Discovering Outsider Art

Outsider Art, Museum Dr. Guislain
“Dying Papa”, by Tim Brown. Oil on Wood

The man lies rigid on a bed. Or is it a bench? There is no mattress on the bed/bench, but there’s a pillow under his head and another, flatter and smaller one, under his feet. The sheet covering him is too small and his feet stick out. The lights above the bed/bench cast sickly grey shadows on the walls, that appear to hover over the man. Are the shadows angels of death, I wonder?

I am drawn to this compelling artwork titled “Dying Papa” by Tim Brown, one of the many artworks on display at the exhibition on “Breaking the Chains of Stigma“, at the Institute for Contemporary Indian Art, Mumbai. This first-of-its-kind exhibition in India, which presents a global overview of mental health and a selection of “Outsider Art“, has been conceptualised by the Museum Dr. Guislain of Ghent in Belgium (and brought to India in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Janssen Pharmaceuticals).

The information given along with the above artwork says that Brown (b.1923) is an African-American who grew up poor in the religious, rural and segregated South of the United States and worked in menial jobs. Brown started painting when he realised that he had no visuals from his childhood to share with his children. An untrained artist, Brown painted from his childhood memories on rough wooden boards or planks. After Brown’s wife died and his children left home, he withdrew from society at large and preferred to communicate with the outside world only through his paintings.

As I read this information, I realise that I have just been introduced an unknown and new genre of art (for me, that is) — “Outsider Art” — and one that sounds exciting ! But what  exactly is this Outsider Art? A walk through the exhibition acquaints me with this genre and how it has developed over the years.

In the mid and late 19th century, some European psychiatrists observed that few of their (psychiatric) patients in insane asylums or psychiatric hospitals were spontaneously producing works of art of unusual quality. Such art was termed as “Art Brut” (French term for rough or raw art) by French artist Jean Dubuffet. In 1972, Roger Cardinal, an art critic, coined the term “Outsider Art” as the English equivalent for Art Brut. But there was a difference in what these terms conveyed. While Art Brut only meant art produced by mentally ill people, the term Outsider Art took on a broader, expanded view.

Outsider Art, Museum Dr. Guislain
A collection of outsider art by various artists

Outsider Art includes art created by self-taught artists who lived in extreme mental or physical isolation, beyond the reach of cultural conditioning or art institutions. Such artists could have mental or physical disabilities that prevents them from having “normal” communication (for example, people with autism, intellectual disabilities) or are in circumstances that prevents them from having such communication (for example, people in prison or in institutional care). This genre also includes the work of artists who choose to live a life of self-imposed isolation, like Tim Brown.

Outsider Art often depicts elaborate worlds of fantasy like the world created by Gerald van Lankveld or the Emperor of Monera. Lankveld was mercilessly teased and bullied as a child and teenager, and to cope with this he escaped into a world of his own making — Monera, of which he was the Emperor. Lankveld created a language, flag, currency and postal stamps for Monera. He also created various mechanical devices like clocks, instruments and miniature structures like churches and buildings, like the one below.

Outsider Art, Museum Dr. Guislain
A sculpture (8″ in height) by the Emperor of Monera, also known as Gerald van Lankveld

Outsider Art can also be an expression of childhood trauma, like the sculpture by Johan Tahon below. This 12″ sculpture is a miniature model of the original gigantic sculpture in the Museum Dr. Guislain. Tahon faced trauma and abuse as a child and his work always has an element of hope in overcoming that. The angel is a symbol of hope for a positive future by casting off the burden of past trauma and abuse.

Outsider Art, Museum Dr. Guislain
Sculpture by Johan Tahon. This 12″ sculpture is a miniature model of the original gigantic sculpture in the Museum Dr. Guislain.

No matter under what circumstances the outsider artists paint or what they express through their art, one thing is common to all — they are untrained artists. Take Louis Poulain (b.1964), for instance, who started sketching after attending a workshop. All his paintings have blue in the background to represent the sky and green below to represent the earth, and houses to represent the community. Poulain’s early paintings show more expanse of blue (sky) and green (earth) and less of the houses. Over the years the blue and green have lessened as the houses have filled the frame. Development at the cost of nature? This was my favourite painting in the whole exhibition.

Outsider Art, Museum Dr. Guislain
Untitled work by Louis Poulain

Outsider Art also includes the work produced by the marginalised and that is how the exhibition had Godna art. An extract from the information given along with the Godna paintings had this to say:

Godna [is] an emerging Dalit art form and questions the stigmatized and marginalized status of the Dalit created by the caste system. Through the … presentation of this art form [one can get] exposed to to the layers of social issues that the Dalit people deal with on a daily basis and the impact it has on their … overall inclusion in society.

Now, I am no expert on art and have no insight into the cultural motifs of Godna art, but I think a better selection of artwork would have worked to illustrate the above description. Sadly, Krishna and Radha and what looks like a game of rasleela does not depict marginalisation. I wish that Warli art had been chosen instead, as it has some fantastic narratives on the lives of this adivasi community.

Outsider Art, Museum Dr. Guislain
Godna Art

Another point that comes to my mind is whether the Godna artists can be called untrained. Sure, they have not been trained in formal art institutions, but would definitely have received some guidance from their families and communities. In that sense they are quite unlike the other untrained artists discussed in this post.

Outsider Art, Museum Dr. GuislainWhile doing some background reading on Outsider Art, I was really surprised to find how popular a genre it is in the West. Outsider Art is considered to be part of contemporary art and many museums and galleries across Europe and the United States have large collections. Special exhibitions of Outsider Art are a regular feature in major art museums, in addition to there being specialist museums and galleries that focus exclusively on this genre.

I was lucky to be involved in the coordination of bringing the exhibition to India as well as in facilitating the setting up of the exhibition. It was a first for me in many respects. Though I have attended scores of art exhibitions, this was the first time I actually saw how an exhibition was set up and was witness to the behind-the-scene work that goes in, the hard work put in by the curators, and actually seeing an artistic vision that take shape. From that moment of the container arriving at the venue to it opening it to my first glimpse of the artworks to the setting up of the exhibition to seeing the full exhibition… I loved every minute of it (You can see the whole process as documented by me in photographs here)

I am passionate about art today, but 20 years back I wasn’t particularly interested in art and paintings and stuff. A stroll down FC Road, Pune, on a cold winter evening in 1993 changed all that. I had stopped at a pavement bookstall when a flash of colour on the cover of a book caught my eye. It was a book on the Italian painter on Canaletto. I bought the book for a grand sum of Rs.10/- and that was the beginning of my journey in the world of art. It is a journey that has continued with many breathtaking and awe-inspiring halts and one that has never bored me.

BookThe latest “halt” at Outsider Art is an exciting one as well, and I’m looking forward to exploring this genre. I have so many questions, doubts and thoughts about this genre and the Bart, Vaast and Niele, academic staff from the Museum Dr. Guislain who were here to set up the exhibition, patiently answered my questions, and even presented me with the book shown on the right. I can’t wait to start reading it — the only problem is the book is in French, a language I do not know. But then my niece and couple of friends know so they are going to be hearing from me pretty soon 😉

Have you heard of Outsider Art? Do share your thoughts here.

PS: The exhibition will reopen in a new venue – the Tata Institute of Social Sciences – on November 18, 2013. It is also expected to travel to Pune in December and hopefully to Bangalore and Delhi as well. Do follow me on Twitter or Facebook to get updates on this exhibition.

27 thoughts on “Discovering Outsider Art

  1. Thank you Sudha for sharing this. I had been waiting to read about the exhibition from the moment you first told me about it. I loved how you describe the first painting of ‘Dying Papa’ and it made even more sense when you realise that the painting was done as an attempt to relive a moment in the past that the painter does not have any pictures of. I instantly thought of kids, who have not yet learnt to read and write, but they do express their thoughts so well through drawings. Isn’t art then the way of communication we are all born with, not necessarily trained? 🙂
    Wonderful paintings, so look forward to the exhibition when it comes to Delhi. Thanks again.


    1. You’re welcome, Atula. This was a difficult post to write for many reasons. I struggled with the word “Outsider”, was not to sure about the stigma associated with such art, and the inclusion of art by marginalised groups continues to be problematic for me. For me the artist maybe an outsider, but never the art. As you said, no matter what art is after all a form of communication.


  2. Thank you for this share Sudha. I was waiting for your post on this one from the time you had posted about the exhibition and how it was set up.

    In case you happen to know when it is travelling to Delhi do let me know.


    1. You’re welcome, Jayanti. This was one of those things that had to be shared but I was clueless on how to write about it. I will keep you informed of the Delhi dates of the exhibition.


  3. At last! But it was well worth the wait 🙂 No, I hadn’t heard of Outsider Art till you mentioned it before this exhibition. It is very interesting and even more interesting to know that it is accorded importance in the museums of Europe and America. The works assume great significance and poignancy when combined with the background info on the artist.

    Your description of the first painting is apt. Even I feel that they are angels of death. I am fascinated though by the Emperor of Monera. He must have been an artist par excellence if he created a whole empire and populated it with things that he created, including its language! Are more works of his on exhibition too? I agree with your observation of Godna. Perhaps the choice of the particular painting was not apt for this theme. I wouldn’t think that all Godna creations would be about mythology, since the other artistic work including their literature is stark and contemporary.


    1. All children build their own fantasy worlds, and most also grow out of it. The Emperor of Monera is one such child who never left that fantasy world.

      My discomfort with the inclusion of Godna Art in the category of Outsider Art is at two levels: (i) the selection of pieces exhibited in this exhibition left much to be desired and I feel the curators thought that all Godna Art would be about their marginalised lives. (ii) whether the Godna artists can be really called untrained artists.

      As for Outsider Art as a genre in India, we need to appreciate art first before we can even think of different genres.


  4. Wonderful and enlightening post, Sudha. I had never heard of Outsider Art before this. I am thankful to you for having told me about it. Very interesting. I will definitely try to visit this exhibition whenever it comes to Bangalore.


    1. Thank you, TGND. I had never heard of the term Outsider Art till about 6 months back, when I got involved with facilitating the exhibition. I must admit that I was puzzled and a little uncomfortable with the terminology and looked forward to learning more about it.

      Do visit the exhibition when it visits Bangalore; it is definitely one of those which should not be missed.


  5. I agree with the commenter above. The paintings/sculptures would make complete sense and be all the more poignant if accompanied by background info about the artist. They say a lot about what goes on in the minds of such ‘outsiders’.


    1. The make complete sense ONLY when accompanied by background information. When I saw the artwork after they were unpacked, but not mounted, I was attracted to the ones discussed in the post. But after reading the information that accompanied them, the context made the artwork that much more special.


  6. Beautifully written Sudha.
    The term ‘outsider’ is (to me) extremely disturbing. Who decides what or who is the outsider and what or who is the insider. Art in itself is the representation of what goes on within the individual or the artist. So, in that sense, every art – be it a painting, crayon/pencil sketch or drawing, sculpture etc. are all the manifestations of the perspective/s within us. It is therefore a medium of expression and communication with others or the world that is located ‘outside’ of us or our minds. It is also a way of expressing inner feelings and emotions for oneself and not necessarily for the view of the outside world. I am not sure if I am making sense here.


    1. Initially, the term “Outsider Art” intrigued me and then when I saw the exhibits, it disturbed me for the same reasons you have mentioned. The viewer will always be an outsider to the artist’s perception and if that line of thought were to be followed then every artwork is outsider art.

      This is a question that I am still grappling with.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks you for introducing me to this wonderful world of outsider art. Sounds perfectly fascinating, though the term ‘outsider’ initially brought forth mixed emotions. 😀


  8. I must be honest with you most of the times the so called abstract art just goes over the top of my head and hits the person standing behind me, may be thats because I am a short person. Buts some does strike me as good and of all the wonderful things I like the lamp best, its the one item that makes sense to me.

    Pages off Life


    1. Art, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. If you like it and think it is art, it IS art. This is what I believe in. Earlier, I would categorically and vehemently dislike the genre of abstract art. But now, the genre does not matter – if a particular art work appeals to me it is art, if not…


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