Monthly Archives: May 2012

Josef Hofer


The one outsider art gallery that I found in Berlin is called Galerie Art Cru.  I stumbled into the gallery after a seemingly hopeless search (I am always lost) through the Oranienburger district of Berlin. I walked in and announced to two people, “I finally found you!”. Those two people turned out to be the gallery director, Alexandra von Gersdorff-Bultmann, and her son Kolya – more members of my tribe. As you other lovers of outsider art already know, any mention of your passion will normally be met with a bored look, bordering on derision. But, I promise, when you find other members of your tribe, you will intuitively know that you “belong” somewhere.


The works of Josef Hofer (Pepi) are currently on exhibit and Alexandra took time to introduce me to his work. Hofer, now in his sixties, was born deaf and mute. He lives in a care home in Austria. He attended a basket making workshop for many years before joining an art group in 1997. Since then he has poured all his energy into drawing and painting. He draws all day, every day, to the extent that it is difficult to get him to take a break.

Pepi grew up on a farm. His first pictures were of farm tools and machinery, like tractors and pitchforks, drawn separately across the paper before him. Gradually, his work became more complex, with the drawings of a person filling the entire page. He would work as if he were dressing the person – first the body, then layers of clothing. One day Pepi was given a full-length mirror. What seems such an ordinary event to us was, in fact, a revelation to him. Having only seen his reflection in a small mirror until then, he was suddenly confronted with his entire self.

The exhibit is titled “Josef Hofer un der Spiegel” (Josef Hofer in the Mirror) and that is a perfect description of the collection. Josef draws figures framed by coloured lines (perhaps an expression of the basketry that he made). Josef’s exploration of his own nude body is an expression of discovering his own sexuality. He draws himself standing naked before a mirror, posed in various positions. His genitals sometimes feature in the drawing, as much of a remarkable discovery as everything else in his new world.

You either delight in Hofer’s work as an expression of self-discovery, or dislike them for their crudity. But no one expects (or hopes) to find Romantic Monet-like impressions in outsider art, do they?

Hofer has made a spectacular entrance into the world of outsider art. His work is now part of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. Galleries in New York and Paris also show his work.



The Prinzhorn collection


As any serious tourist will do, I checked the Internet for flea markets and outsider art in Berlin. I discovered a long list of flea markets, but only one outsider art gallery. I thought there would be more galleries since the world of art brut sprung into existence in Germany with the Prinzhorn collection  in Heidelberg.

We owe a lot to Hans Prinzhorn who, after studying art history and philosophy around 1900, received training in medicine and psychiatry during the First World War. In 1919, he began working at the psychiatric hospital at the Universityof Heidelberg. He was responsible for expanding a collection of art created by the patients. The work was started by Emil Kraepelin and by the time Prinzhorn left in 1921, the collection had grown to about 5,000 pieces of art produced by 450 patients.

Shortly after, Prinzhorn published his first book, called Artistry of the Mentally Ill. He included work done by patients at the Heidelberg hospital. His colleagues were not greatly impressed, but the art world was. Artist Jean Dubuffet was excited by the book, and coined the term “art brut” to describe the “raw” art work created by artists who had not been influenced by the outside world. To Dubuffet, these were expressions of “pure” creativity.

Prinzhorn almost faded into obscurity when he opened a private practice in psychiatry, but the art world changed forever. Shortly after Prinzhorn died in 1933, the collection was stored at the University of Heidelberg. Enter the Nazi regime. An art exhibit in 1937, titled Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibited a few works from the Prinzhorn collection along with some other works of modern art. This “modern” art was banned on the basis that it was “un-German”. Degenerate artists were dismissed from teaching positions, forbidden to exhibit their work, and sometimes forbidden to produce art at all. “Real” German art was traditional in style and promoted racial purity, militarism, and obedience. In short, the entire genre of modern art was labeled as contrary to the ideals of German society.

Fortunately, the Prinzhorn collection was stored away at the University rather than burned. Many years later, in 2001, the collection was put on display at the University of Heidelberg. I have wanted to see the collection since studying art history a lifetime ago but, sadly, the museum was closed for the month of May, and I was not able to see it. That pleasure awaits a future trip.


Morton Bartlett goes to Berlin

I timed my trip to Berlin to see the Morton Bartlett exhibit at the Bahnhof museum. (See earlier blog about Morton Bartlett.)  Marion Harris organized this major collection to be shown in Berlin. Although I had seen some Bartlett photos at the Outsider Art Fair in NYC a few years ago, I had never see the dolls nor the original photos. The collection is now in various museums around the world, so it was a rare opportunity that I couldn’t miss.

The exhibit alone was worth the trip to Berlin. The exhibit includes many of the original photos that Bartlett took. They are small (about 5 x 7 inches) and framed. It also includes some dolls. I didn’t know what to expect. I have seen many photos of the dolls, and know the story of  Bartlett’s creation, but still it was a surprise.


The dolls stand about 3 ft tall. They are an assembly of various body parts – Bartlett made heads, arms, torsos and legs separately, then put them together in various poses for his photographs. For example, the head of a girl might be attached to the body of a doll posed as a dancer, ready to be photographed.  The whole purpose of Bartlett’s creation was to photograph the children, doing “normal” things like dancing, talking to a dog, sleeping, and reading.

I now understand how this turned into a life-long project for Bartlett. There are hundreds of body parts. In addition to creating the dolls, Bartlett also made their clothing. As no patterns were found in the collection, it is thought that he also designed the clothes. He taught himself to knit in order to make sweaters. He sewed delicate skirts, dresses, and pinafores. His neighbours (Kahlil Gibran and his wife), recall hearing Bartlett’s sewing machine every evening, but they were not aware of his secret family.

I discovered that dolls make people feel uncomfortable, and this certainly is the case with Bartlett’s work. I don’t quite understand that, but I know it is true. I wondered if there was a gender difference in play. Having spent my childhood playing with dolls and believing they were my children, it was not a stretch for me to accept Bartlett’s obsession.

In addition to this general discomfort, others find the dolls to be the subject of misplaced eroticism. I don’t see that either. The collection touched me as I sensed his longing for a family of his own. It triggers memories of my own longings and losses. I left with a sense of wonder.