fashionable. We help them in their pure art practice, raw and in all their phases created by practitioners who follow nothing but their own impulses. An art that has ingenuity as its only characteristic, and does not follow the stereotypes that are so common in cultural art - the chameleon and the monkey.
Above is one item from Dubuffet´s wide collection of global oustider art:The Drunkard by Antônio Roseno de Lima (1926-1988). Roseno de Lima supported himself as an itinerant photographer in and around the Brazilian cities of São Paolo and Indaiatuba.
Below is a picture of Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911) one of Sweden's foremost landscape painters. He was living in France when he in 1888, after neighbours had complained about his desperate, nightly screams, was brought to an asylum in Passy. Carl Fredrik Hill was born in Lund and therefore ended up at Lund’s Hospital, which later was renamed St. Lars’s Hospital. After reperated claims about severe mistreatment Hill was allowed to be cared for by his mother and a sister (his father had been a renowned professor of mathematics at Lund University). He remained i their care for 28 years. On a daily basis carl Fredrik made numerous drawings, mainly with chalk and pastels. There are several thousand drawings preserved, but just as many have disappeared. It has been told that Hill could sit in drawing by the open window in his room and throw down his sketches to children who were playing in the street below.
Especially through Dubuffet's efforts, the aesthetic, as well as commercial value of Art Brut has become increasingly appreciated. Several mental hospitals have been offering special treatment for talented artists who have been identified among their patients. For example the Austrian August Walla (1936-2001) who lived in a world in which he believed himself to be a "Nazi girl" who, during the Soviet occupation of Vienna had been cloned to obtain a "Communist twin". Walla decorated the walls and ceiling of his room at the Maria Guggings Psychiatric Clinic's "artist's house" outside Vienna with texts and pictures describing his imaginary existence.
Dubuffet's collection of Art Brut obtained in 1976 a museum of its own in Lausanne and it now includes more than 30,000 works of art. It has to be stressed that Dubuffet's definition of Art Brut was not limited to art of the mentally disturbed. He divided the genre into three groups between which there are no watertight bulkheads. In addition to the art of the mentally ill, Dubuffet described two other categories of outsider art – spiritualistically inspired art and works made without commercial interests, but rather based on an uncontrollable, entirely personal creative urge in persons who have not been diagnosed with any form of mental illness, but nevertheless become obsessed with creating, regardless of audience and appreciation. An example of such an artist is the postman Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924) who built himself a fantasy palace in the village of Hauterive south of Lyon.
Cheval was undoubtedly an outsider, though far from crazy. His cleverly constructed castle, made of stones collected during his letter carrying rounds, refers to exotic places, perhaps inspired by the postcards he brought to their recipients, though it is also made of "such stuff as dreams are made on" and personal experiences. Plenty of inscriptions can be found upon and inside Cheval’s dream palace, such as the postman's proud declaration: "1879-1912, 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of struggle". And perhaps most beautiful of them all: "Life is a stormy ocean between the child that emerges and the old man who disappears".
Spiritist artists find themselves in a Twilight Zone between dream and reality. They are called spiritists since they believe themselves to be governed by spirits, demons or angels. Since he was a very young man Augustin Lesage (1876-1954) worked in the coal mines close to the town Auchel in northern France. In one of the dark galleries far below ground Lesage heard at the age of 34 a voice telling him: "One day you will become an artist". Lesage had during his military service visited Palais de Beaux-Arts in Lille where he had been deeply impressed by what he saw, though that was his only experience of artistic edification. When Lesage came up from the mine after hearing the mysterious voice he went straight to buy brushes, paint and a canvas that turned out to be ten times larger than he had imagined, though the inner voice was heard again and convinced him that everything was in order. Since then, Lesage painted on a daily basis: “I know nothing about how the final painting will look like. My counsellors tell me what to do and I submit to their will ”. In 1964, Dubuffet bought the first painting Lesage made – it is from 1913 and measures 9 m².
It is not uncommon that especially spiritually inspired artists paint in large formats. Madge Gill (1882-1961) painted on white fabric rolls that could have length of up to 40 meters. Like many outsider artists she had a difficult childhood. Born out of wedlock she was sent to a Canadian orphanage and did not return to England until she was twenty years old, when she came to live with an aunt who was a well-known spiritist. Madge trained as a nurse and married a stockbroker. Her life turned to tragedy when one of her three sons died in the Spanish flu and an eagerly awaited daughter turned out to be stillborn the following year. Madge became seriously ill and lost sight of one of her eyes. After recovering she was visited by a spirit who called herself Myrninerest, i.e. ”My Inner Rest”. This spirit took charge of Madge's artistic activities, day and night, until her death forty years later. Myrninerest forbade Madge to sell any of her works.
A man who, unlike Madge was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but like she also worked in a large formate was the Mexican Martín Ramírez (1895-1963). As a 30-year-old he had left his wife and three children to look for work and livelihood as a navvy in California. For six years, Martín alternated between Mexico and the United States, but in 1930 he became unemployed and lost his footing. Increasingly confused and rundown Martin moved around in the U.S. countryside. After a couple of years he was arrested by the police and diagnosed with ”cataconic schizophrenia”. Silent and harmless, Martín spent the rest of his life confined to various asylums.
By the end of the1930s Martín Ramírez was infected with tuberculosis and ended up in a clinic for TBC patients with mental disabilities. There it was found that Martín frantically drew on all pieces of paper he could lay his hands on. As he licked pencils and brushes, the staff continuously threw away everything he had drawn. As has been the case with several other outsider artists, it was an aesthetically sensitive person who discovered Martín's talent.
Tarmo Pasto taught psychology at the nearby Carlifornia State University in Sacramento and in the late 1940s he came to DeWitt State Hospital where Martín Ramírez was interned. Tarmo, a second-generation Finnish immigrant and skilled amateur artist, immediately discovered the artistic quality of Martín's drawings.
Pasto collected more than 300 of the works he encouraged Ramírez to create, the Mexican who still did not utter a single word preferred to draw and paint on the large tablecloths that were used in the hospital's dining room. It was only after Martín Ramírez's death that his remarkable art began to be exhibited, his huge drawings and paintings now constitute the highest prized outsider art at the American art market.
Although Martín Ramírez lived in isolation within U.S. asylums, his imaginary world was mainly populated by Mexican bandits and Madonnas. Perhaps his previous work as a navvy was the reason to why he also liked to depict trains passing through tunnels within landscapes dominated by undulating mountain ridges.
Another feature of Ramírez's art is deer and other animals, which together with Mexican riders and Madonnas seem to float around in the air on islands. They make me associate to the airborne islands that flow freely around in James Cameron's film Avatar.
Or in illustrations by Moebius and Miyazaki.
Like many other artists, Martín Ramírez devoted all his waking time to creating art. He was extremely productive. What is surprising with most of the outsider artists is that despite their depictions of a strictly limited, often confined world, they rarely repeat their motives. Within a constrained framework their ingenuity neverthless seems to be unlimited.
Just as Martrín Ramírez's creative imagination was limited to Mexican folklore, railways and highways, so did the former share cropper William ”Bill” Traylor (1853-1949) exclusively depict life and folklore in the American Deep South. Illiterate like Ramírez and born into slavery, the then eighty-five-year-old Traylor began painting and drawing in 1939, while sitting by a busy street in Montgomery, Alabama. Disabled by rheumatism and with a leg eaten by gangrene Traylor was sleeping in a shed behind a funeral home, spending his days by a makeshift table placed in the very centre of the city. Bill Traylor’s creative period lasted for four years, before he had to have his leg amputated and spent his last five years with a daughter in Chicago, where he did not draw anything more. In spite of his short, creative period more than 1,500 works of art by Traylor have been identified, even more have probably been lost.
Traylor drew elegantly stylized animals and more or less incomprehensible episodes from his long life; alcoholism, dances, hunting, and dog fights. Oddly enough, much of the violence, segregation and brutal racism that the blacks suffered in the American South is largely absent from Traylor.
Several of his drawings seem to haven been inspired by the African-American folklore and musicality that permeated much of the rural culture of the Southern U.S. States. Taylor's strangely distorted, and ghostly figures often equipped with top hats remind me of the humorous, yet ruthless and sinister voodoo god Baron Samedi, Lord of the Dead, whom I have seen acted out by possessed people during vodún ceremonies in the Dominican Republic.
There are also plenty of threatening, black dogs by Traylor, reminiscent of the blues legend Robert Johnson's devil dog:
I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail.
Like many other outsider artists, Traylor often presented depictions of his feelings of exclusion, an even persecution, as here where we see an aged Traylor with blue rock and a cane harassed by angry ladies, drunken men and a black dog. Traylor looks broken, he suffered badly from rheumatism and a rotting leg.
Most of Traylor's drawings are made as silhouettes, which makes me wonder if the well-known African-American artist Kara Walker could possibly have been inspired by Bill Traylor's art. In her art works Walker is also often expressing herself through silhouettes, albeit from a much more critical point of view than Traylor, Walker makes use of her art as a weapon against American, more or less conscious, racism and bigotry. Like Traylor, she occasionally portrays episodes which significance is not entirely clear to us and populate them with sinister characters.
One schizophrenic artist who also often used silhouettes was the Italian Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974). He had been a soldier, but during the Spanish Civil War Zinelli suffered a severe crisis and, was after two months of warfare diagnosed as schizophrenic and brought to a mental hospital in Verona, where he in total isolation was imprisoned for 10 years.
By the end of the fifties, Zinelli was considered calm enough to be allowed to participate in an experiment in which mental patients were encouraged to create works of art. Over a ten-year period, Zinelli created eight thousand large paiting, woking with them for eight hours a day. After becoming calm and quiet Zinelli abruptly ceased his artistic activities and during the last five years of his life he painted and draw virtually nothing.
While Bill Traylor sat and painted in Montgomery, Nikifor (1895-1968) passed through World War II in south-eastern Poland. Nikifor, whose actual name has never been properly identified, was a Lemko, i.e. he belonged to a small ethnic group with its own language and distinctive culture and a core area in the border regions between Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia. Nikifor's father was unknown and his mother was declared insane, leaving Nikifor to take of himself from an early age on.
For most of his life, Nikifor lived in utter poverty in the spa town of Krynica in southern Poland, which churches and institutions he has lovingly and in great detail depicted in several of the 40,000 small pictures that have been preserved after him. Nikifor painted on every piece of paper he could come across; cardboard, notebooks, brochures, packaging, etc., cutting most of them into squares, about 30 × 50 centimetres. On several occasions he was interned at various asylums and clinics, where his small paintings often were thrown away since Nikifor was in the habit of licking brushes and pencils and the staff was worried about TBC infection.
Nikifor often portrayed himself as a solitary wanderer, or as painter sitting on benches and by tables, drawing and painting. Despite the fact that he suffered violence and exclusion during the merciless war along Poland’s south-eastern borders, there are few traces of it in his art.
Along with other Lemkos Nikifor was by the Polish Communist regime in 1949 deported to northern Poland where formerly settled agricultural areas had been abandoned by fleeing Germans. On three occasions Nikifor hiked the long way back to Krynica, only to be captured and forced to return to the new settlement areas. After the third relocation, Nikifor was nevertheless allowed to return to Krynica and stay there. He was assigned a place by a corner in an ”artist´s studio” established at one of the spa hotels. Beginning in 1960 Nikifor shared the studio with a fairly well-known artist, Marian Włosinski, who soon realized that Nikifor was a more interesting artist than he was. Włosinski succeeded in becoming the ”legal custodian” for Nikifor and devoted most of his time to make Nikifor’s work known in Poland.
It was not the first time Nikifor had been noticed by other artists. Already in the 1930s, Ukrainian exile artists had organized an exhibition of Nikifor's art in Paris, but at that time the war had put an end to Nikifor's growing, international fame and he continued to live as an impoverished and homeless beggar in the streets of Krynica. Nikifor was close to being almost illiterate and had great difficulties in expressing himself. It was not until the end of his life that it was discovered that Nikifor's speech problems were not due to a mental disorder, but that his tongue was partly stuck to the palate.
Nikifor's speech problems, as well as his international and domestic success made me think of the Swedish artist Axel Robert Petersson (1868-1925), called Döderhultaren. He was also eventually noticed by admiring artist colleagues and despite well attended and favourably reviewed exhibitions in Paris 1910, Copenhagen, Brighton, Rome and Turin in 1911, in New York 1913 and 1915 in San Francisco and Chicago, and that several of his expressionistic statue groups were purchased by the Swedish National Museum, Döderhultaren continued to live by himself in a small rather wretched two-room flat in the small town of Oskarshamn. Since he was considered to be a somewhat ”dirty old man” women avoided him. Döderhultaren also had some rather acute speaking problems and was constantly wearing galoshes, as he assumed that they would protect him if the lightning struck. However, his dynamic, sharp-sighted and skilfully executed sculpture groups show no signs of mental illness.
Döderhultaren's galoshes and celebrity made me think of to the Dutch Willem van Genk (1927-2005). van Genk was a manic collector of black raincoats and had more than a hundred of them stored in his home. He once stated: ” At one point I got rid of a raincoat and while I now think back about it, I do it with great regret.” van Genk's emotional attachment to raincoats has been linked to a traumatic youth experience.
Willem van Genk had nine older sisters. His mother died when he was five years old and to combat his sorrow van Genk initiated a lifelong devotion to drawing, dedicating several hours a day to his unrestrained passion. His father was an impulsive and aggressive man, often beating his son, whom he considered to be ”uneducable”. The father was an active opponent to the Nazi occupants and among other endeavours tried to protect persecuted Jews. When Gestapo had received a tip about the van Genk family's activities, they made a visit to their home. The father stayed hidden, but the seventeen-year-old Willem was beaten and abused by the Secret Service agents who wore long leather coats. van Genk connected his fascination with long black, raincoats with his youthful and horrifying experience of Gestapo violence, declaring that he dressed in the coats as ”protection and to gain power”.
van Genk did not finish his compulsory schooling, but succeeded in securing employment as a draughtsman with an advertising agency in The Hague. However, he mismanaged his work and was fired, initiating a downward spiral from work to work, which eventually took him to a boarding house and a factory linked to a program called Arbeid voor Onvolwaardigen, Work for Disabled. The gravely autistic Willem suffered from the disdain of the managers and one of his sisters, Willy, finally succeeded in obtaining custody of her brother and in 1964 Willem was able to move into her apartment in The Hague.
Already in 1958, van Genk had applied to The Royal Academy of Art in The Haag. Its principal, Joop Beljon, discovered van Genk's unique talent and supported him through various exhibitions and appearances in the press, radio and TV. However, a TV appearance made Van Genk so terrified of his own appearance that he subsequently refused to be filmed, photographed, or interviewed. When his sister Willy died in 1973, van Genk took over her apartment, becoming more and more isolated, while he continuously painted and built a miniature town with trains and buses made from material he had found rubbish piles and containers. van Genk was a bookworm and over the years he acquired a fascinating book collection. His rising fame and increased income enabled Van Genk to travel extensively, to Stockholm, Madrid, Rome, Prague, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin and New York. It was only major cities that attracted him and in particular, their train and metro stations. van Genk was an avid collector of posters and postcards which details he copied into his paintings, including texts as in this double image of Prague and Stockholm where he incorporated a text in Swedish: ”Prague, the beautiful capital of the Czechs.”
By the early 1990s, van Genk's neighbours had more than enough of the stench spreading from his apartment and a persistent ”beating” during nights. The authorities carried out several investigations into Van Genk's living conditions and in 1996 these led to a police intervention. van Genk was forcibly removed from his apartment and detained for three months. When his artist colleagues intervened and tried to explain how sensitive van Genk was and that he was likely to suffer a mental breakdown due to the brusque intervention. However, the police explained: “We know everything about Mr van Genk. His file is one meter thick and the situation had to be addressed. This is the only way to do it.”
The apartment was cleaned up and renovated. The floor was found to be completely covered by a layer of dog faeces, ”dry and stamped thin”. van Genk's dog Coco was found to be not housebroken and was consequently culled. After three months, van Genk returned to a completely changed apartment. It was no longer the Gesamtkunstwerk, Total Artwork, he had previously inhabited. van Genk suffered a stroke and he spent the last nine years of his life in a sanatorium where he neither drew nor painted.
van Genk´s living conditions reminds me of when we moved to a new apartment in Rome. Beneath us lived a man whose dog was constantly barking, spending most of its time on the balcony, while the stench from the apartment engulfed the surroundings, it was particularly nauseating in the staircase, from where it seeped in to our flat. A neighbour described to us how he had visited the troublesome source of all this aggravation and had found the apartment filled with dog droppings and how ”dirt hung from the roof like stalactites”. When we inquired about the strange man, whom I saw every day going down to the store to shop, we were told that he owned his apartment, had plenty of money and came from a wealthy and influential family. It had proved impossible to get him evicted. The situation was so desperate that we considered moving again, but unexpectedly the man died and the problem was solved.
Without noticing it we are all surrounded by people who might have unsuspected and hidden talents and qualities. Our neighbour was probably not a damaged genius like van Genk, but chance has sometimes brought influential people in contact with talented outsiders. Wilhelm Uhde (1875-1947) belonged to a type of collectors who do not care so much about the commercial value of art though nevertheless willing to sacrifice a great deal to acquire what they desire. After studying in Munich and Florence, Uhde established himself as an art dealer in Paris. When Picasso and Braque were unknown to most connoisseurs, Uhde bought several of their paintings and began in 1905, the same year as he began promoting works by more or less unknown modernist artists, he actively supported the already quite well-known naivist Henri Rousseau, called le Douanier. Rousseau had since 1884 moved among Paris's more progressive artists, but was by them mainly considered to be an odd character, exceptions to this view were Pablo Picasso and Robert Delaunay whose great appreciation of Rousseu's art made Uhde interested in ”primitivist” artists, in the sense of ”original/ self-taught”. The year after Rosseau's death in 1910, Uhde wrote the first, and highly appreciative, monograph on his life and work.
Wilhelm Uhde wrote and exhibited works by artists he referred to as ”primitive masters”, or somewhat sentimentally named Painters of the Sacred Heart. Among the naïvistic artists Wilhelm Uhde supported were masters who are now part of the general art history – the postal inspector Louis Vivin, the gardener André Bauchant and the print shop assistant Camille Bombois. None of these artists had any formal training as painters and artisans and generally began painting late in life. Several of the came to be labelled as Sunday Painters, indicating that painting was a sideline to their professional activities, or something they did after their retirement. However, most of them were far from being untalented. Consider, for example various works by Bombois. He mainly portrayed circus people and/or depicted the countryside around Paris. Bombois's paintings are entirely free from any stereotyped and sentimentalizing schmaltz that often cling to depictions of Roma people, street- and circus artists. A painting by Bombois depicting how three clowns are preparing for a performance indicates how familiar he was with the environment he depicted in such a straightforward manner.
However, Séraphine Louis (1864-1942) was different from other artists supported by Uhde, though he also included her among his painters of The Sacred Heart. We know almost nothing about Séraphine's life, or when and how she started painting. In order to relax from the hectic life in Paris, Uhde rented in 1912 a flat in Senlis and as housekeeper hired a quiet and poor lady. One day he saw by some neighbours a painting of some apples (or were they oranges?) which through its originality caught his attention.
Uhde found to his surprise that it had been painted by his housekeeper who every night locked herself up in her wretched room and in the light of a candle painted her pictures of fruits and flowers, well into the night. Her mother had died when Séraphine was just one year old and her father when she was seven. Initially, Séraphine had supported herself as a shepherdess, though seventeen years old she had begun to take care of household chores for nuns in a convent. Uhde began to support Séraphine, something that made her life less difficult, but as early as August 1914 Uhde was as a German citizen forced to leave France due to the outbreak of World War I. A large part of his unique art collection was confiscated and eventually dispersed. It was not until many years later that Uhde returned to France and then settled with his family in Chantilly, north of Paris. When Uhde visited an exhibition at the Town Hall in nearby Senlis, he saw a painting by Séraphine, with whom he had lost all contact.
Uhde was amazed at her great progress and artistic boldness. The Town Hall staff directed him to Séraphine’s ”little cubbyhole” where Uhde found her to be ”small and withered, with a fanatical gaze and a faded face framed by dingy hair.” She now devoted her entire time to painting. With Uhde's help, Séraphine received in the course of a couple of years everything she needed to complete outstanding works of art, which although they seemed to be inspired by flowers and churches´ stained-glass windows they neverthles had little to do with nature and rather seemed to be a reflection of an intangible, spiritual dimension.
Séraphine's economy and living conditions improved, though she found difficulties in adapting to her increased income and fame and was viewed with increasing suspicion, even contempt, by her neighbours and other jealous residents of the small town. The depression in 1930 ruined Uhde, who found it increasingly difficult to support the sensitive Séraphine, who in 1932 was taken to an asylum diagnosed with ”chronic psychosis”. As a Jew, Uhde and his family were forced to leave the German-occupied France in 1940 and remained hidden in the southern, Vichy-goverened part of the country until the end of World War II. Meanwhile, Séraphine had died in 1942 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
The fate of Séraphine makes me remember Selma Knäckebröd (Swedish Crispbread) from my childhood in the small town of Hässleholm. She worked as a staircase cleaner, collected deposit bottles and sold newspapers. Selma always wore a long, striped skirt and an apron. Behind her she wheeled a wooden pull-along peg cart in which she kept her cleaning supplies, bottles and magazines. She had a drever dog named Sven and kept him on a multicoloured leash she twinned together from scrap fabrics. Among us children many stories were told about Selma; among other things that she actually was a fairly wealthy lady and secretly went on holidays abroad. Selma lived in a dilapidated house in Röinge, a small village just outside Hässleholm though too far away from my childhood home to make me venture there. It was said that Selma took meticulous care of a beautiful apple tree she kept in her small garden, that her house was full of cats and its stench reached far into the street.
I recall how Selma once entered the Metropol movie theatre during a matinée for kids. I was there and all of us children began to chant: “Selma! Selma! Selma Knäckebröd!” Those who did not think she had any money tucked away thought she was poor, though I know that Selma sometimes had food delivered to her home and the delivery boy told us that she was a kind lady who always gave him a generous tip. She bought pork chops for Sven in Gullbrandsson's Delicatessen in Röinge.
One story told about Selma was that she once had fallen in love with the handsome parish vicar and thus had joined his Bible study group. However, when he had married a beautiful lady, Selma became furious and during the following Bible study evening she walked up to the pastor and screamed: “Shame on you” turned on her heel and never showed up again in the parish house, or in the church.
One day I was sitting alone in the staircase stroking Sven when Selma showed up. Probably she had discovered that I did not tease or fear her like most other children did. I got quickly on my feet and while she was messing around with the things in her cart, Selma turned to me and pointed out, ”You are Lundius´s kid, right?” I nodded. She added: ”Then you probably know that my name is neither Selma, nor Knäckebröd.” ”Yes, I do” I answered politely, but curious as I was already then I could not help but wondering: ”But, what is your real name then?” ”Miss Thomasson,” she replied. ”Here,” she said. ”Here I will give you something nice.” She gave me a postcard with a church on it, I do not remember which one it was and I have lost it long ago. ”I have many of those,” she noted. ”I collect them. I collect cards and I read a lot.” It was as if she wanted to prove to me how normal she was and I actually assume that Selma Knäckebröd was not at all as crazy as the other kids claimed. “Now I am reading about Catherine the Great. She had a lover by the name of Potemkin, Grigorij Alexandrovitj Potemkin, and he could do everything for her. She had many lovers. Do you know who Catherine the Great was? ” Confused I shook my head, surprised by what Selma Knäckebröd told me. After that first meeting, it happened on several other occasions that we ended up talking to one another there in the stairwell and Selma told me about what she had read. I do not remember how often we spoke to each other, but remember how she once told me of Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalos, who was afraid of his own shadow.
I do not know when Selma died. I was much later told that someone found her fainted on the floor in ”that horrible house” and that she died shortly after she had been brought to the hospital.
Certainly there must be several people like Selma Knäckebröd all around us. Some of them may be like her, people who read and think, but are unable to share their thoughts and discoveries with anyone and who all alone are getting stuck with strange habits. Isolated through fear and dislike of their fellow human beings they sink down into filth, poverty and misery. Some of them are, or become mentally ill. A few of them might be excellent artists could if enabled to do so create fantastic worlds of their own. We tend to stay far away from them, though still many of us can recognize traits that such outsiders share with us and thereby become fascinated by their tragic fates and strange art work.
Several feature films have been made about some of oitsider artists, not least has the mysterious Ligabue, whom I wrote about in an earlier essay, been the subject of no less than two excellent films. A movie has also been made about Nikifor, one about Séraphine from Senlis and one about the postman and palace builder Cheval.
So … are there any similarities between outsider artists and me? Their lives were generally significantly worse than mine has been and I assume most of them suffered from their troublesome existence. My compulsive blog writing, without any direct particular audience may be considered as a parallel to the maniacs' irresistible creativity and when I am absorbed by my own writing it may be likened to a visit to the parallel universe where several outsider spend their entire lives. Like many of them I am also a hoarder of art cards, books and CDs and share with them a certain craving for seclusion.
Finally – a picture of a man with a blue face mask who avoids touching the ground. It is far from being a contemporary commentary on the current COVID-19 epidemic but is a drawing made by an outsider named Josef Forster. All we know about him is that he lived between 1878 and 1949 and was admitted to a mental asylum in the German town of Regensburg. Forster's goal in life was to become a ”noble being”, not ”earthbound” but weightless, freed from the need to eat and everything else that constrained him to earth. An endeavour and philosophy he expressed in a variety of writings and drawings.
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