Daniel Johnston and the outsider artists

Daniel Johnston and the outsider artists

‘L’art brut’, or 'outsider art', was a term first coined by the French painter Jean Dubuffet in 1945, to describe art made by those with no artistic background and free of convention. The first museum dedicated to the form opened in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1976, after Dubuffet visited Europe's mental health institutions to amass a collection of previously unseen art. 

As a tribute to the importance and increasing prominence of outsider art we traverse some of our favourite examples.

Daniel Johnston

American singer-songwriter, musician and artist Daniel Johnston was diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic-depression at an early age. However, his love of The Beatles drew him into a world where he could express himself atistically. Johnston used music and drawing to better communicate his feelings - teaching himself to play music and subsequently write, create and play his own songs.

Johnston found prominence in the early 1980s after becoming involved in the Texas music scene. Songs such as 'The Story of an Artist' and 'True Love Will Find You in the End' showcased Johnston's talent for translating and shaping his vulnerabilities into art works of immense emotional honesty. His music has been covered extensively by artists such as Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse and Spiritualized whilst his drawings and other art works have been exhibited all around the world.

Henry Darger (1892-1973)

                                                         Untitled, date unknown

                                                         Untitled, date unknown

Darger spent almost all of his life as a solitary, eccentric man, working as a hospital custodian in Chicago, Illinois, and attending mass several times a day. His most prolific work, found only a short time before his death, is a 15,145 pages long manuscript entitled ‘ The story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of Glandeco-Angelinian Wr Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.’ He wrote his manuscript over six decades and accompanied it by countless paintings and drawing illustrating his story. 

Bill Traylor (1853-1949)

                                                          Untitled, 1940

                                                          Untitled, 1940

Traylor was an African American outsider artist from Alabama. Born into slavery, he is celebrated as one of the best artists of the 20th century. The main subject of his work is plantation life and the life of African Americans in the early 20th century. He started drawing at the late age of 85. He is known for his simple style, reminiscent of ‘folk art’ . 

William Edmondson (1874-1951) 

        Rabbit, Limestone Sculpture, c. 1940

        Rabbit, Limestone Sculpture, c. 1940

Edmondson was a folk artist and sculptor born to former slaves parents , near Nashville, Tennessee. Later in life, he decided to start a stone cutting business to carve tombstones in order to help his community. Soon, he began to carve religious sculptures, as well as animals, famous people, and  abstract figures. He claimed to have received a vision from God, telling him to sculpt. He received international praise for his work after his neighbour, playwright Sidney  Hirsch, discovered his work and shared it with other influential artists.

Adolf Wölfli ( 1864-1930) 

                       General View of the Island Neveranger, 1911 

                       General View of the Island Neveranger, 1911 

Swiss outsider artist Adolf Wölfli spent the majority of his life in a mental institution. It is in that mental institution that he began working on an autobiographic novel, as well as many pencil drawings. His drawings which are really dense and detailed, are interesting because they contain many smaller drawings . He is the subject of a 1921 book, ‘ A Mental Patient as Artist’ by psychiatrist, Walter Morgeenthaler. In his paintings, some musical notes were hidden, and several composers decided to play his music.

Auguste Forestier (1887-1958)

                                              La Bete Du Gavaudan, 1935-1949

                                              La Bete Du Gavaudan, 1935-1949

Auguste Forestier was a French outsider artist, mainly known for his sculptures.  During his childhood, he was regularly admitted into mental institutions. He became fascinated by trains at an early age, and when he derailed a train by using rocks, he was admitted to a mental institution for the rest of his life - although he escaped many times. He created toys and figurines made out of wood and diverse material he found. In 1943, he was noticed by Paul Eluard, a french poet who fled Paris during the war with his wife to settle in the country side. Eduard introduced Forestier to painter Dubuffet, who was looking to collect art for what would become the museum of outsider art in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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