A Five-Point Guide to Art Brut, Fashion’s Favourite Movement for A/W18

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Jean Dubuffet photographed by Paolo Monti in 1960 (Fondo Paolo Monti, BEIC)Via Wiki Commons

As the legacy of outsider art continues to inspire contemporary designers from Dries Van Noten to Christopher Kane, five unexpected facts about the influential, but controversial, movement

Over nearly three decades, Dries Van Noten has earned a reputation as fashion’s master of bold, playful print. So while the scrawled, abstract patterns of his A/W18 collection might appear to be business as usual – think swirling palm fronds and Catherine wheels streaked with colourful feather trims – their sources within the overlooked movement of Art Brut are perhaps surprising.

Even if it loosely translates as “rough” or “raw art”, a precise definition of Art Brut is elusive. Now almost synonymous with the artist who coined it, Jean Dubuffet, the term in fact refers less to Dubuffet’s own work and more to the extraordinary collection he amassed during the post-war period of artworks produced by children and the mentally ill, housed in a purpose-built museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. At the opposite, eastern end of the Alps sits the offshoot of the movement best known today. It’s here, at the Art Brut Center Gugging on the outskirts of Vienna, that Christopher Kane came last year for inspiration, collaborating with the resident artists on prints, and even using the gallery space as the backdrop for his Pre-Fall 2017 lookbook.

It goes without saying that Art Brut raises important questions about the accepted path of art history: what deserves to be absorbed into the canon, and what is left out? Who dictates what is elevated as high art, and what gets thrown on the scrapheap? And perhaps more significantly, what are the ethical problems it raises when absorbed into the art market, or the world of fashion? Across five key moments in the movement’s history, we unpick the problems of this singular artistic tradition – and why designers are referencing it today.

1. The movement’s roots lie in psychiatry rather than art

The publication of Dr Hans Prinzhorn’s The Artistry of the Mentally Ill in 1922 was met with little fanfare by its intended academic audience, with many professors of medicine and psychiatry seeing it as little more than a record of one doctor’s dilettantish interest. Essentially a catalogue of artworks by patients at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, Prinzhorn had witnessed first-hand the therapeutic value of creative expression, and began establishing a bridge between the two previously unlinked disciplines of painting and psychiatry. 

To Prinzhorn’s surprise, the book began to circulate among the avant-garde artists of Paris, attracting attention from no less than Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Picasso. In many ways, this unexpected fanbase was appropriate. Prinzhorn himself had always been artistically inclined, beginning his academic career studying art history and philosophy at the University of Vienna, and even travelling to England for vocal training with a view to becoming a classical singer. Today his collection, rather than his own creative pursuits, serves as his legacy, with many of these artworks still on display at Heidelberg University.

2. The leading voice of Art Brut was not technically part of the movement 

Among the artists who stumbled upon Prinzhorn’s groundbreaking book was Jean Dubuffet, whose career would be forever changed by the discovery of this boldly new, naïve style. Dubuffet was a rebellious personality who had dropped out of art school and spent much of his twenties drifting around northern France, moonlighting as a wine merchant – but from his first solo exhibition at the René Drouin gallery in Paris in 1944, he received acclaim for his drawings of everyday life, channeling the energy and vitality of everything from prehistoric art to graffiti.

Travelling to psychiatric hospitals in the south of France and Switzerland, he worked with patients to amass an unparalleled collection of outsider art, known as the Compagnie de lArt Brut. The irony of Dubuffet’s association with Art Brut is the fact none of his work can, by his own definition, fall under that category: as he describes it, the genuine outsider artwork must be produced by individuals entirely “unscathed by artistic culture”, without any awareness of the formal training that Dubuffet had once rejected as a young man.

3. Controversy has dogged Art Brut from the very beginning

Characterised by its energetic scribblings, rough-and-ready textural surfaces and earthy palette, as well as mystical and often arcane subject matter, Dubuffet was fond of using precious metals as a metaphor for outsider art’s distinctive charms, arguing in typically abstract fashion to a friend that raw gold was always “better as a nugget than as a watchcase.” 

But with its reliance on children and the mentally ill to produce works that can be considered authentically “rough”, “raw” or “unscathed by artistic culture”, many have argued that by the elevation of these works to attract value on the art market, the process of selling and collecting them is exploitative. Dubuffet countered these accusations by fiercely stating his genuine admiration and respect for the artists, and his own identification with them, stating: “I do not consider myself exceptional in any way. In my paintings, I wish to recover the vision of an average and ordinary man.” Whether this explanation is sufficient is still hotly debated today.

4. The traditions of Art Brut are alive and well today

In 2016, Christopher Kane was trawling the internet when he came across a work by outsider artist Johann Hauser: a portrait of a woman wearing a dress that bore an uncanny resemblance to a design from his 2011 ‘Princess Margaret on acid’ collection. Digging deeper, he discovered the Art Brut Center Gugging, a museum, gallery and psychiatric hospital in the Austrian countryside that remains one of the leading institutions continuing the work of art brut’s pioneers.

Over the course of multiple trips to Gugging, Kane collaborated with various residents to develop prints for his pre-fall and A/W17 collections, fully crediting and reimbursing them for their collaborations. As a designer who wilfully challenges notions of good taste, working with outsider artists would seem a perfect fit, but it also links closely with his interest in the post-war fashion that emerged concurrently with movements like Art Brut. Kane has noted that the 1940s is his favourite period in fashion, explaining that “in a way, all my work is about that: how human tragedy produces such beautiful things”.

5. Art Brut’s legacy is as much political as it is aesthetic

While both Dries Van Noten and Christopher Kane have expressed an interest in the primal visual impact of Art Brut, a trickier question is why this movement is speaking to designers today on an intellectual level. As Kane notes, it’s important to remember that this attitude developed out of the shadow of World War II. Dubuffet’s first ventures to the psychiatric hospitals of Switzerland (accompanied by Le Corbusier nonetheless) took place in the summer of 1945, and his manifesto for the movement was published in 1947.

With great political instability in the present day, the otherworldly innocence of Art Brut holds an undeniable appeal, even if an artist overlooking the political realities of their age can be argued as a moral failing. Within the fantastical world of fashion, however, as the global world order undergoes a series of tectonic shifts, it’s perhaps little wonder that designers are embracing the outsider’s irrepressible spirit of escapism.