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Andrew Graham-Dixon reviews Inner Worlds Outside
The notion of the artist as an 'outsider' is one of considerable antiquity. Plato contended that artists were too unstable to have any part in his ideal Republic. Socrates felt that no creative writer could really be any good unless he was at least a little bit disturbed: 'If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.'
The Neo-Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino - a mentor of Michelangelo - contended that mental instability and intellectual superiority were two sides of the same coin. In Ficino's metaphor, impassioned artists 'walk, as it were, on a narrow ridge between two abysses. But they walk, just for this reason, way above the level of ordinary mortals.'
The history of the self-portrait in particular is intimately bound up with the artist's sense of being apart from the mainstream of human society: Dürer's selfallegory as the personification of Melancholy, slumped, saturnine, intense; Rembrandt's self-portrait as a grinning, gap-toothed, demented old man; Van Gogh's famous self-portrait, sans ear, painted in the immediate aftermath of his descent into a state of psychosis following an argument with the almost equally mercurial Paul Gauguin.
The idea that inspiration, insight and mental instability - not to say outright mental illness - are co-dependent states of mind was boosted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Psychoanalysis promoted the belief that there are many truths about the human condition that lie beyond the grasp of the rational, ordering mind. At the same time, a new and more extreme idea of the role of the artist was forged in the many battles fought by the early-20th-century avant-gardes. For many of these artists, the very essence of art came to lie in rebellion, both against the preconceptions of bourgeois society and against the norms and forms of the academic past. Picasso collected 'primitive' art from Africa and Oceania, as well as taking inspiration from the art of children and of painters such as Henri Rousseau (whom Picasso took, wrongly, to be a kind of modern 'primitive'). Many of his contemporaries followed suit.
Under the influences of Dada and Surrealism - whose proponents were fascinated by extreme, disordered states of mind - artists and art collectors started paying serious attention to work created by non-professional artists with a history of serious mental disturbance. Dr Hans Prinzhorn, whose The Artistry of the Mentally Ill was published in 1922, formed one of the first and most extensive of such collections. Thanks largely to him, a new genre, Outsider Art, was born.
This, broadly speaking, is the territory explored in the Whitechapel's new exhibition, Inner Worlds Outside. Its contents are principally drawn from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, which was started by the writer and filmmaker Victor Musgrave and has been administered, since his death in 1984, by his companion Monika Kinley. The names of the artists - who include psychiatric patients, criminal offenders, mediums, the self-taught and numerous more or less uncategorisable eccentrics - are by no means well known. Much of their work is undeniably strange, nearly all of it is overwhelmingly introspective and some is undeniably powerful. Because of their relative anonymity, the catalogue is indispensable. Without it, the weird, baroque cartographies of Adolf Wölfli - maps and diagrams of places real or imagined, inscribed with reams of spidery text - would be largely incomprehensible. With it we learn that Wölfli was born in 1864 near Berne, in Switzerland; that he worked briefly as a farm hand before being incarcerated as a child molester; that 'he was subject to violent outbursts and kept isolated in a one-man cell, which he filled with manuscript drawings'; and that 'much of his work relates to his self-canonisation as the fictitious St Adolf II'. This may not explain the work, exactly, but it does at least refer to some of the inner pressures that were vented in its creation.
Another of the most strikingly obsessive artists in the show is Henry Darger, whose large-scale watercolours are frieze-like creations painstakingly pieced together from numerous sheets of A4 paper. The classical lucidity of his style - with multitudes of figures carefully arranged in long, light-filled, low-horizoned landscapes - is in stark contrast to the idiosyncrasy of his subject matter. Cohorts of prepubescent schoolgirls, sometimes naked, sometimes clothed in matching school uniform, find themselves under varying degrees of threat - facing a firing squad of young boys, perhaps, or huddled together on a railway track under an incongruously bright sky as a dark and unmistakably phallic locomotive bears down on them.
Darger, we learn from the catalogue, was born in 1892 and honourably discharged from the US Army for physical and psychological reasons a few months after being drafted in 1917. He worked as a caretaker in a Chicago hospital for many years, and it was only after his death in 1973 that a 15,000-page fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls was discovered, along with several thousand watercolours and drawings. It's difficult to be specific about just what constitutes Outsider Art because the phrase itself seems designed to paper over cracks. As James Elkins notes in one of the catalogue's several essays - a piece teasingly entitled 'There is No Such Thing as Outsider Art' - numerous different types of work have at one time or another been lumped together within the same, distinctly leaky category: Naive Art, Art Brut, Raw Art, Grass-roots Art, Primitive Art, Self-taught Art, Psychotic Art, Autistic Art, Intuitive Art, Vernacular Art, Folk Art, Mediumistic Art, and so on.
None the less, Inner Worlds Outside - imaginatively curated by Jon Thompson - attempts to make connections between the show’s disparate roster of artists. It is divided into different categories of image, so that Darger’s work, for example, has been included in a section devoted to 'Imaginary Landscapes', while that of Wölfli is to be found in a section devoted to 'The Allure of Language'.
Another of the show's star turns, Madge Gill - creator of long, knotted friezes formed from ink on paper, in which melancholic ladies resembling 1950s film stars find themselves stranded in coils of entangling scribble - has been placed in a section devoted to 'Faces and Masks'.
While the contents of the show resist neat generalisations, there are certain pathways of common preoccupation - or obsession. This would seem to be particularly true of the art created by the more disturbed Outsider artists, for whom it seems that the visual image is often a means of creating an alternative, hermetically sealed realm of existence. They map their own alternate worlds (none more assiduously than the artist known simply as Michael the Cartographer); and they create disguises for their deepest fantasies and preoccupations.
The obsessive nature of many Outsider artists also manifests itself in a form of prolific restlessness. Pages seethe with details so numerous that the image resembles a drop of water, teeming with microbes, under extreme magnification. There is often a strong sense that these artists are caught within their fantasy as if in a trap. That fantasy is often a sexual one. One artist, listed as anonymous, draws the same figure of a naked woman, bound within an unpleasant metal contraption, again and again.
There is a form of missionary intent underlying the Whitechapel's show, which is not simply a cornucopia of beguiling oddities. Set alongside the various Outsider artists is the work of a number of major 20th-century artists, such as Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet and Philip Guston. They are not represented by their finest works, by any means, but the mere fact of their inclusion is intended to carry a message - symbolising the organisers' belief that Outsider Art is in reality no such thing, and that it deserves to be shown alongside more mainstream work.
The actual experience of seeing the exhibition, however, casts considerable doubt on this central premise. The most extreme Outsider Art remains somehow out of reach - in a way that the work of artists such as, say, Picasso or Kandinsky does not. The balance between rationality and irrationality, the inchoate and the consciously expressive, can only be tipped so far. Genuine Outsider Art, the art made by those truly in the throes of profound obsession or illness, may be deeply intriguing, but in the end it remains too rooted in solipsism, too locked away in personal compulsion, to be truly fascinating.