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Art Without Limits

References for a Definition and Premise of Outsider, Collecting and Institutions

The term Outsider Art (at time called Irregular Art in Italy) circumscribes the large, complex and varied family of marginal, folk or visionary artists who frequently have mental problem and always, or almost always, have no academic art training. They work alone, beyond the conditioning of received cannons, movements and markets, drawing from within themselves and for themselves, and not for others, conceptually, objectively and technically exceptional works.

In Italy today, but not in all other European countries, it is distinguished from Art Brut, even though there are still in fact some aspects of convergence in its role as an extension and declination of the latter. The term is therefore referred more specifically to the socially marginal position of the artists, than to their work. The interest, particularly of vanguard art movements, in this form of artistic expression largely dates to the early twentieth century. The acquisition of such works by both artists and collectors became pervasive practice around the 1950s when work began to emerge from psychiatric hospitals. Dubuffet was to officially sanction this kind of art from 1947 with the foundation of the Compagnie de l’art brut.

Dubuffet’s cultural manoeuvre consisted in adding value to non culturelle works, seen as a lively, unadulterated and fresh counterpoint to arte culturelle which was to be perceived as the product of bourgeois homogenization, rather than of free research.

Having been turned-down by France, Dubuffet’s collection was purchased by the Swiss and installed in Beaulieu Castle at Lausanne where the headquarters of the Art Brut Museum still resides today.

Collecting in this genre has a history that extends beyond Dubuffet’s collection. At Vienna the Essl’s, a great collecting family, began buying the works of artists from Gugging, the psychiatric hospital where various personalities, worked and still work, whose achievements are both famous and highly valued financially (as for example: Hauser, O.T., and Walla) and where Arnulf Rainer also worked. In 1970 the Frenchman Serge Tekielski opened the Petit Museé du Bizzarre. In 1967 the Museé des Arts Decoratifs, Paris organised the first Art Brut exhibition which was followed in 1974 by that at the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis (Minnesota). This was followed the show organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1979 and that of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. mounted in 1982. In France during these years as series of new exhibition spaces also came into being: l’Aracine; la Fabuloserie and the Site de la Création Franche. In 1994 a museum housing the collection of Ceres Franco opened at Lagrasse, France, and more recently two young Swiss collectors have opened the Mermod and Erternod collection to the public. The first museum specialised in Outsider and Visionary Art was opened in Baltimore in 1996. More recently Paris’ La Halle Saint Pierre presented its exhibitions of Art Brut and Outsider Art while its display Bandidti Dell’Arte showcasing 52 Italian artists closed recently. Meanwhile, in London James Brett opened a space in 2009 where he presented his collection calling it The Museum of Everything, later staging further exhibitions around the world.

It is also important to recall at this point the exhibition Insania Pingens (which included only one Italian artist, Carlo Zinelli) presented at Bern in 1961 and curated by Harald Szeemann: in contrast to previous views on this kind of art, his approach pioneered a radically new critical approach that has remained influential.

In Italy, initiatives within institutions have frequently evolved, but these have almost always been promoted on account of a single individual’s interest in the subject. Here we owe much to the art historian Bianca Tosatti who has curated exhibitions of irregular art that have made history: for years she has also dedicated herself to the creation of a Museum dedicated to the subject. Of particular importance is the Istituto delle materie e delle forme inconsapevoli founded at Genoa by the artist Claudio Costa in 1988, this is today called the Museoattivo Claudio Costa in honour of its founder.

Various foundations promote the memory of individual artists such as the Fondazione Zinelli, the Fondazione Merati or the Fondazione Ghizzardi. An important collection is certainly that of Dino Menozzi that above all documents the work of ‘irregular’ artists working in Padania or Po valley region of Italy.

In 2004 the Osservatorio di Outsider Art opened under the auspices of the Accademia di Belle Arti of Verona on the proposal of the cultural section of the Centro Franca Martini of Trento. Its remit is to monitor the works that emerge from caring institutions and to collect and catalogue all the notifications of other non-official productions that come from throughout Italy. Subsequently a second Osservatorio was established under the auspices of Palermo University (the two observatories collaborate) its remit is to catalogue and support the Sicilian outsiders and to spread outsider culture. Other universities and academies followed, like DAMS and the Bologna Accademia di Belle Arti, which introduced classes on the subject in their official curricula.

Since the 1970s many studios have been recorded as opening in various psychiatric homes around Italy: many of these are organised by artists (and not by art therapists). Among the best know, even internationally, are La Tinaia at Florence; Alce in Rosso a penitentiary psychiatric hospital at Castiglione delle Stiviere in the province of Mantua; Adriano e Michele at San Colombano al Lambro, Milan; Blu Cammello at Livorno; and Officina Creativa la Manica Lunga at Sospiro, Cremona. Various studios have also come into being as a result of a biannual specialisation course promoted by the Accademia di Belle Arti of Verona: these have opened in the provinces of Verona, Trento and Lombardy.

In recent years the Roman artist Cesare Pietroiusti has made an interesting contribution with his open project Museo dell’arte contemporanea italiana in esilio formed with the objective of collecting manifestations of art from ‘outside the system’ and seeking out foreign venues in which to exhibit them.

The artist Dora Garcia who represented Spain at the 2011 Venice Biannual on this occasion dedicated her project L’inadeguato to giving a voice to ‘non-official productions’ bringing together all manner of materials enabling the documentation of works of art by artists that operate on the margins. After all, ‘insider artists’ have always been the greatest collectors of non-academic productions.

Here lies the importance of developing a project that will extract the work of these artists from prevailing stereotypes…


Fondazione per l’Arte’s project

The limit, that is apparent today in the evaluation of these artists, is that they continue to be presented as a ‘category’ or genre: the exhibitions held over the past twenty years are exemplary of this. If in the past this approach was based on the objective of drawing this kind of art out of anonymity, today this is much less necessary since this phenomenon is now better known and the validity of certain outsiders is officially recognised.

Fondazione per l’Arte believes that today the most culturally engaging objective is that of shifting from group shows, wherein the accent is placed on the ‘phenomenon’ (that homogenises these artists within a single defining class) to monographic exhibitions that underline the purely artistic value of these productions.

In such a process, the aim is not to obscure biographic realities, but rather to reassert them within a proper context: these belong within the artist’s history, but they should not be reduced to the sole aspect of such a history – that which is more important in our view, is that the artist’s works are appreciated as works of art.

Having said this, it must be restated that many of these artists are, nevertheless, little known: they do not belong to a category of people able to promote themselves (in the event that they should want to); or they have no interest in making their work public. It should also be remembered that, more often than not, they live in positions of serious social marginalisation, with few, or even no contacts with the outside world.

Those that are interested in becoming known emerge as the most widespread group, but because many of the artists suffer from mental illness, in many cases seeing their works exhibited also serves an important therapeutic purpose. Recognition is an important tool for developing self-esteem. The recognition conferred by an art exhibition that specifically accents cultural and artistic value cannot but increase self-esteem.

These artists are all very different from one-another but they and their works have certain qualities in common: great expressive and stylistic originality, a lack of lip-service to the market, no given attitudes, little interest in working on commission, great variability as to whether to make their work available. The empathy generated by relationships is the basis of any possible collaboration.

In Italy there are many such artists – who are entirely in the shadows – and finding them involves a real search. The project IN VIAGGIO has allowed Daniela Rosi, the curator of this project for Fondazione per l’Arte, to find many of them: for various reasons many of them are the concern of the mental health services. Their work is frequently notable for its expressive quality, yet often they are unknown beyond their domestic arrangements. Others may only be known to the social and health services, while the fame of others might go no further than their home town or village. Those that are better know have usually been taken under the wing of a sensitive doctor or by artists that have, in the context of their own research, chosen to measure themselves against other kinds of talent by leading workshops in places of care. It is sufficient to recall Claudio Costa or Arnulf Rainer that, like other artists today, conduct workshops in psychiatric institutions.

Within the ambit of a commitment to the sustained research and promotion of contemporary art Fondazione per l’Arte proposes a cycle of monographic exhibitions on these marginal artists both from Italy and abroad. This cycle of exhibition projects, will lean on the crucial critical, technical and organisational support of Daniela Rosi; they will unfold within the context of a programme of alternating exhibitions, on ‘outsider’ artists and ‘insider’ artists, with the final objective of conferring on all the protagonists equal social and cultural dignity.

Each exhibition will be thematically based on a theme in-keeping with the overall exhibition programme. A diverse range of genre will be proposed within the general guidelines of the project: outsiders, autodidacts, visionaries, the confused and artists with mental disorders as well as self-alienated artists who might have all the prerequisites to be ‘insiders’ but who are wilfully outside the system.

For each exhibition a range of correlated events are also envisaged, including thematic conferences and illustrated lectures to further explore the work of artists, thereby encapsulating the dual motif of art and culture.