The self taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein worked in a variety of mediums including painting, drawing, sculpture (using chicken bones) and photography, all of which adorned the modest house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that he lived in for forty years with his wife and muse, Marie.
Eugene’s marriage to Evelyn Kalka in 1943 (he re-named her Marie) seemed to have ignited a creative spark. Over the next two decades he would photograph Marie thousand of times, as a pin-up girl, tropical tourist, vixen, Madonna. Bedecked with pearls, clunky fetish heels, lurid leopard prints against florid wall coverings, Marie looks wistfully upwards, awkward and gauche. The photographs are simultaneously curiously innocent and charged with an subterranean current of obsessional eroticism. Marie at times seems like a harbinger of Cindy Sherman, assuming and thereby questioning a number of manufactured female roles.
Eugene was convinced that he was descended from royalty and was the self-styled King of the Lesser Lands. Undoubtedly he saw Marie as his Queen in the fantasy world they had created, she is frequently wearing a crown that he fashioned out of tin cans.
Max Ernst’s 1932 collage Le Facteur Cheval is a homage to the extraordinary creator of the Ideal Palace, that marvellous folly that the Surrealists so loved: Ferdinand Cheval.
Born in 1836 in the Drome departement of France, approximately 30 miles south of Lyon, Ferdinand Cheval left school at 13 with an apprenticeship to a baker, however he eventually became a postman. One day in 1879 while doing his 18 mile round in the small village of Hauterives where he lived, Cheval in his haste stumbled over a stone. Stopping to examine the cause of his trip, Cheval was stuck by the strange shape and beauty of the stone and it reminded him of a dream that he had fifteen years previously and which he had almost forgotten. In the dream, which he found hard to express in words, he had built a palace or castle or caves. He had told nobody about this dream for fear of ridicule, it felt ridiculous to himself. However the stone had brought back the dream and he put it into his pocket to examine at leisure.
The next day he returned to where he found the stone and to his delight he found many more stones even stranger and more beautiful than the cause of his near fall. Cheval said that the stones “represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature. I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.”
For the next thirty-three years Cheval built his Ideal Palace, pushing a wheelbarrow on his postal rounds to carry all the stones he collected. He frequently worked late into the night with the aid of a oil lamp, binding the stones together with lime, mortar and cement. The images of exotic locales that he saw on the postcards and illustrated magazines he delivered on his route inspired his imagination and found expression in the eclectic mix of architecture of the Ideal Palace, where Hindu Temple, Arabic Mosque and Swiss Chalet (among others) styles somehow form a unified whole.
Cheval, as he feared, was scorned by the local community, and his visionary Ideal Palace was derided as the work of a madman. This changed however when the project was featured in national newspapers and tourists started visiting. In 1905 a tourist register was opened. Cheval declared the Ideal Palace finished in 1912 and inscribed on the building ,”The work of one man.” He also stated his desire to be buried underneath the Ideal Palace.
Although Cheval comes across as a charming eccentric he was obviously a man of dogged determination, so when he learnt that French law strictly forbade his burial upon the grounds of the Ideal Palace, he set about building his own mausoleum, at the age of eighty. He spent the next seven years building another fantastical and beautiful structure. One year after its completion Ferdinand Cheval died and was buried in the mausoleum that he had constructed.
As well as the Surrealists, who would often embark on pilgrimage to a site which they considered to be a monument to naive art and the transformative powers of the imagination, the Ideal Palace was much admired by Picasso and Anais Nin, who published an essay on Cheval. In 1969 the Minister of Culture, the novelist Andre Malraux declared the Ideal Palace a cultural landmark and later in 1986 the Facteur Cheval was featured on his own postage stamp: a touching and luminous irony.
Today the Palais Ideal Du Facteur Cheval Monument Historique receives 120,000 visitors yearly and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Art Brut/outsider art in the world.
Although Louis Wain’s psychedelic and abstract cat designs that he created during the last fifteen years of his life, while confined in a psychiatric institution, show many of the hallmarks that characterise Art Brut, namely elaborate detailing, obsessive symmetry and the horror vacui (fear of empty space); he was formally trained and was for a number of years one of the foremost commercial artists of Edwardian England, illustrating over a hundred books and releasing a highly successful annual of cats for over a decade.
Cats were Wain’s main subject throughout his career, from the naturalistic early studies through the large-eyed anthropomorphic cats strolling around on two legs playing golf and smoking cigars at the height of his success, to the brilliant ceramic Futurist cats before the final period of hallucinated decorative splendour.
The affectation and centrality that cats held for Wain was born out of a personal tragedy. At 23 the young artist had married his sister’s governess, Emily Richardson, who was ten years older, which was the cause of considerable scandal at the time. Shortly into their marriage Emily began to suffer from breast cancer; during her illness her main source of solace and comfort came from Peter, a stray black and white cat they had rescued on a rainy night. At Emily’s urging Louis began sketching Peter, drawings that were soon published and made Wain an very much in-demand illustrator, an event Emily unfortunately didn’t live to see.
Although Louis Wain’s work was hugely popular he lacked financial acumen so when he was initially institutionalised in 1924 it was in the pauper’s ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, South London. When it was discovered that one of England’s most beloved illustrators was languishing there, a widely publicised appeal was launched and supported by such figures as the writer H.G Wells and the Prime Minister, and he was transferred to Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, London and eventually to the relatively pleasant Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, which had a large garden and a colony of cats.
The actual nature of Wain’s mental illness is the matter of debate, it has been suggested either adult-onset schizophrenia or Asperger’s Syndrome. His work was presented in supposedly chronological order by the psychiatrist Walter Maclay as an example of the creative deterioration of schizophrenics; a specious narrative that needless to say I totally disagree with. The abstractions represent a different, experimental aspect of Wain’s cat oeuvre, not a decline.
Below are examples of Wain’s cat drawings from throughout his career, with greater emphasis on the acid cats of the later period.
One of my more popular posts, and a piece that I have a special fondness for is Art Brut, which highlighted the work of visionary/outsider artists without formal training, many of whom were institutionalised for mental illness. This was followed shortly after by tangentially related posts on The Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace and the Acid Cats of Louis Wain, again pieces I am quite tender about, if only because I got to indulge my penchant for purple prose (anyone for a spot of hallucinated decorative splendour?), while showcasing truly exceptional art and architecture.
So after a delayed interval, (a butterfly for a mind), here are more artists driven by an urgent inner necessity to create intensely luminous works of art.
Born in East Prussia (now Russia) Friedrich Schroder was sent to a juvenile delinquent facility at the age of 14 and was committed to an asylum at 17. During the 1920’s he founded a cult, though any money raised went to feeding the destitute ruined by the hyper-inflation of the time. In 1930 he was institutionalised again for debt and working as a conman, posing as Dr Eliot Gnass von Sonnenstern (Sun Star). It was during this period that he met an artist who encouraged him to draw. During WWII he spent further time in prison and labour camps. Friedrich’s allegorical drawings and paintings ladened with erotic symbolism was lauded by the artist and critic Jean Dubuffet, the man responsible for coining the phrase Art Brut.
Consuelo González Amezcua
Born in Mexico, Consuelo (Chelo) Amezcua moved to Del Rio, Texas at the age of five where she was remain for the rest of her life, working at the local department store selling candy. She won a scholarship to study art in Mexico City but her father died, leading her to forfeit the scholarship so that she could remain with her family. Known locally as an eccentric, her family paid little interest in her drawings and poetry (which is frequently incorporated in her art), though at the age of 65 she was the subject of her first exhibition. Chelo’s work is characterised by biblical imagery, Mexican folklore and stunning filigree decorative motifs.
Jospeh E.Yoakum was born in Missouri of African-American, Cherokee and French descent. He joined the circus at nine and worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show which toured Europe between 1903 to 1906. He served in France during WWI. After the war he travelled throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, working on railroads and as a seaman. Joseph settled in the Southside of Chicago in the late 1920’s, working at various occupations including carpenter, janitor and mechanic. At the age of 72 he was inspired by a dream to start making art, calling it ‘spiritual unfoldment’. During the last decade of his life he produced thousands of anthropomorphic landscapes inspired by his extensive travels.
Born of Jewish descent, Louis Freeman grew up in the tenements of Glasgow, Scotland, dropping out of school at the age of eight to help provide income for the struggling family. He later enlisted in the army, changing his name to Scottie Wilson. After serving in WWI he moved to Toronto, Canada, where he owned a second-hand store. At the age of 44 he was listening to Mendelssohn when, all of a sudden, he dipped a pen into the inkwell and started drawing. Pablo Picasso and Andre Breton were early collectors of his intricate and decorative drawings of birds, fish and fauna.
In his artistic statement of intent, the prose poem What I Believe by J.G Ballard, Ballard lists some of the things he believes in, which notably include a number of Surrealist artists and ‘The Facteur Cheval, the Watts Tower…and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.’ Ballard also writes in his annotations to The Atrocity Exhibition that the dedication for the book should have been, ‘To the Insane, I owe them everything.’
It was a feature of Modern Art to seek inspiration outside of the recognised Western Canon. The Cubists expressed admiration for African sculpture and incorporated elements within their art. Members of The Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) Group, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc and Auguste Macke were interested in the art produced by the mentally ill and children alike. However it was with the publication of Dr Hans Prinzhorn’s study Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) in 1921 that really captured the avant garde imagination and was to influence the nascent Surrealist movement. One of the artists featured was Adolf Wolfli, whose work with its obsessive detailing, elaborate fantasy worlds and horror vacui encapsulates Art Brut (raw art) as the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet later termed art produced by the mentally ill.
In 1948 Dubuffet, along with Andre Breton, The Pope of Surrealism, formed the Compaigne de l’Art Brut. He collected thousand of works which forms the Collection de l’Art Brut, located in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Below are examples of Art Brut artists work. Art Brut is also referred to as Outsider Art, Folk Art, Naive Art and Visionary Art, all terms that are problematic for various reasons. Several for the artists are mediumistic artists who were never diagnosed with mental illness. Formally trained artists who were later institutionalised such as Van Gogh and Richard Dadd (A Fevered Mind’s Master Stroke) are by and large excluded.
A violent psychotic who experienced intense hallucinations, the Swiss artist Wolfli spent the majority of his life in prison or the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern. He started drawing at the age of 40 and in the remaining 26 years produced a vast body of work, including a semi-autobiographical epic with fantasy elements that stretched to 25,000 pages and 1,600 illustrations, which often feature his own idiosyncratic invented musical notation.
A coal miner by profession, Augustin Lesage spent his life in Lille, France. He was 35 when he heard a voice tell him he was going to be a painter. After further communications with the spirit, whom Lesage believed to be his little sister who had died at the age of three, he received detailed instructions as what materials to buy and what to paint. He developed a uniquely detailed and symmetrical style incorporating motifs from Egyptian and Indian art.
In 1919 the English artist Madge Gill gave birth to a stillborn baby girl and almost died herself. She was left bedridden for several months and blind in one eye. Upon recovering the 38 year old Gill developed a sudden and intense interest in drawing and over the next forty years produced thousands of works in various media, mainly black and white ink drawings signed by her guiding spirit, ‘Myrninerest” (my inner rest)’. Female figures in intricate dress proliferate among the geometric designs.
Martin Ramirez left Mexico in 1925 to find work in America. In 1931 he was attested for vagrancy which led to Ramirez being diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. He would spend the rest of his life in Californian psychiatric institutions. His work frequently feature trains and repeated arches.