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Art with a heart and a backstory

Collection De L’Art Brut in Lausanne showcases art by people on the margins—prisoners, outcasts and rebels

August Walla’s vibrant mural
August Walla’s vibrant mural (Photo: Kalpana Sunder)

Multihued yarn, wrapped like a cocoon around objects of different shapes, stands on a ledge under a spotlight. The artist is Judith Scott, who had Down syndrome. She spent many years in institutions, till her twin sister took custody of her and she took up creative work at the age of 44. She would hide objects like an umbrella or magazine and then wrap colourful yarn or string around them, covering them completely. Much of her work features pairs, maybe because she is a twin.

I am at the Collection De L’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. Brut means “raw" or “rough" in French and Art Brut refers to art created by people on the “margins of society"—people suffering from mental illnesses, prisoners, “lone wolfs" , outcasts and rebels who are generally not accepted by society.

French artist Jean Dubuffet, who coined the term and started collecting non-mainstream art from prisons and hospitals from 1945, and donated it later to the city of Lausanne, was interested in it “because it was full of raw, artistic operation". It was art that was wholesome and unique, not conforming to clichés or conventional rules. People created it only for one reason—the overpowering need to express themselves, not for recognition or approval.

The museum is housed in Château de Beaulieu, an 18th century mansion, over four floors, with dimly lit rooms and alcoves and the walls painted black, giving it a slightly sombre look. At any one time there are around 800 pieces on display, from its impressive collection of over 70,000 works.

The first display is of roughly hewn wooden structures—merry-go-rounds, carts and even a model of the Eiffel Tower. A small board explains that these are the creations of Emile Ratier, a French farmer who went through a period of depression when he became totally blind. He started working with wood, especially elm, and made sculptures with mechanisms. He had a workshop behind his farmhouse and used to slide there on an ingeniously devised system of iron wires.

The next space has a series of watercolours, from small paintings to 12ft-long, mural-size scrolls stretching against an entire wall at times, childlike images out of a children’s storybook, with little girls in frocks and flowers and trees. The artist, Henry Darger, who was born in Chicago, lost his mother, was abused by his father when he was young, and was placed in a home for the mentally ill. He ran away and took up work as a cleaner in a hospital and lived a reclusive life. After his death, his landlord discovered a 2,000-page autobiography, and the hundreds of watercolours that drew inspiration from children’s books and comic strips of the 20th century.

Aloise Corbaz’s artwork
Aloise Corbaz’s artwork (Photo: Kalpana Sunder)

The next section has some showstoppers created by artist Aloïse Corbaz, on long sheets of wrapping paper stitched together and pieces of cardboard. Brilliant images of men and women in costumes and jewellery, famous people like French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the 18th century French queen Marie Antoinette, in simple colouring pencils enliven the space. Aloïse was a governess in the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II and was infatuated with him. When she returned to Switzerland, she continued to have fantasies about him, and was hospitalized for schizophrenia. She worked in secret, using whatever materials she could lay her hands on, using juice from petals, crushed leaves, even toothpaste, creating masterpieces on wrapping paper.

Every exhibit in the museum comes with a backstory—heart-rending stories of ordinary people who had been through personal tragedies or trauma or had surmounted some personal affliction or predicament to create art and used whatever materials were available in their personal environment. There are paintings, sketches, masks, pieces of embroidery, wooden sculptures, even shell art. There is a particular section devoted to mail art—brilliant images created on postal envelopes.

I can’t help but admire these unsung artists. There are intricate drawings from Adolf Wölfli, who belonged to a peasant family and was abused as a child, grew up in foster homes and was admitted to a hospital for mental illness. He created 25,000 pages of graphic compositions in crayons, collages, even musical scores. August Walla’s colourful and vibrant mural occupies an entire wall, drawing visitors like a magnet. An inmate of a psychiatric hospital in Austria, he drew saints, prophets and demons, interspersing his work with symbols and words from foreign language dictionaries.

It’s not just the mentally ill who are represented. There are also people who worked obsessively at creating art, like Hidenori Motooka from Kobe, Japan, who was a dishwasher in a hotel kitchen; his painstaking drawings of hundreds of small trains on photocopy paper and the backs of leaflets are awe-inspiring in their minute detail. He would go to the railway station and take photographs of every vehicle and model and then copy them on paper.

Some of the artists had visions and worked in a trance, sometimes communicating with spirits or angels in their dreams. Their work has an esoteric quality. Like Laure Pigeon from Paris, whose drawings, executed in a trance, have abstract figures drawn in blue or black ink. Madge Gill, who lost her baby in the Spanish influenza, started losing vision in the left eye—she started drawing and embroidering and drawing on cardboard or calico cloth with India ink or a ballpoint pen, whenever she experienced delirious trance states.

A side alcove is devoted to objects made from shells by French artist Paul Amar, who worked as a taxi driver in Algeria and was inspired by shell craft. He started creating three-dimensional images using shells, painting them with acrylic paint and lighting them up. I am delighted to see India represented with some works by Nek Chand, the creator of the iconic Rock Garden in Chandigarh—a sculpture garden he created from junk, broken ceramics, electrical parts and other scrap, in secret for 18 years.

What really stands out for me is that such stunning, thought-provoking and inspiring art has been made by self-taught artists, many of whom had tragic life stories. In Jean Dubuffet’s own words: “Art does not come to lie down in the beds that have been made for it; it runs away as soon as anyone utters its name: It likes being incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it’s called."

Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based travel writer.

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