The expression “outsider art” was first used by Roger Cardinal in 1972, as a synonym to “Art Brut” or raw, choppy art that was created by the famous French artist, Jean Dubuffet to try to group the artist and their work that are outside the officially acknowledged, mainstream art. Dubuffet tried to identify the concept – that later got a wider interpretation – with the drawings of patients in mental institutes.

Now not only drawings from mental institutes belong to this category, but every piece of work that was created by a so-called naïve, i.e. officially untrained artists. Very often, these artists become well-known and respected by the art scene only after their deaths.

In many cases, or we might as well say in most cases these pieces of art tell about extreme, unusual mental states, giving an insight from a different view of a totally new fantasy world that never reveals itself for the mortal.

Today, Outsider Art does not only have aesthetic but significant material value, since many art galleries trade these pieces of art and every year since 1993 the New York Outsider Art Fair is a great success.

Art in mental institutes

The artwork made in mental institutes has gained more and more intensive attention from the 1920. In 1921, Walter Morgenhalter issued the first book related to this topic with the original title Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler, i.e. “the patient of psychiatry as an artist”. The book analyzed and introduced the work of Adolf Wölfli.

Wölfli started drawing spontaneously just because this artistic activity calmed him. His most significant piece of art is a series of novels of 45 volumes, in which he introduces his own world and fantasy empire. The monument consists of 25000 pages, 1600 illustrations and 1500 collages. Above all he painted numerous smaller pictures that were sold or just given away. The remained pieces of art can be seen in Bern in the Museum of Fine Arts.

In 1922 professor Hans Prinzhorn published a determining study in the topic with the original title Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, i.e. “art painting in mental institutes.” Hans Prinzhorn collected thousands of pieces of art painted by patients of different psychiatries. These works later affected the determining avant-garde and surrealist artists of the era.

One of these emblematic artists of his age, affected by creations of mental institutes, was Jean Dubuffet, who later founded the notion of Art Brut with Andre Breton and some other fellows. Their aim was to collect more and more pieces of art that was painted by an untrained, self-taught artist or some extreme individual separated from everyday norms.

The main point in all cases was that the artwork are made without artistic or aesthetic influence, just following their own laws.

Dubuffet’s unique collection is exhibited in his home in Lausanne, which is the most significant Art Brut museum in the world today. Many other similar collections have been born in other parts of the world ever since.

Michael Trevoz, the curator of the Art Brut Collection, summarized the notion of Outsider Art as follows – definitely separated from naïve art: Art Brut or Outsider Art incorporates such pieces of art that were created by artists never trained artistically, and are unable to fit in socially.

These people unfold their own selves and they create only for their own joy, only for themselves, absolutely ignoring social expectations and current art directions and trends.

While – on the other hand – the naïve artists phrase their words in their own language, they keep in tight contact with the current social and artistic expectations and techniques. In their cases the need for acceptance and belonging to mainstream is highly important.

Art Brut artists often develop their own techniques using new materials only for their own rejoice, turning their backs on any expectations. They expand their autonomy to such an extremity that in some cases their artwork is made in secret, with nobody knowing.

Famous outsider artists: Bill Traylor, Hanry Darger, Adolf Wölfli, Howard Finster, Joseph Yoakum