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Beyond the fringe

31 May 2006

4:59 PM

31 May 2006

4:59 PM

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Surrealism is in the air, what with the Hayward and Max Ernst shows (reviewed in these pages last week), and it’s been lurking around in a different guise since April in an enthralling show at the Whitechapel which focuses on Outsider Art. Outsider Art, or Art Brut as Dubuffet originally termed it, is art made by ‘people free of artistic culture’; in other words, not artists, though the categories are increasingly blurred. It’s often the product of the mentally disturbed, of those beyond the fringes of society, who make drawings or paintings, sculpture or embroidery, which deal directly with their obsessions. They may not intend to make art, but their work is collected and often displayed as art.

Inner Worlds Outside at the Whitechapel (until 25 June) mixes up these Outsiders with real artists (such as Klee, Kandinsky and Guston) to produce an extremely effective range of imagery, rich enough to keep the imagination fuelled for a month. When I visited, it was proving popular with the public, and particularly the young. Are we in for a new wave of surrealism? The British have always done it well, with the proto-surrealist work of Blake and Lewis Carroll predating Breton’s formulations, to name but two. Is there more to come?

My own initiation into the mysteries and rituals of surrealism took place 20 years ago when I was called in to assist the artist Eileen Agar (1899– 1991) with the writing of her memoirs. With typical modesty, she wanted to write a tribute to her late husband, the Hungarian man-of-letters Joseph Bard, but all her advisers were suggesting that she should concentrate on telling the story of her own colourful life. It was my job to prompt her recollections of her early years as an artist, her recognition (somewhat to her surprise) as a surrealist by Roland Penrose and Herbert Read, and her subsequent involvement with the surrealist movement. It was a fascinating experience, getting to know intimately a period of art history that for me had previously existed only in books.

Eileen Agar is represented in this exhibition by two works, both objects — a human skull painted gold and embellished over the frontal lobes with a pattern of seashells, and a couple of heavily textured paint-rollers mounted vertically as a totem. Here also are a number of her friends and associates. As you enter the ground-floor space of the Whitechapel, you’re greeted by four large landscape-format watercolour and collage pictures by Henry Darger, an American hospital caretaker. They look like vast illustrations to children’s stories. To the left is a rather fine oil by Roland Penrose, entitled ‘Egypt’, and starring the goddess Nut arching her body to make the sky. Unlike Agar, Penrose was not a fluent painter, producing his most memorable images in collage or as objects, but this is a good picture enhanced by its exotic context. One effect of surrounding professional artists with the offerings of non-professionals is to make the professionals look that much stronger.

The exhibition is subdivided into five sections, to bring some structure to what is in danger of becoming as cluttered as an Eastern bazaar. The first is ‘Imaginary Landscapes and Fantastic Cities’, and features such strange delights as Augustin Lesage’s ‘L’Esprit de la pyramide’ (c.1927), a luscious confection of birds, forests and amulets, along with anonymous pencil drawings of scary landscapes. (One less-than-enthusiastic visitor commented, ‘Do you think there’s a reason why so many of these people are unknown?’)

There are more than 100 ‘artists’ represented here, with the Outsiders far outweighing the Insiders in numbers if not in artistry. The big names seem to come in clutches — there’s a Masson borrowed from the Tate next to a Kandinsky watercolour, with a Matta crayon nearby. In-between is a lovely little anonymous coloured pencil drawing of a botanical garden, direct and inventive. Further along is a drawing by ‘Julian Trevelyan (unknown)’ — presumably quite different from Julian Trevelyan the known, even well-known, surrealist — and some rather singular anthropomorphic ballpoint landscapes by Joseph Elmer Yoakum. A heavily textured Dubuffet at the top of this aisle echoes another with figures on the other side of this section. A group of marvellous street signs by Arthur Bispo Do Rosario, made from cloth, wood and paper and hung on the wall, have all the fragility of eggshells. An extended company of map-images, two by the amazing Michael The Carto-grapher, present what might be called ‘maps for living’ (not a bad definition of art, by the way).

An inner room on this lower level deals with ‘The Allure of Language’: Jack Smith’s magisterial painting of hieroglyphics faces an atmospheric Mark Tobey tempera (he of the famous ‘white writing’ technique), across the circling patterns of typically repetitive drawings, all scatter and crowd. Upstairs is a room devoted to the medium Madge Gill, who took to spiritualism and drawing to contact her dead children. Her room-length ‘Crucifixion of the Soul’ is a moving and impressive ink on calico scrolling design, worthy of serious attention.

The ‘Faces and Masks’ section is dominated by a superb Philip Guston painting ‘Head’ (1965), rather like Baselitz ought to be. (Baselitz himself is represented by a forgettable print opposite.) A bewitching early Tàpies is set off by a group of Scottie Wilson’s intricate penwork images.

Occasionally, Outsiders look like more famous Insiders. Agatha Wojciechowsky looks a little like Ensor, and in the next section, ‘The Erotic Body’, a finger painting by Louis Soutter is a dead ringer for A.R. Penck. In this room there’s a rather wonderful painted plaster shoe-stand by Dusan Kusmic, a lyrical sensual print by Fautrier, and a mysterious pin-stuck box by Lucas Samaras. And that’s not to mention Picabia, Paolozzi and Man Ray. Or Rops, Bellmer and Kubin, immersed in their various perversities. The last room, ‘Fantastic Dreams and Haunting Tales’, ends on a strong note: another Guston (appropriately called ‘Inside–Outside’), a tiny collage by E.L.T. Mesens of a fireman standing in a frying pan, and a resoundingly poetic painting by Douanier Rousseau, ‘Le Petit Chevalier Don Juan’.

The exhibition is curated by Jon Thompson with Monika Kinley, founder of the Musgrave Kinley Collection of Outsider Art, now on long-term loan to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, where this show will be on view from 25 July to 15 October; Inner Worlds Outside has been built around work selected from this remarkable collection. Kinley recently published Monika’s Story: A Personal History of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Collection (£15 in paperback, ISBN 0954993306), a very readable account of her continued search for and championing of Outsiders, in the wake of her partner Victor Musgrave’s early death. It’s a fascinating narrative in pursuit of ‘an art without precedent’, to quote Musgrave, and is prefaced warmly by Nicholas Serota, and introduced convulsively (in the sense of Breton’s ‘convulsive beauty’, naturally) by George Melly. Besides the engrossing stories there are more than 50 colour plates of Outsider works, and plenty of documentary photos. I particularly liked a double-page spread of Kinley and Melly lying on the floor, Melly in one of his demure bespoke suits, working on a book about Scottie Wilson. Art as therapy?

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