an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 6, September-October-November 2009, ISSN 1552-5112




Modernist Asylum Art and the Contemporary Consideration of Art


Gerry Coulter



Our admiration for painting results from a long process of adaptation that has taken place over centuries and for reasons that often have nothing to do with art or the mind. Painting created its receiver. It is basically a conventional relationship (Gombrowicz to Dubuffet as cited by Baudrillard, 2005:29)





I. Introduction



The art world has long been haunted by the absence of madness.  Various movements (including Expressionism and Surrealism) deeply admired the artistic output of several who were incarcerated in asylums. Some asylum art, whatever the intention of its makers, falls into well established aesthetic categories and artistic styles in interesting and often innovative ways. Why then are we almost always protected, when we visit the collections and temporary exhibitions of the vast majority of mainstream art museums, from the works of those who have been officially labeled “insane” or “mentally incompetent”?[1] The modern artist Jean Dubuffet did much to bring attention to the work of these artists while collecting over 5000 of their works.[2] As did Nietzsche before him and Rauschenberg after, Dubuffet understood the work of homo demens to be as important a creative act as that of homo sapiens.


In this paper I focus on the work of six artists who were labeled insane and went on to create in asylums (Aloïse Corbaz, Adolf Wölfli, Carlo Zinelle, Sylvain Fusco, Auguste Forestier, and Johann Hauser). Each produced works in isolation from the routinized terrorism of mainstream socialization and formal artistic traditions. While it may be understandable why, in their time, most of the artists discussed here were sequestered from society, either for the protection of themselves or other members of society, there is no good reason why their art should remain segregated today. I focus on two sound scholarly reasons why this segregation should end: 1) much of the output of these artists overlaps significantly with mainstream art movements and styles, and, 2) when placed alongside art produced outside the asylum these works help to deepen and extend our understanding of not only movements and styles but of human creation more broadly.


It is important in this assessment to avoid romanticizing these artists while, at the same time, acknowledging that art made outside of formal artistic culture does often point to the artificiality and insincerity of the mainstream art world. Segregation of art works made by the “insane” also serves to continue the myth that there is an art of madness as distinct from something like an “art proper”. Dubuffet was helpful here when he said: “there no more exists an art of madness than an art of bad knees” (Thévoz, 2001:9).


II. Six Asylum Artists[3]


a) Aloïse Corbaz


1.    Aloïse Corbaz. Mickens (1936-64). Collection Art Brut, Lausanne.




The makers of asylum art discussed here were all, for major portions of their adult lives, inmates in what the great labeling machinery of early modernity called “insane asylums”. If we understand their work, as did the important Parallel Visions exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1992, as running “parallel” to mainstream artistic developments, we justify the bar which separates these works from those held by major mainstream galleries and which are included in special thematic exhibitions of Pop, Cubism, Expressionism etc.

2. Aloïse Corbaz. Lit du train (c 1955)


Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964) was interned at the asylum La Rosière (Gimel,  Switzerland) in 1918 where she lived the remainder of her life under the diagnoses of “precocious dementia”. Not entirely unlike Andy Warhol she was obsessed with famous people (in her case Kaiser Wilhelm II and various popular figures). Her creative work was influenced, as was that of many European and American Pop artists, by popular media (in her case magazines). Aloïse used the only artistic media available to her (wax crayons and paper), in a highly Expressionist manner (quite close to the way in which German Expressionists such as Nolde or Kirchner used paint). She often inserted clippings from magazines into her work (as early as the 1920s) well before this became a routine practice in what has been considered early European Pop Art. The use of popular images from magazines and advertisements was to become a mainstay of European (Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake) and later American Pop Artists. Her exclusion from early Pop is as interesting as her exclusion from consideration as an Expressionist.


Aloïse used bold colours in a way that stress contrast while emphasizing the flatness of the work of art – a concern of modernism from the late 19th century (Van Gogh, Sérusier), on down through geometric abstraction in the 1950’s-1960’s. Her work, like a good deal of early modernism, profits from its “hurried” look but when we examine it with care we find that she laboured intensely and with great care over many details (such as the elaborate hand drawn curls in the blonde woman’s hair in Lit du Train). While she was given to delusions Aloïse’s medical records tell the story of a woman with a strong memory and high intelligence (Thévoz, 2001;54). It is very unlikely that she would be incarcerated if she were living today.


Art is not a question of truth but of illusion and for a work to be considered art it should tell us something about the power of illusion (Baudrillard, 2005:64). Aloïse used her art to live vicariously in the lives of those she found in magazine stories, histories, and the Bible. What some might understand as naïve elements in her art has a good deal to do with the media available to her (coloured crayons are the media of most children). We should also keep in mind that, despite the limits imposed by available media, her work shares characteristics with some of the most innovative modern trends. Indeed, many of the quasi-human characters which appear in her art (as in Mickens) are not only part of the complex and unique symbolic world the artist created but have something to say to cubism.


The quasi-human animal and bird like figures also recall German Expressionism, especially some work by Emile Nolde and by Otto Dix.[4] Along with Nolde, Dix, and many other Expressionists, Aloïse used art as a way of reconciling her place in the world. While it is very close to German Expressionism (we do not know if she ever saw modern artworks either in illustrations or at a gallery), the artistic brilliance of her work is to be found in the frequent use of Cubist representational devices. Such devices are rare in Expressionism and here Aloïse is especially innovative in synthesizing aesthetics. A good deal of her work possesses a stylistic quality reminiscent of a famous cubist who also had his own unique symbolic repertoire – Picasso.


3. Pablo Picasso. Crucifixion (1930). Paris: Musée Picasso


In Mickens (the female figure on the left), we find breasts stacked on top of one another and other body parts flowing into and out of other figures as we find in Picasso’s complex visual vocabulary of the 1930s. This figure is separated by another head from two stacked heads of a bird-like creature. Aloïse’s work often included collages constructed of several figures sharing a confined space as in pre-Renaissance Church art and in popular magazine covers.


4. Emile Nolde. The Enthusiast (1919).  Sprengel Museum, Hanover.


There is then a very certain Expressionism meets Cubism (Nolde meets Picasso) integration of styles at play in Aloïse’s art. Whether or not she as influenced by images of modern art (it seems likely she would have seen them in magazines) her work is however unusual (if not unique) in how it merges the two major styles of early modernism. Aloïse also left behind an interesting combination of Expressionist colour, Pop artifacts, and traditionally defined “women’s” art (as she often [e.g. Mickens] sewed the coloured renderings and pictures onto sheets of paper to make the final work). Jann Haworth’s L.A. Times Bedspread (1965) [on which she sewed popular images and comic strip names] comes to mind as does the Expressionistic painting of Canadian artist Joyce Wieland who often deals with popular figures and the objects of the artist’s erotic imagination.


5. Joyce Wieland. Artist on fire (1983). McLaughlin Museum, Oshawa, Canada


Aloïse frequently painted herself (breasts exposed) in the arms of another – often a famous person. Aloïse, like many asylum artists of the first half of the twentieth century, made works which have a good deal in common with late twentieth century Neo-Expressionism (especially Horst Antes and Mimmo Paladino).


6. Horst Antes. Blue figure: St. Francis of Assisi. Private Collection.


In Cubist, Expressionist, and Pop terms, Aloïse Corbaz produced art which requires the terminology of the art world to describe. If we were to make a case for excluding it from “art” because she did not use oil paint then we would need to exclude all works which rely on pencil. For her merger of cubist and Expressionist devices, her unique cubist forms, merging of primitive creatures with human form, and her use of popular images from magazines, Aloïse is an important innovator in modern art. Whatever her motivations for making her art, and whatever her mental state, Aloïse’s work not only overlaps with mainstream modernism in interesting ways but provides unique insights into the application/merger of modern style. The fact that she produced these works in the terrible asylum conditions of her day only serves to make her work all the more amazing. When I attended the Europop exhibition in Zurich (Kunsthaus) in 2008 I deserved to see at least one work of this artist who used popular magazine images long before Paolozzi and other European Pop artists did. The same may be said for special exhibitions, attentive to seminal figures, which involve Expressionism and Cubism. We can only wonder, and certainly no harm will come from exhibitions encouraging us to wonder, if Pop Art itself is highly derivative of asylum art. The art of Adolf Wölfli does nothing to dispel such a line of enquiry.


b) Adolf Wölfli


7. Wölfli. Holy St. Adolf Tower (1919). Kunsthaus, Bern (Adolf Wolfli Collection)          


After being found attempting to molest a three year old girl in 1895, Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) was sent to the Waldau Mental Asylum in Bern where he spent the rest of his life. Wölfli’s interest in creating imaginary worlds and figures to inhabit them matches that of Paul Klee who frequently drew inspiration from his local surroundings (often in his garden) in conceiving of highly imaginative worlds and beings. Klee was influenced by the work of mental patients (Goldwater, 1986:193 ff.) and was a strong supporter of asylum art. He kept a copy of Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill ([1922] 1972) in his studio for reference (MacGregor, 1989:235). Where we find in Klee an intimate exploration of images usually devoid of text, the mental world Wölfli renders is a unified one of both text and images.


8. Paul Klee. Landscape with Yellow Birds (1932)

Private Collection, Switzerland


The text was from another inner world, Wölfli’s own, and constitutes on its own an extensive written oeuvre (see Spoerri and Baumann, 2003:19-25). Wölfli’s drawing participates in a modern concern for flatness – and shares with Klee a density of figures. Wölfli apparently detested any unused space on the sheets on which he drew or those on which he wrote and affixed pop images. Given his seemingly inexhaustible artistic drive (about 2,000 drawings and illustrations and over 25,000 pages of text), it is probably the case that the density of his works reflect an unquenchable desire to be empty of his thoughts. Art performs this function for every artist – a place of emptying out, that which can no longer be borne within. It is not as rare as we like to think for modern artists to write – Picasso gave up painting for poetry for a time in the mid-1930s and wrote one play during World War II (Desire caught by the tail [Désir attrapé par la queue]). Wölfli’s oeuvre shows us that a kind of internal necessity drives the art of a man labeled “insane” as it often does any artist. In Wölfli’s case we can acknowledge that schizophrenia was but one of his diverse “media” and is fundamental to his efforts. I do not mean to romanticize mental illness but we should acknowledge that its existence has sometimes led to interesting and important outcomes – outcomes which may not necessarily be accessible to those what are not mentally ill. Van Gogh too, was for a period in his life, a mental patient. We should not deny to Wölfli, and other incarcerated artists, the serious effort to understand the linkages between mental illness and art we lavish upon Van Gogh. Even if beauty is not the product of a troubled mind, often, interesting art is. Perhaps art inspired by madness seems more direct because to be insane is to have less distance from oneself, yet a far greater distance from others than so called “sane” people?


Images taken from magazines (especially advertising) which find their way into Wölfli’s work are especially interesting. Many aficionados of Andy Warhol’s work may be surprised to learn that the first use of a Campbell’s Soup can (Tomato) was by Wölfli who inserted a Campbell’s advertisement into his Campbell’s Tomato Soup (Funeral March) of 1929.


9. Adolf Wölfli. Campbell’s Tomato Soup (1929). American Folk Art Museum, New York


Advertisements clipped from magazines for Kraft Cheese, Monarch Coffee, Suchard Chocolates, Bon Ami cleaner and many other products appear in Wölfli’s work as do reproductions of famous popular singers, actors, explorers, and politicians (see Spoerri and Baumann, 2003:83-93). Looking at Wölfli’s art on display in Bern immediately led me to think of pop artists (Peter Blake in particular), who frequently used newspaper and magazine images (sometimes reproduced in paint and often cut-out and pasted onto the final work).


10. Peter Blake. Love Wall (1961). Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon.


As with the work of Aloïse we can only wonder about the absence of Wölfli’s very early use of popular images from the Europop show in Zurich which, ironically, prided itself on its inclusivity, diversity, and effort to mine the earliest uses of popular images in art (Bezzola and Lentzsch, 2008: [English section of catalogue]:i).


Why might Wölfli (and Aloïse) be excluded from Europop given its interest in early use of popular images in European art making? Perhaps American Andy Warhol’s unspecified position in relation to his own work is of some help in answering this question. There continues to be a lively debate as to whether Warhol’s intentions, when he painted one of his Campbell’s cans or Coca Cola bottles, were motivated by ironic parody, subtle critical subversion, cynical exploitation, or naïve admiration and imitation (Ibid.:vi). Wölfli certainly could be fit into the category of “naïve admiration and imitation” if not “critical subversion”. A good deal may be at stake for the proponents of Pop art in keeping Wölfli’s work (and that of other asylum inmates who used popular images in making art) out of what the art world considers ‘official’ Pop art. This has to do with the fact that the art world, for many years, found it difficult to include Pop (which came under incredible ridicule in its early days from the mainstream art world and abstract artists), because Pop, as practiced by Warhol and others, signals the end of the artificial category of “high art”. It is ironic indeed to see several shows and dozens of curators and authors struggle for the past half-century to stress the intellectual and artistic seriousness of Pop as a mainstream movement. Jean Baudrillard understood Pop precisely because he worked without commitments to see the movement enshrined as art. For Baudrillard all art is kitsch after Pop appears:

Abstract Expressionism was still a kind of avant-garde. Avant-gardes are subversive, and Abstract Expressionism was still a form of gestural subversion of painting and representation. After that, we’re no longer talking about the avant-garde. It’s still possible to come up with something new, but this is merely ‘posthumous representation’. It’s beyond the destruction of representation. What’s more, this creates a very confused world, because all forms are possible. In this sense it may be true that beyond the avant-garde you simply have kitsch. (Baudrillard in Genosko, 2001:144)


Wölfli’s exclusion can be understood, in light of this line of thought, as a product of the efforts of supporters of Pop. Supporters of Pop continue to see it included in the new museal and aesthetic academicism wherein contemporary art continues the modernist trajectory of a movement from “ism” to “ism”. Pop’s status in the official art world has become so dependent upon its intellectual status (cynicism, ironic, critical) at the expense of categories such as naïve and affirmative, that the inclusion of Wölfli’s work in a contemporary showing of the origins and development of Pop could be seen as potentially devastating to fifty years of hard work to establish the artistic seriousness and intellectual credibility of the movement. Wölfli, it should be noted, considered himself to be an important artist and sold many of his works while he was alive (Thévoz, 2001:122).


Despite the reluctance of most proponents of Pop to engage with it, Wölfli’s work has come to be embraced by the broader art world, especially his work which does not include popular images. This no doubt has something to do with the reappraisal of Klee’s work which was itself very difficult to fit into the narrative of modernism. Klee’s art is alive with primitive masks, totemic symbols flowing quasi-abstract life forms (birds, insects, humans) as is that of Wölfli as we see in his Holy St. Adolph Tower. It would be very difficult to admit Klee’s work to modernist status as art (and he was excluded by many for several decades), in all of its incredible sumptuousness, without also accepting Wölfli’s work to be art. Not surprisingly then, some of Wölfli’s works began to fetch five figures [$US 40,000] by 1992, and more recently six figures, at auction (see Zolberg and Cherbo, 1992:2).


c) Carlo Zinelle

On the horizon, in the most distant fog, one always sees faces. …You see in my eyes nature’s altar, blossoms on stumps and roots, cartilage, negative forms, shadow stains. Marching up of the epileptics, orchestrations of the bloated, warted, gruel-like, and jellyfish creatures, limbs interlaced with erectile tissue (Georg Baselitz (1961).




11. Carlo Zinelle. Composition (1964). Collection Art Brut, Lausanne.


Carlo Zinelle (1916-74) returned from front line action in World War II mentally depleted. Doctor’s concluded that he suffered from paranoia and he was committed to the Verona (Italy) Psychiatric Hospital where he remained until his death. He spent his first ten years in the hospital in near isolation refusing contact with most other patients. In the mid-1950’s he was introduced to artistic materials by his doctors and before long he was working hours each day (drawing and colouring with coloured pencils and tempera paint). Carlo’s art (just under 2000 pages) records his own unique way of coding the world and both its real and symbolic creatures. Human and other figures viewed from the side (often with holes) dominate his art which is Neo-Expressionist in its colour and figuration (often the same figure is repeated in serial fashion) presenting flattened figures in a flattened world. Like Aloïse, Carlo’s Neo-Expressionism is driven by inner emotion and feeling. What makes Carlo a fully fledged Expressionist is his use of raw and somewhat obscure figures.


12. Carlo Zinelle. Yellow Animal (1964). Collection Art Brut, Lausanne.

Gouache on paper.


Carlo’s art anticipates that of Romare Reardon[5] in the 1960’s as well as the Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s (Jean-Marie Basquiat and Georg Baselitz[6] in particular). Jean Dubuffet’s own primitive period (1940s) also comes to mind such as his Nuance d’Abricot (1947, Pompidou Centre, Paris)[7].


13. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Flexible (1984)



The presence of Zinelle forces us to reconsider the appearance of Neo-Expressionism as a 1970’s phenomenon. Ironically, these Neo-Expressionists were called the “new wild ones” in the 1970s. Zinelle’s art falls at the core of Neo-Expressionism because it is, as Donald Kuspit said of 1970s Neo-Expressionists: “a revival of traditional themes of self-expression in European art after decades” (Kuspit, 2006). As much as any other Neo-Expressionist, Zinelle’s work anticipates that of A. R. Penck who was himself considered to be nearly insane by members of the old East German party elite in the former German Democratic Republic. Penck has said that one of his formative influences was Paul Klee.


14. A. R. Penck. Me, in Germany (West), 1984


Zinelle (like Penck in particular) favoured a pictographic idiom of archetypal figures and forms. For Zinelle, as for most Neo-Expressionists, the subject matter of the work reflects interests directly connected to the emotive life of the artist. Zinelle’s symbolism seems to be a kind of fusing of rational and irrational forms and this makes it especially Neo-Expressionist. Indeed, what seems to arrive “naturally” to Zinelle is the product of great effort on the part of a painter like Penck. There is also a decorative quality to much mature Neo-Expressionism which is also part of Zinelle’s work, especially in his selection and arrangement of colour.


15. Carlo Zinelle. Composition, c 1964. Location unknown.


Like Wölfli, Zinelle made use of most of the entire sheet of paper. Zinelle’s paintings also possess a primordial quality reminiscent of aboriginal archetypes found in caves and, in many cases, still part of artistic traditions around the world. Ironically the exclusion of Zinelle’s art from an assessment of Expressionism places him (like other Western-based asylum artists), in the position of the colonial Other, whose work has been forever detained at the gates of modernism (which nonetheless delighted in looting it). Zinelle deserves more attention from the mainstream art world because, if for no other reason, at the peak of Abstract Expressionism and Pop he represents a bridge between Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism that would come into prominence in mainstream Western art in another twenty years. Zinelle’s work was fed by a mind made ambivalent in the extreme from the experience of war and this too has been a defining characteristic of post-war German Neo-Expressionism.


d) Sylvain Fusco


16. Sylvain Fusco. Queen (1935). Collection Art Brut, Lausanne.


Sylvain Fusco (1903-40) was interned at the Vinatier Hospital in Lyon, France where he eventually became a victim of the Nazi holocaust of mental patients. Fusco’s work is highly surreal during the peak of Surrealism in Europe. He created in silence and unlike Wölfli (who conducted and promoted himself as an artist) Fusco shrouded his work in silence. There is something of Picabia in his floating Queen which enters the dark world of the artist from a place of light. Perhaps Fusco saw her as a kind of angel as her hair seems to transform into gossamer wings. The colour and style are not that unlike many figures hovering over the skies of the works of Marc Chagall. Like Chagall, Fusco focuses mainly on the happier side of memory and the dream world, often employing bright Expressionist burst of colour to scenes otherwise enshrouded by night. While there is certainly a sinister side to asylum art, Fusco’s work reminds us that there is also a charming one.


17. Marc Chagall. The Bay of Angels (1962). Private Collection.


Fusco’s art also deepens our understanding of Surrealism in that it often fragments the body in a way Surrealism, with its reluctance to go past distorting the body, usually did not. In doing so this “insane” artist may show us a key to some of the internal and unrecognized conflicts of the “sane” Surrealist artist unable to step over the divide into the insanity they so envied. Mainstream Surrealism’s “sanity” may hinge on this concern for not fragmenting the body and for maintaining unity even in the more distorted bodily forms represented in Surrealist art. Mainstream surrealism, we may discover, have more difficulty than we have recognized in removing its mask, and in doing so, approaching more closely the directness of the art of children and the insane it so admired. If we conclude that Surrealism did not wear such a mask, then we might conclude that mainstream “sane” Surrealist artists at least tended to uphold a certain posture that is not present in Fusco’s surreal art. This applies, I think, across the artistic universe where asylum art is considered. To put it another way, sane artists have to struggle very hard to accomplish the formal qualities of the art of the “insane”. So much of the history of Dada is also contained in this thought. Looking at Fusco alongside of mainstream modernism opens questions and pathways of enquiry of its own as does the art of the other asylum artists examined in this essay.


e) Auguste Forestier

Writing on Duchamp, Schwitters, Cornell and various other mainstream artists records the story of the found object entering into the arts. We do not however hear the story of Auguste Forestier (1887-1958) among these artists who turned trash into art. Forestier’s obsession with trains led him to accidentally derail one when he was twenty-seven. Thereafter he was interred at the psychiatric hospital in St. Alban, France. Forestier deserves a place in modern sculpture – especially the unapologetic use of the most unassuming materials in an imaginative manner. His work is not that unlike the gatherings of the young Rauschenberg who also involved himself in processing materials he found nearby. Forestier worked without knowledge of the avant-garde yet placed a great deal of emphasis on what the materials he found could do – a central characteristic of many avant-garde sculptors. As did mainstream modern artists, Forestier liked to challenge his materials to provoke imaginative meanings beyond what the sculptor could imagine when he first became involved with them. Like Rauschenberg’s gathering and assembling, Forestier’s work leads to the production of powerful objects. Forestier’s figures also call to mind the generals painted by Enrico Baj (see Coulter, 2008).



18. Auguste Forestier. Figure With Bird’s Head (1935-49)

Collection Art Brut, Lausanne.


I am also reminded of some of Picasso’s smaller figurative sculptures when assessing the plastic qualities of Forestier. It is often forgotten today that Picasso, who worked with traditional media such as bronze, also made works from fashioning found pieces of wood to which he applied paint. Forestier, like Rauschenberg or Picasso, made no effort to hide how his work was made emphasizing the presence of the artists hand.


19. Pablo Picasso. Figure (1935) MOMA, New York

(Photograph: Life Magazine)


In sculpture as elsewhere in modernism, the inclusion of asylum artists like Forestier alongside of mainstream art, opens a series of insights we have previously been denied.


Picasso, who was very close to Andre Breton (while strategically avoiding official membership among the surrealists), was well aware of the work of asylum artists by the early 1930s and accepted it as art in its own right (Breton, 1953:225). An interesting footnote in the history of twentieth century art is that Picasso and many Surrealists embraced what they considered to be the “naturalness” and “authenticity” of asylum art. It is interesting that it was the art of schizophrenics and their world view that was so admired as capitalism itself would soon come to be understood by psychologists and philosophers as schizophrenic. Today we need not resort to romanticism for this view (as Picasso and the surrealists may have) but rather to Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding that capital accumulation is dependent upon the sadness and ressentiment peculiar to schizophrenics (1987; 2001:215-20). Interestingly, Picasso himself was judged to be a schizophrenic by no less a psychiatrist than Carl Jung (1967:138). Picasso’s dependable and somewhat sympathetic biographer, John Richardson, says Jung’s diagnosis does not seem all that egregious. For all his moralizing, Jung was the first non-poet to shine a fresh light on Picasso’s dark side” (2007:485).


f) Johann Hauser

…is it not essential that in a movement of amused intelligence, a person of unreason is allowed back into daylight at the very moment he was believed to  be most profoundly hidden in the space of confinement? …As if, at the moment of its triumph, reason revived and permitted to drift on the margins of order a character whose mask it had fashioned in derision – a sort of double in which it both recognized and revoked itself (Foucault, [1961] 1973:201-2).


Johann Hauser (1926-1996) has received a good deal of attention over the past forty years in Europe and the United States (his works were among those shown at the Parallel Visions show at the LA County Museum of Art in 1992). His work has also recently appeared in Tokyo. Hauser is a striking example of the kind of embrace of the art of asylum inmates I encourage by the mainstream art world. Hauser created many vibrant Pop images of women during the peak of mainstream Pop in the 1960’s. He lived from childhood in several asylums, and his mental age was assessed as never greater then 8. He learned only to write his name which he came to affix prominently on his work.


20. Johann Hauser. Woman (1969). Musée Art Brut, Lausanne


Hauser’s women are his own take on the highly sexualized images appearing in popular magazines of the day to which he had access. His inspiration was thus that of many other artists working with the same Pop imagery, such as that of Mel Ramos, Peter Philips, or Alan Jones. Like much of this imagery Hauser’s figures are often incomplete (Davis’s woman has no arms and Hauser’s often have no legs). Hauser’s work draws on the brightly Expressionist bon-bon colours of Pop as well. When placed next to the work of Jones we see that Hauser’s Woman (1983) not only participates in Pop but can be read almost as a parody of it.


21. Alan Jones. Perfect Match (1967). Museum Ludwig, Köln




22. Johann Hauser. Woman (1983)


Like Picasso his women often have extra digits (young girl in a yellow dress has six fingers and a thumb while Picasso’s masterpiece Dream (1932) has five fingers and a thumb on each hand[8]. As such Hauser takes Pop into Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist territories, where it normally was reluctant to tread. In this, Hauser’s “limited” mental age, which protected him from regimes of artistic socialization, affords him a Mannerist quality so rare in mainstream Pop with its concern for slick and polished surfaces. Hauser’s work exudes a visceral and tactile gesture that we also see in the works of Aloïse, Wölfli, Zinelle, Fusco, and Forestier as reproduced in this paper.


In 1997 Hauser’s work was among that of several “Gugging” artists (inmates of the Lower Austrian Psychiatric Hospital in Gugging, outside of Vienna) on display alongside of “sane” modernists at the St. Etienne Gallery (New York) in 1997. This show was among the first to detail the connections between early modernism and asylum art pointing to the presence of a faked madness among early German Expressionists (many of whom had expressed admiration for asylum art). The St. Etienne show illustrated very well the Expressionists’ desire to achieve something radically new in terms of an idealized creative purity. While there was a strong streak of Romanticism in this urge it remains an unquestionable fact that asylum art often exhibits an incredible originality while touching on the borders of several mainstream aesthetic categories. The great irony here is that which is also admired in the insane artist, an “insane” and “uncontaminated vision”, is precisely the thing, if it were actually present in the mainstream Expressionist, that would prevent the artist from seeing his or her work as art. However, it may well have been precisely the confines of scientific rational society that drove mainstream Expressionists to seek to express original emotional and aesthetic states in a way similar to those labeled “insane”.


The St. Etienne Gallery show also noted many perceptual linkages between the asylum art and early modernism, including: an attraction to geometric patterns, elaborate distortions of figures from “reality”, the use of vivid colours in original ways, as well as the juxtaposition of objects not normally found together. We were also reminded by this show that many of the Expressionists themselves experienced mental breakdowns at some point in their life, including Kokoschka, Kirchner, and Beckmann.


The St. Etienne show deeply blurred the lines of demarcation which had previously separated the art of mental patients from the mainstream. Hauser is especially important in this reappraisal as his work straddles the boundaries of Pop and Neo-Expressionism. Hauser shows us that art drawing on popular imagery can now be viewed as a deeper, richer, Mannerist and Expressionist phenomenon than simply a cool analytical event in art history. Popular images in the hands of some labeled “insane” often lead to very “hot” (Aloïse and Hauser) images which are anything but cool and detached.



III. Conclusion


It seems certain that each of the practitioners of asylum art discussed in this paper, as with many other interesting artists, made art in response to an inner necessity. It is important however to understand that these artists, while institutionalized, did not create in isolation and many were initiated into art as part of their treatment. Each was, at some point (before or after) exhibiting a desire to create, encouraged to do so and supplied with various media by doctors. Their art is what all art is – a means of communication which (usually) responds positively to the recognition of others. The mental hospital is anything but a social vacuum. What makes these asylum artists (and no doubt many others not discussed in this paper), interesting is the way in which their work overlaps with, and can help us to a deeper understanding of, mainstream art movements.


Whether or not labeled “insane”, many artists live at odds with society. To exclude Wölfli from our understanding of the emergence of Pop because he suffered mental problems is akin to wiping the works of Antonin Artaud from the history of theatre because he was a delusional psychotic given to hallucinations the kind of which are associated with schizophrenia (Kuspit, 1997). Is it Artaud’s ability to live outside of the mental asylum [following an incarceration of two years during which time he received electric shock treatment for 18 months] which qualifies him as an artist? Insanity does not necessarily make one an artist, or merit privileged status in the arts – yet many artists who were institutionalized made art which can continue to make interesting and important contributions to how we understand art. Artists like Aloïse and Wölfli qualify not merely because they “look like” Expressionist art or Pop art, but because when their works are included, they expand our understanding of these (and other) movements. Aloïse produced a highly unique and personal fusion of Cubism, Expressionism and Pop images while Wölfli pioneered in the use of Pop images. Art is very much the product of the human nervous system and the artistic efforts of the “insane” only serve to expand the complexity of the functioning of art in this system. Asylum art reminds us that madness should not always be considered as a negative value as it tends to be in the West. As such, asylum art is very important in our effort to reappraise not only what is considered “art” but what is understood as “mad”.


If there is no good reason for the separation of certain works of asylum art from our understanding of art movements more generally, why then does it still take place? There are many reasons not the least of which has been a very well intended effort on the part of some important supporters of asylum inmates to protect the works and their makers from the official art world. Jean Dubuffet, at the time of his gift of 5,000 works to Lausanne to begin what has become an important collection, stipulated that the works could not be loaned to other museums (Spoerri and Baumann, 2003:33). Even when curators are today willing to include these works in broader shows (and this willingness has increased over the past three decades – some of Wölfli’s work was included by independent curator Harold Szeemann in Documenta V in 1972), they are precluded from participation by the permanent protective isolation Dubuffet (and others) have placed around them (on Szeemann see Spoerri and Baumann, 2003:10).


The works examined above do provide sufficient evidence to lead a continued effort to reassess the artistic value of the work of asylum artists. Indeed, it is time to stop protecting the works of asylum art because doing so only protects an art world from an a deeper consideration of itself. Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Pop have very deep veins to mine in this regard. This reassessment, I believe, will continue because, as we see in this paper, the art world will emerge richer for the experience if somewhat demythologized. Deconstruction and demythologization have not harmed the art world since the 1970s – indeed, they have made it more self aware.


Another thing, contra Dubuffet (see Thévoz, 2001:9), that we learn from this assessment is that asylum art is anything but an ahistorical art. It is very interesting, and will no doubt be the subject of several future enquiries, that this art, which looks as it does, took place in a particular time (the twentieth century) in a particular place (Europe) when particular beliefs were held concerning artistic freedom and creativity. More analysis of the relationship between asylum art and specific mainstream movements is required.


Whether the well intentioned self proclaimed protectors of asylum art like it or not, it seems that the works by those labeled “insane” deserve to be recognized fully as art in its own right. Including them and their works in our assessment of art full and proper can only add to our collective conversation concerning human creativity. What is most appealing perhaps about asylum art is that it adds layers of complexity to the story of art. Hans Prinzhorn realized almost a century ago that: “The differentiation of our pictures [asylum art] from those of the fine arts is possible today only because of obsolete dogmatism. Otherwise there are no demarcation lines (1922 [1972:271]). Prinzhorn held a degree in art history from the University of Vienna before becoming a psychiatrist. When asylum art is placed on display beside mainstream art, we are forced to admit that if sanity and insanity do exist, we shall not know them from art.


We live in a time when many people who would have been confined to asylums in the past now live as part of greater society due to drugs and outpatient therapies. Despite the powerful institutional forces working to protect us from asylum art it is time to release it as well. Surely these forces are not as powerful as those which once incarcerated its makers?



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 6, September-October-November 2009, ISSN 1552-5112






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[1] Each of the “insane” (of unsound and unhealthy mind, OED) artists discussed in this paper exhibited certain abnormal behaviour(s) which violated established societal norms so as to be incarcerated in mental asylums because they were perceived to be a danger to themselves or to others (and usually because there was no family member to care for them). What is “normal” has much to do with the labels that are applied to people in particular settings. “Sane” in English simply means “healthy” or “not diseased”. It is important to remember that “insanity” is a broad, informal, and unscientific term used to indicate various forms of mental instability. Most doctors and psychopathologists no longer use the term preferring to describe the specific illness(es) of the patient (e.g.: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or psychotic behaviour(s)). In the common law the term is still used within the narrow confines of what can serve as a defence in certain crimes (incapable of “mens rea” or criminal intent when the crime was committed). I use the term insane in this paper because it is how each of the six artists institutionalized artists discussed were labeled by the psychiatric profession in their time. The presence of this powerful, unspecific, and disappointing term throughout this paper is not meant to provoke but rather to reflect the powerful, unspecific, and disappointing continued exclusion of the art works of a group of people once excluded from society. More often than not I use the term “asylum art” to designate these works.


[2] DuBuffet’s collection was given to the city of Lausanne which established, in the Chateau Beaulieu, Le Collection Art Brut (Raw Art Collection). There are many other collections focusing on the art of those labeled insane or who otherwise were social outcasts (as well as those who made art outside of mainstream artistic culture) around the world: These include: La Fabuloserie (Dicy, France); L’Aracine (Villeneuve d’Ascq, France); the Outsider Archives (London and Dublin); the Lagerhaus Museum (Saint Gallen, Switzerland); the Art Cru Museum (Bégels, France); the American Visionary Art Museum (Baltimore); the Adolf Wolfli Collection, (Bern Switzerland); Musée d’art Spontané (Brussels); the Museum of Outsider Art (Moscow); the Museum of the Imagination (Rio de Janerio); and in The Ginza Art Space (Tokyo). The first large collection of such works was assembled by psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn in Heidelberg, Germany in the 1920s (see Prinzhorn [1922] 1972).


[3] There hundreds of artists who have been incarcerated in asylums who deserve to be treated in the manner in which I consider only six artists in this paper. My choice of only six artists reflects my own knowledge of their work and my desire to make a case for taking another look at the art of the “insane” more broadly within the limits of an essay.


[4] See Dix’s Self Portrait as Mars (1915) for example: [Accessed, June 29, 2009].


[8] For an image of Picasso’s Dream, see: [Accessed, July 3, 2009]