I feel like I haven’t written a longer piece on outsider art and its accompanying tensions in a long time. A visit to the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester – part of a team day out in my final weeks working for Outside In – took me back four years to the research I was conducting into displaying outsider art. The Whitworth, structurally both modern and beautiful, has been home to the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection now for several years. The collection is one of the formative and most important Outsider Art collections in the world, and includes works by prominent figures such as Aloise Corbaz, Johann Hauser and Lee Godie.
Currently at the Whitworth, an exhibition focusing on portraits expertly showcases a huge number of works from the gallery’s collections – including the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection. It was a privilege to see works by the likes of Ben Wilson, Hauser, and Corbaz alongside great British masters such as Francis Bacon, Sir Stanley Spencer and Leon Underwood. There is no division in the exhibition between work by tutored, mainstream artists, and the equally aesthetically brilliant works by so-called ‘outsider’ artists.
Curator Bryony Bond says: “Many works predate the gallery’s formation by hundreds of years, others were made on different continents, and many more were made without the expectation of being shown in a gallery at all. Together, however, these individual works of art, each made in different circumstances, shape the collection, and give the Whitworth its unique personality.”
Back in 2013, I wrote a blog on the relationship between ‘outsider’ art and the ‘traditional’ history of modern art, in which I touched upon the abandonment of ‘outsider’ art within most art history curriculums. So often excluded from the history (and story) of art, ‘outsider’ artists have been wholly welcomed into the Whitworth exhibition, helping to illustrate the history of a prestigious art gallery, its donors and collectors. This highlighted for me the importance of including such works in telling the story: whether that’s a story about collections and collectors, or whether it’s the story of art – and, to go one step further, the story of humanity more generally.
Let’s take Hauser as an example. Born in 1926 in Slovakia, Hauser was admitted to a psychiatric institution at the young age of 17. He was transferred to another hospital near Vienna in the late 1940s, where he remained for the rest of his life. Here, he joined the Haus der Künstler (House of Artists), where his doctor – the lauded Leo Navratil – encouraged him to start drawing. His work took inspiration from popular culture: portraits of film stars, current events and photos of war machines.
Does erasing works by people like Hauser erase people like Hauser? Surely if we are telling the full unadulterated story of art (and humanity), these are important chapters.
Corbaz was born in Switzerland in 1886. At the age of 32, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was after this admission that she began to experiment with creative writing and drawing. At first, she kept her creations on scrap-paper secret – whether for reasons of fear or privacy, but after a while she was allowed to use larger sheets of paper as well as crayons and coloured pencils. Corbaz is now one of the most celebrated ‘outsider’ artists in history. If we erase her work, are we erasing her story – are we erasing her as a person?
In this respect, the Whitworth is leading the way (certainly in the UK anyway). By integrating work by the renowned British modern greats and the work of artists like Hauser and Corbaz, they are accepting – and celebrating – the great breadth and variety of people who are and were a part of the story of human history. Their work is equally as – if not more – important in shedding light on the diverse experiences of human beings. Art is a great way to share the truths and tribulations of being human and provides a visual tool to help reduce stigma surrounding fundamental issues like mental health and disability. We must remember to include the diverse stories of people from all walks of life to ensure our collective human story is varied and interesting, but above all, to ensure that it is truthful.
‘Portraits’ continues at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, until 23 October 2016.