What is Outsider?

Pascal Maissoneuve

I have recently been conducting some further research into the way we display and interpret exhibitions of Outsider Art or work by Marginalised Artists. This research has raised a few questions for me that I thought might be interesting to include in the blog.

I have been reading Lyle Rexer’s ‘How to Look at Outsider Art’, in which the author himself questions what really counts as Outsider Art. The term itself is so broad and covers so many different bases that more often than not we struggle to aptly define it at all. Rexer provides numerous definitions throughout the introduction and first chapter of the book; a chapter entitled ‘Art without Artists’. He quite correctly claims that Outsider Art “unlike the isms… does not refer to the art but to the status of the people who make it.”[1] He adds that the term has “become a catchall phrase for everything that is ostensibly raw, untutored and irrational in art.”[2]

The traditional ‘movement’ of Outsider Art (if we can even call it a movement at all; apparently lacking precursors and emerging mainly as a ‘hindsight’ movement) includes artists from a whole host of different backgrounds. We have the ‘legendary’ Outsiders who include Henry Darger, Richard Dadd and Adolf Wolfli, alongside less well known artists who have been labelled within this category. But, Rexer argues – as I do to some extent – what really defines all of these artists? What is it about them or their work that enables us to group them all within this category of Outsider Art?

Certainly, within the traditional art historical canon, movements such as Impressionism, Expressionism, and Surrealism to name a few, are defined by the work not the artist. They are defined by a distinct style, a certain brushstroke, or bold colours. Outsider Art is much more difficult to define in this way. It is based on the artist – their psychological state, their political standing or their social exclusion. As Rexer notes: “in art galleries and in most exhibitions of self-taught and outsider art, one is likely to see everything from early America advertising signs and Native American artifacts to Haitian Voudou flags, religious art from the South, and works by people in severe mental distress.”[3]

Is it right, then, to group artists such as the academically trained Dadd together with the very private Darger? Darger, as one example, certainly did not actively want anyone to see his work, or even discuss it. Is Dadd only grouped within this category of Outsider Art because of his battle with Schizophrenia which resulted in him murdering his own father? After all, before the onset of his Schizophrenia, he was a professionally trained artist, who travelled the world to advance his skills. We could argue that artists such as Paul Cezanne, Gustave Courbet and Eduard Manet were Outsider Artists of their time. They did not fit into any previously existing art historical movement, and their work challenged pre-existing ideas of colour, subject matter and style. Rexer explains that the group of artists who exhibited at the Salon des Refuses of 1863 after announcing a break with tradition could be described as Outsiders – they were consciously working outside of the art historical norm.

Giuseppe Archimboldo’s work of still lifes using fruit and vegetables are world-renowned, but similar work by Pascal Maisonneuve using shells to create faces is labelled as Outsider Art. How do we explain this divide, this difference? It has crossed my mind that perhaps the work of celebrated Outsider Artists such as Darger and Wolfli might come to be accepted into an art historical movement within time. Perhaps Maisonneuve’s work might sit alongside Archimboldo’s in an exhibition celebrating still lifes – just as the work of the Impressionists now sits in the timeline of the progression of nineteenth century French painting, following the work of David and Ingres. Outsider Art seems to me to be a label that encompasses the work of artists whom we do not know how – or where – to put. It is a ‘movement’ (in the loosest sense of the term) that covers a huge expanse of time and a huge range of styles, subject matter and indeed history. To finish, I would like to use a thought-provoking quote by Rexer which highlights the complicated nature of using such a broad term: “many of these objects do share some common ground, but putting them into a very large suitcase called ‘self-taught’ or ‘outsider’ certainly makes them harder to appreciate.”[4]


[1] Rexer, Lyle. How to Look at Outsider Art  (Harry N. Abrams Inc, 2005), p 12

[2] Ibid, p 6

[3] Ibid, p 10

[4] Ibid, p 10


2 thoughts on “What is Outsider?

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