Can we speak of “Photographie brute”?
By Bernard Perrine, correspondent for the Photography section
From the end of the 19th century, French psychiatrists began to reveal and describe interest in the “creations” of the insane. In 1872, Ambroise Tardieu wrote in no uncertain terms: “I am not afraid to say that there is often interest in examining the drawings and paintings made by the insane...” (1).
At the turn of the century, these graphic and pictorial “creations” had no institutional or commercial value. Only doctors and specialists saw semiological value in such productions, which could be used in an attempt to characterize mental pathologies, to therapeutic ends. When Dr Auguste Marie organized a museum and exhibitions within the Villejuif asylum, his aim was to bring the insane closer to “normal” people and “facilitate a perhaps more effective fight against the 1838 law which ostracize[d] them”. Although the word “art” did feature cautiously in these initiatives, psychiatrist Paul Meunier, better known as Marcel Réja, used it in his first book L’art malade : dessins de fous, yet without acknowledging any so-called “artistic” value, and describing the pieces as “crude” (2).
As Marc Décimo (3) points out, this “openness nevertheless resonated among avant-garde artists and writers”. This was indeed a time when they were in search of new forms: African and Oceanian art, arts that did not yet have the name of “first arts”… children’s art and the “art of the insane”.
The creative drive within the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Alban (Lozère, France), encouraged DR Maxime Buisson from 1914, became emblematic of “art of the insane”. In the 1920s, the work and publications of Walter Morgenthaler on Adolf Wölfi and those of Hans Prinzhorn, defended by André Breton, did not prevent Jean Dubuffet from broadening the concept he referred to in 1945 as “art brut”, which he described in 1949 in the preface to the catalogue L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels (4): “I hereby refer to the works produced by any person free of artistic culture… little informed and deliberately distancing themselves therefrom… These works reveal the pure, raw artistic operation, reinvented at every stage by their author, based only on the latter’s own impulses. Art, therefore, which manifests only the function of invention, and not those constant in cultural art, of the chameleon and the monkey”.
This “art [which] does not fit into the mould” has the merit of synthesizing previously disparate artistic expressions: “art of the insane”, the “mediumistic art” of the surrealists, “psychopathological art” and generally speaking all obsessive and marginal artistic productions. But while Jean Dubuffet’s “art brut” was above all iconoclastic with regard to the canons of institutional art, by calling it “art” he ghettoized all of this raw imagery. Reacting against the dominant abstraction, he gave it access to the history of art and the art market.
As the exhibitions at the Rencontres d’Arles and the Rencontres de Lausanne showed, Jean Dubuffet used photography extensively as a referencing tool (5) from the beginning of his artistic activity in the 1940s, and as a creative tool in the mid-1960s (6); yet there are no photographs in his art brut collection. However, while he did not include any photography, he did not exclude it either. His Notes pour les fins lettrés (1945) feature a sub-note in which he claims to be “more inventive than the Kodak”, something which has often been interpreted as a rejection of mechanical processes without any authentic creative “drive”.
With his exhibition of Life as Panoramic by the American Albert Moser in the spring of 2012, gallery owner Christian Berst clearly raised the question (7). According to André Rouillé, “by introducing into the ‘art brut’ realm a piece atypically based on photography, it challenges the widespread idea that nothing artificial, nothing cultural and of course nothing mechanical should interfere in the works of so-called “artistes bruts”. This may therefore be a photographic version of “art brut”, and a challenge to its supposed “manual essence”.
The photograph was developed and printed by a local photographer. The work, however, obsessively panoramic and steeped in secrecy, meets the criteria of mental otherness. Moser cut his prints and assembled them with adhesives. Perhaps it was a “cathartic exercise”, as Philipp March Jones suggests, materializing a projection of mental images onto the world, generated after his years of war in Japan from 1946 to 1948.
In November 2013, the same Christian Berst showed for the first time in France the work of the American artist Eugène von Bruenchenhein, American Beauty. Bruenchenhein, born in 1910, married Evline Kalke in 1943, renamed her Marie and photographed her until his death in 1983. He thus produced hundreds of portraits in sets and in many costumes, as well as nude and in erotic poses. His work, discovered after his death, was revealed in 2004-2005 during the exhibition “Create and be recognized, Photography on the edge”. Directed by John Turner and Deborah Klochko and presented at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2004, this exhibition brought together 17 “artists” from “outsider photography” such as Adolf Wölfli and Howard Finster, among others. These “artists” used photographic prints, printed photographs, and cut-out or pasted documents (8). It was also the first event devoted to what could be called “photographie brute”, raising questions about the concept of art brut and prompting debate around the evolution of its limits.
Zdenek Kosek, covering images from erotic magazines with esoteric formulas “to ward off the threats of history”, along with Horst Ademeit, obsessively covering polaroids with writing and numbers, also raised the question of the existence of “photographie brute”. Likewise, the drawings, signs and writing on prints of José Manuel Egea, fascinated by “the werewolf” (9), exorcize this “monstrous double” allegedly lying dormant in most humans.
In 2015 Bruno Dubreuil contemplated (in the web magazine OAI 13), with regard to the Miroslav Tichy case, whether photography could be an art brut: could we speak of a “photographie brute”?
Tichy knew the mysteries of photography and art, but he would fix up his cameras with strings and adhesives, tinker with his enlarger, deliberately spoil his prints with stains, scratches, folds, etc. His obsession with voyeurism was detached from the art world and, as Marc Lenot (10) pointed out in 2009 in Miroslav Tichy’s Invention, the Czech artist, revealed by psychiatrist Roman Buxbaum, “first appeared unsuccessfully in the world of art brut, before later being accepted and gaining legitimacy in the contemporary art circle”.
Be it the work of Eugène Atget, revealed by Bérénice Abott, that of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, revealed by Richard Avedon, that of Vivian Maier, promoted largely by the gallery owner Howard Greenberg, or yet that of the Swiss policeman Arnold Odermatt, we could mention many works revealed at the end of these “artists’” life or after their death. So why is the photography of the autistic man Maier not considered as “photographie brute”? Too professional, not trashy enough, wrote Bruno Dubreuil.
Are the works of Roger Ballen or Joel-Peter Witkin too elaborate? For the last 60 years, the latter has certainly remained faithful to his original ideas: “to create photographs that show the beauty of marginalized people by placing them in paintings that are references in the world of art… In his eyes, all people are beautiful…”. Recently, just before his 80th birthday, he revealed to Catherine Edelman (11) that he suffers from dementia and how this has affected his creative process and his life… That is why he believes in the supremacy of imagination over reason.
For Roger Ballen, Asylum of the Birds (2014) is a place where humanity and animality meet, while The Theatre of Apparitions reaches the depths of his “psyche” and reflects the limits of its mental space, where reality becomes imaginary: “fiction, where the conscious merges with the subconscious, dreams become real and reality becomes like a dream. In it, he explores primordial chaos, which he interprets as humans’ natural state, marked by its inevitable goal: death and nothingness”(12).
As it is envisaged by critics and institutions, so-called “photographie brute” therefore belongs to a category with specific criteria. Neither a vernacular, an intellectual creation by institutional actors in need of demarcation, nor amateur, linked to a memory that has become ephemerizable: it lies outside artistic currents and advanced technical practices, and must be guided by obsessions of private origin. This necessarily excludes works such as those of Pierre Molinier or Claude Cahun.
It should however include S, a series of 120 prints and glass plates found in a box by Philippe et Marion (13). They show a man with a whip and an aviator helmet dressing up, surrounded by accessories: a Zorro poster, an aircraft propeller, leather thigh-high boots, a turban, and so on. Over the years, the man made himself scarce and made way to still lifes in colour featuring whips and thigh-high boots. Who is he, what has he become?
The same issues and questions apply to the Photo/Brut collection compiled by Bruno Decharme & Compagnie (14). With the support of abcd (art brut connaissance & diffusion), a research centre on art brut, he collated over 300 photographs by 45 artists around four main themes: “Private matters”, “Anonymous”, “Reformatting the world” and “Performing, or another I”.
There is no more “brute” photography than there is “brute” painting or sculpture; these categories belong to the specialized world of art and its market. Christian Berst (15) explains that, “as it stands, art brut therefore encompasses works produced off the beaten track by characters living in mental or social otherness and seeking – often secretly, most of the time for their own use – to materialize their individual mythology. And the fact that we are able to recognize and love these productions is simply a sign that they border on the universal.” ■
1- Ambroise Tardieu, Étude médico-légale sur la folie, Paris, J.-B. Baillière et fils, 1872, p. 610.
2- Marcel Réja, L’Art chez les Fous, le dessin, la prose, la poésie, Paris, Mercure de France, 1907, p. 19.
3- Marc Décimo, “De l’art des fous à l’Art brut et ses extensions: une histoire de la reception”, Critique d’art [online], no. 48, spring/summer 2017, uploaded on 15 May 2018.
4- Jean Dubuffet, L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels, Paris, Galerie René Drouin, 1949, 52 pages.
5- Jean Dubuffet, L’outil photographique, exhibition co-produced by the Dubuffet foundation, the Musée de l’Élysée and the Rencontres d’Arles, with the participation of the Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, France. 2017 Photosynthèses catalogue.
6- His exhibition “Edifices”, in 1968, shows photomontages integrating his architectural creations in public space, while from the 1970s onwards, his exhibitions were often accompanied by multi-screen projections.
7- “Photographie et art brut, sortir des clichés” (“Photography and art brut, escaping clichés”), debate organized in 2012 alongside Albert Moser’s exhibition at the Christian Berst gallery, with Marc Lenot, André Rouillé and Christian Caujolle.
8. Create and Be Recognised: Photography on the Edge, exhibition catalogue, Chronicle Books, September 2004, 156 pages.
9. José Manuel Egea, lycanthropos #2, bilingual catalogue, 212 pages. Foreword by Christian Berst, texts by Graciela Garcia and Bruno Dubreuil. Édition Christian Berst art brut, Paris, 2019.
10. Marc Lenot, L’invention de Miroslav Tichy, Études photographiques no. 23, May 2009.
11. At the age of six, Witkin witnessed a car accident that would influence his creative process: a young girl’s severed head rolled at his feet.
12. Jasna Jernejsek, Galerija Fotografija 2019.
13. Philippe et Marion, Lumière des roses gallery in Montreuil, 2018 catalogue, 70 pages with a text by François Cheval.
14. Photo/Brut collection by Bruno Decharme & compagnie, published by Flammarion and abcd in parallel with the exhibition, 322 pages, format 28 x 24 cm, 400 prints. Interview with the collector Bruno Decharme by Paula Aisemberg, texts by Sam Stourdzé and by Michel Thévoz. An essay on the four themes: “Private matters” by Brian Wallis, “Reformating the world” by Camille Paulhan, “Performing, or another I” by Valérie Rousseau, “Warding off reality” by Barbara Safarova. 53 records.
15. Beaux Arts Magazine, “Qu’est-ce que l’art brut ? On a posé la question à 3 spécialistes” by Marie-Charlotte Burat, 24 September 2015.
Eugène von Bruenchenhein, born in 1910, married Evline Kalke in 1943 and renamed her Marie. He photographed her until his death in 1983. Hundreds of portraits in sets and in many costumes, as well as nude and in erotic poses.
Left: Untitled (Marie), 1945, coloured silver print, 23.4 x 21.6 cm.
Right: Untitled (Marie), 1945, silver print, 17.8 x 17.7 cm.
Courtesy of the Christian Berst gallery.
José Manuel Egea, Untitled, 2019, acrylic marker on photographic print, 28.2 x 20.5 cm. Courtesy of the Christian Berst gallery.
Alexander Lobanov, circa 1960. Bruno Decharme collection, present in the Photo/Brut exhibition, as part of the 2019 Rencontres d’Arles, in collaboration with abcd and the American Folk Art Museum, New York.