In 1938 the Swiss clairvoyant and telepathic healer Emma Kunz began to channel large scale drawings on graph paper using coloured pencils, crayons and a pendulum. During the creation of a piece, which could take up to 48 hours, Kunz neither slept or ate, subsisting entirely on liquids. Neighbours commented that the light was always on at her home. The drawings were then used as a therapeutic tool for her patients, whom she would encourage to meditate upon the mandala-like patterns.
I was first led to this astonishing artist by a comment about my post on the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, (thank you herongrace). There are indeed similarities, both were female abstract artists with an all consuming interest in mysticism and spiritualism, whose mediumistic art goes far beyond aesthetic formal concerns. Both Klint and Kunz were only discovered after their deaths, and indeed were two-thirds of an exhibition on leading female abstract artists, the other being Agnes Martin. However Klint was a professional artist who kept her groundbreaking innovations a secret, while Kunz had no formal artistic training but thought highly enough of her work (and rightly so) to publish two books.
Since the first exhibition in 1973, ten years after her death, Kunz’s work has been show around the world, including a joint show with Joseph Beuys and Rudolf Steiner. The Emma Kunz Museum in Wurenlos, Switzerland houses 70 of her most important artworks.
Born into a wealthy colonial family with roots in the French aristocracy and which included several Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians, the writer, painter and visionary Malcolm De Chazal (1902-1981) spent his whole life on the island of Mauritius, with the exception of six years in Baton Rouge, where he completed his secondary education before attending Louisiana State University as an engineering student. Upon his return to the island he worked as an agronomist in the sugar plantations before quitting the field after he published a scathing critique on the methods and economy of the industry. He then worked as a civil servant before retiring at the age of 55. From 1940 however he increasingly dedicated himself to writing and later painting.
His most famous work is Sens-Plastique, a collection of thousands of aphorisms. The work was suggested after a visionary encounter with an azalea. While out for a walk, de Chazal observed the flower and then realised that the azalea was looking at him. He was then struck with the revelation that: “I became a flower while being myself all the time“, and that everything in the universe, be it animal, vegetable, mineral or human, was analogous. The aphorisms is Sens-Plastique are a riot of poetic analogy and concrete, visual metaphor. It was hailed by the Surrealists; Andre Breton, Jean Paulhan, Georges Bataille and the originator of the term Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet all lauded de Chazal as a genius. Outside of French artistic circles the poet W.H Auden also championed Sens-Plastique.
In the 1950’s De Chazal took up painting at the suggestion of Georges Braque. His paintings are charmingly emblematic images of the landscape, flora and fauna of his beloved island home, the bold colours blazing with a visionary intensity.
An early supporter of Mauritian independence and the dismantling of a racial caste system that allowed vast inequalities to exist, de Chazal also wrote a ‘spiritual history’ of the rocks and mountains of the island. He became increasingly reclusive in his later years
Below are a selection of aphorisms from Sens-Plastique and a slideshow of his fauvist flavoured paintings.
A fish in fear of its life turns into water. In the mutual pursuit of sexual pleasure—the fear of joy and the joy of fear—our bodies liquefy each other in the waters of the soul, becoming so spiritual that hardly any corporal self is left. When we wake up after love, we look around desperately for our lost body.
If our five senses didn’t serve as brakes to slow us down and filter our sensations, sexual pleasure would strike us like lightning and electrocute our souls.
We see a friend’s eye as one and indivisible. A stranger’s eye we take in part by part: the white, the iris, and the pupil.
Silence is a lawyer who pleads with his eyes.
A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts.
The sunflower keeps its eye on the sun with its back turned to the shade. We die facing life with our backs to death, as if we were walking out of a room backwards.
Petals are a plant’s eardrum. Distant sounds make them quiver like the needle of a seismograph.
The kiss ends at the point of a needle. Sex ends fanning out. The kiss is an arrow. Sex is a fountain.
All the colours ‘rot’ in maroon, the rust of all rusts, the putrefying corpse of all dead colours, the sun’s humus, earth-color, resurrection’s winding-sheet, the shroud of life itself, the mound of eternity, the tomb of Light, Eternity’s burial vault.
Look too intensely at blue and your eye sees indigo. Look too intensely at red and you see garnet. If you look too intensely at yellow it turns green. A hypnotic stare injects blue into everything.
Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves.
The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels.
Ah is the shortest of human cries, Oh the longest. Man is born in an Ah and dies in an Oh, for birth is immediate and death is like an airplane taking off.
I am the owner of my shoulders, the tenant of my hips.
No matter how much leaves are fixed face to face they always look at each other aslant, whereas all fruits end up head-on however carelessly jumbled. A bunch of flowers is a house of coloured cards. A heap of fruit is a hive of coloured bees.
The flower has no weekday self, dressed as it always is in Sunday clothes.
The light would reach us more quickly in the morning and fade more slowly at night if the whole earth were divided into vast flower beds that called forth the light at dawn and clutched it longer at nightfall. Nature instituted summer for flowers long before man took summer over for his own uses.
To ‘hang on every word’ means to suck the eyes of the speaker.
The diamond scintillates less brilliantly when the fingers move rapidly than when they undulate and pivot. Glossy leaves throw off less light in a high wind than under the calm wavering of a breeze. Brusque movements of the eye cast a single gleam, and slow movements add a thousand others.
Art brut also known as outsider or visionary or self taught art is an ever expanding field as it has attracted considerable attention in the 21st Century, now with its own dedicated galleries, museums, exhibitions, art fairs and publications. In this the fourth group post on this fascinating subject I have chosen three artists currently at work and one who, although working on creating his own imaginary utopia for sixty years was only discovered in the first decade of the new century, towards the end of his life.
An ex-prisoner Nightingale takes between six months to a year to create his meretricious crafted paintings, often combining mixed media. He has only recently agreed to representation, by the excellent Henry Boxer Gallery in the UK, as he is loathed to be parted with his work, so information concerning the artist is scarce. Highly decorative borders featuring flora, fauna and religious iconography frequently surround a central figure of a woman, skull or foetus in utero. Finely crafted inserts are another notable feature.
Anne Marie Grgich
One of the most respected art brut artists working today, who has exhibited all across the world, Grgich has mastered her own unique form of collage. Taking a book from the 1950’s she will over-paint, collage and then paint some more to form layers. Renowned for her bold expressionistic faces, I am also particularly taken by her vibrantly crowded recent works.
Apart from a brief artist statement which reveals that even the name is a pseudonym, I could find no information about this artist. Born in 1982, at the age of 32 Margot suddenly started drawing tirelessly. Precise, elaborate, bursting with a kinetic energy and a over-flowing symmetry, the art speaks for itself.
A talented self taught artist, Kuhler worked at the North Carolina Museum of Natural History as a scientific illustrator for most of his life. He always had happy memories of his brief period growing up in Rockland County, New York in an otherwise unhappy childhood and it was here that he based his imaginary kingdom of Rocaterrania, bordered by Canada and Northern New York state. Rocaterrania had its own laws, language, ethnic groups, customs and even members of a third sex called neutants.
Daniel Gonçalves is an entirely self taught draughtsman and painter from Porto, Portugal who has recently exhibited in his homeland as well as Paris, New York and London.
Gonçalves started drawing at the age of fifteen in 1992, however due to a difficult childhood and a peripatetic unsettled adult existence, combined with an innate perfectionism means that all work produced before 2015 is either lost or destroyed. Gonçalves first solo show was at the Gallery Cruzes Canhoto, Porto, Portugal in 2016.
Exhibiting a terrifying symmetrical precision, Gonçalves geometric abstraction has an obsessional hallucinogenic quality. Filled with Masonic and occult references, these drawings suggest sacred geometry, tantric images, mandalas, the doors to a bank vault containing the holy of holies, the key to open the crypt of our dreams.
In this third installment in the occasional series Art Brut (for further information please refer to the previous posts Art Brut and Art Brut II) I am concentrating on four extraordinary 20th Century African-American artists from the Southern States of the US. Each artist concerns and insights are very different from one another, but they do share some of the overriding attributes common to art brut ; notably the urgent necessity to create, an obsessional desire to give shape and form to the inner realms of experience and vision as well as being late starters, who then prolifically produced exceptional works in a white hot blaze of inspiration.
Minnie Evans worked for most of her long life (she died in 1987 at the age of 95) as a domestic and gatekeeper at the Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina. On Good Friday 1935 Evans heard a voice say, “Why don’t you draw or die?” so she completed her first drawing that day. However it would another five years before Evans begun drawing again but she never stopped afterwards. Initially Evans used crayons and wax then oils and mixed media collage. Characterised by religious imagery, lush psychedelic colours with faces and fauna emerging from the symmetrical abstract backgrounds Evan’s gorgeous later compositions are truly a vision of Eden before the fall.
J.B Murry worked as a share-cropper and tenant farmer in Glascock County, Georgia for most of his life. At the age of 70, Murry experienced a vision of an eagle descending from the sun. This, Murry believed, was a message from God to spread the word through a ‘spirit script’ that combined asemic writing and abstract imagery, produced while in a trance. Although illiterate, Murry could decipher the language if he looked at the paintings through a glass of water. Murry gained a reputation as a mystic and people would visit to ask for benediction and protection from harmful forces.
Born into slavery in 1854 Bill Traylor worked most of his life on a plantation in Alabama. Without formal education and illiterate it wasn’t until Traylor moved to Montgomery at the age of 85 that he started creating, using found pencil stubs on bits of scrap cardboard. He was befriended by the artist Charles Shannon who supplied him with brushes and paint. In a three year period he produced over 1,200 works, often of animals in silhouette or his memories of rural life.
Frank Albert Jones was born in Texas in 1900 with a fetal membrane over his left eye (a caul), the mark of someone, it is frequently believed, that can see into the world of the spirits. Jones said that he saw his first haints (haunts or ghosts) at the age of nine. After several prior imprisonments (though he always maintained his innocence) it was during his twenty year stretch for murder that Jones, at the age of 64 first started drawing ‘devil houses’. During the next five years until his death Jones produced over 200 drawings, usually in black and red (smoke and fire, suitable colours for devils) of these intricate structures where the creatures, both charming and threatening, float in their cells. At first Jones signed the works with his prison number, 114591, until a fellow inmate taught him to write his own name.