Category Archives: Europe

Degenerate art

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Why do I hear from so many more of you when I write about “life bloopers” than about art? I’m glad you find my personal adventures so amusing…  If you’re wondering …  the washing machine is working just fine but I am still sleeping on bags of cement  🙂

I was watching a video recently: The Rape of Europa. It is about the staggering amount of art that was looted by the Nazis during the war. I will tell you about this later, but I realized that I hadn’t told you about an exhibit I saw last May in New York, called Degenerate Art:  the attack on modern art in Nazi Germany.

While some 19th Century psychiatrists (like Prinzhorn) took a particular interest in the art of their patients, others like Lombroso, declared the art of his patients indicated a return to an earlier stage of human development. British psychiatrist Hyslop declared the “non-art” of the mentally ill as pathological, having a degenerate influence. The most extreme act of blocking the so-called degenerative influence of art took place during the Nazi regime, when there was a move to remove modern artists and curators from their positions in the art world. All degenerate and decadent art was removed from galleries and museums; many modern artists disappeared and were presumed to have been exterminated. Thousands of artworks were destroyed and interest in new and alternative art forms was squashed.

A “degenerative art exhibition”, put together by the Nazis in 1937, displayed the work of modern artists (like Picasso) and Prinzhorn’s collection of work by his psychiatric patients. Degenerate art was deemed to be deplorable because it did not represent all that was good about Germans and Nazi Germany. Side-by-side with the degenerate works were examples of “good art”, that is art that complied with the Nazi agenda, such as the example above. It shows pure women, perfect examples of the Aryan race.

The exhibit in New York brought together some examples from the 1937 Nazi exhibit. During that regime, art was intended to strengthen the Third Reich and purify the nation.  Artistic expression was yet another way to further political aims: art was propaganda to shape the German population’s attitude about what was right and pure.  According to Hitler, the purpose of art was to glorify the perfection of the Aryan race. European modern art had absolutely no place in the German art world.

9331_NOLDE_MA_034_NTake Nolde, for example. He supported the Nazi party from the 1920s and his artwork was greatly admired by many Germans, including Goebbels. When Hitler declared all forms of modern art as “degenerate”, the Nazi party officially condemned Nolde’s work. Over 1,000 of his paintings were removed from museums (more than any other artist) and his work was included in the 1937 Nazi Degenerate Art exhibit. His appeal to the Nazi regime was dismissed. He was prohibited from painting, even in private. (He did, however, paint some watercolours, which he hid.)

The New York exhibit was both fascinating and repugnant. Those we have come to know as the  masters of modern art were once denigrated and despised. What I didn’t see on exhibit were the works of art brut (outsider) artists. I know that such works were also exhibited as the work of “insane” artists, along with examples of modern art. The point was this: “modern artists are as crazy as patients from psychiatric institutions”.

Ever the curious (and intrepid) art tourist, I tracked down a curator and asked about the omission. The curator confessed to having no knowledge of the work of art brut artists being on display at the original Nazi exhibit in 1937. Too bad. The New  York exhibit would have been sensational if it had told the full story.

 

 

 

Anthony Stevens (again)

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I have introduced you to UK textile artist, Anthony Stevens, in earlier posts. I am a big fan of his work, even though it diverts me from my path of art discoveries in Canada. It is worth the diversion.

It seems that I am not the only one who admires Anthony’s work – he has been invited to exhibit so much lately, that it would make “professional” artists green with envy. His first big exhibit was in London this past summer (2014), called Prick Your Finger. Here is a link to some photos from that exhibit.

Anthony was invited to exhibit in Frankfurt in September at a group show and micro-residency called Raw Threads. Anthony has written a wonderful piece about the show and it’s worth taking the time to read it.  (If you don’t have time to read it, he had a blast and enjoyed the companionship of fellow fabric artists.)

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Anthony was also invited to exhibit at a fair in Brighton (UK) in September, with an organization called Outside In. It’s the biggest annual arts show in SE England only a select number of artists were invited to exhibit. And, as if that weren’t enough, he is in a group show next year in London at St. Pancras Hospital Gallery. It’s organized by Sue Kreitzman and will feature textile artists. The world of outsider art is small. You will remember that I wrote about Sue Kreitzman a few months ago. I met her at the Outsider Art Fair in NYC in May and blogged about the incredible universe of art she has created.

All of this is to say that if you haven’t checked out Anthony Stevens yet, now is the time. Contact him at Outside In and buy something before you can’t afford it. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

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Interview with Anthony Stevens

Ant StevensThe following is an interview with UK fabric artist, Anthony Stevens. See previous blog for more images of his work.

Q:           Tell me about yourself.

A:            I’m a 35 year old U.K resident who lives and works in beautiful, bohemian, Brighton, with my partner and two cats. I enjoy creating art, good food and chanting NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO (I always chant about my work and most of my ideas come this way). I also like to read and write short stories and poetry. I originally hail from Birmingham, a large industrial city in the middle of the UK.  I had some very tough and traumatizing experiences growing up there; however,  I have still led a varied and full life, but one that has for the majority been accompanied by periods of mental distress of varying degrees and intensities.  I’m a firm believer in turning shit into compost and growing a garden. I guess that it is this philosophy that has best informed my work, both in art and my work as a ‘Peer Support Specialist’. (I work part-time for an organization that is entirely staffed by people with lived experience of mental distress and recovery.)  I believe that the individual when given the time, space and appropriate support will always know what is the best way forward for them and make their life grow into something personally meaningful and beautiful to them.

Q:           When and why did you start to create art. Did you start with fabric, or some other medium?

A:            I have always been creative in some way since early childhood, whether that was making little cloth bags, writing stories with illustrations or making sculptures from my sister’s dolls. I have also used art in my other work, which has mainly been in the realm of working with adult mental health and learning disabilities. However, my creativity really started to blossom in 2007, when I started practising Buddhism. I was living at a magnificent place just outside of Edinburgh, called Newbattle Abbey (a high support college for adults returning to education).  I think this was the first time in my life I had ever given myself the opportunity to have some time for myself and really see what makes me tick. The combination of environment, time out and support really got my inner cogs turning again. Ironically, the course I did had nothing to do with art and was more geared towards social sciences and literature. However, I spent a lot of time creating an art installation for our end-of-year celebration, using old cardboard boxes, paint and photocopied pictures of all us students.

As for working with fabrics, this came about in 2010. I originally wanted to create my own t-shirt designs as I found so many of the clothes I saw boring. I ended up buying a huge sack of cloth scraps from a dress shop in Brighton and got to work. However, I started to see a synergy with the process I was using, my life, and the way I perceive life to work. I would chant, stir up my life force.  Life force is naturally creative and will work with whatever is there. I would search and sift and find what was useful and beautiful and discard anything else for another time and piece. I would then begin a process of layering, stitching and sticking to create extremely strong and durable fabric collage pieces. I felt that there was a direct connection between my inner process of creation and healing and what I was doing on an outer level. Since that time I have worked a lot in marker pen and card as well as creating 3D pieces. It was only this year that someone suggested that I incorporate the immediacy of drawing with my fabric work, so now, I draw straight onto the fabric and stitch in the design.

Q:           Where do you work? In a studio, in your home? 

A:            I work from home. I’m fortunate enough to have a designated room in which I can work. I’m extremely messy and chaotic when working , and somehow it doesn’t feel fair to inflict this personal freedom on other people. I can also find the process of working quite painful at times and appreciate the safety of being at home where I can take care of myself.

Q:           How much time do you spend on your artwork? 

A:            I work every day on something. I think it was Beethoven, who said “A line every day”. Some days it’s all day and others just 30 minutes. It depends very much on the urgency of a piece and what other commitments I have at any particular time. I do love the freedom of having a large block of time with which to create though. I can stay up all night, drink tea, listen to music, chant and deal with anything that comes up…I love it!

Q:           Why is creating art meaningful to you?  Have you changed since you     started creating artwork?

A:            I guess it’s the process, for me. It really is like life. I get an idea, I start working on it, I encounter problems and snags, I lose patience, I get frustrated and want to throw it away and give up, and then comes the magic of remembering that there are no mistakes or problems that can’t be incorporated and used creatively. I also find that I have greater understanding of myself and my experiences from expressing them through art. By putting them out there in the world and being completely honest in my work, things that have worried me or have not made sense, in time become apparent. I find this especially with fabric, you pull a thread here and something moves over there, the snags and creases often make the piece stronger and more themselves…it’s magnificent!!! I often feel great happiness and satisfaction when I look at a completed piece.

I have also found that, I am more aware of how other people and the environment communicate. I feel that a lot of life is hidden in the details and the non verbal.

Q:           Do you exhibit your work?

A:            I am currently exhibiting a piece at a place called Taplow Court. This a Buddhist peace and culture centre and the piece is included in an exhibition that is running alongside a course on finding creative solutions to deal with conflict. I feel really proud that my work, my personal expression of something was chosen, and that it is also contributing to the world in a wider way.  I have exhibited a few times prior to this, mainly on a local level. Brighton, where I live, has an annual open house event where artists team up together and exhibit from each other’s homes. I did this twice and teamed up with a local mental health/arts org and exhibited with them as well as a local boutique.

Q:           How does the public respond to your work? Does it matter to you what they think?

A:            I have found that people have either loved my work or hated it. I found this quite upsetting at first and took it personally. But to be honest, in time, I have  found this to be very useful on a personal level, as it is helping to go towards building a more solid sense of myself, snags, rips and all. My work and I are connected. I won’t compromise with what I do. If it’s on display it’s because I have love for it and I’m happy with the result. It is perfectly imperfect and  will always evolve in some way. I have had problems accepting this about myself and life in general, so I guess other people do too…it’s good to ask ourselves why though?

Q:           Do you consider yourself an artist?

A:            I hadn’t actually given this any thought. However, to be very simple, yes, I think I do. I feel that I express things creatively and in a way that I find aesthetically pleasing, I also work really hard at what I do, so in that sense, yes,  I am an ‘artist’.  But in the sense of creating work for commissions or understanding artistic movements or styles and schools of thought, then no, I’m not. I just know what I like and I feel what has an effect on me, what resonates in my gut and my fibres. I don’t care about brush strokes or technique. Maybe it’s a bit egocentric, but I only create what I want to and in the way I know how. Any other way, there would be no journey for me and ultimately, no joy in doing this.

Q:           How do you define outsider art?

A:            As for ‘outsider’ definitions, well, what first springs to mind for me is who defines this? I know that there is a historical perspective on this, but to be honest, I find it is usually the ‘majority’ who make cultural definitions and box things up, and due to the often very restrictive, yet invisible shackles that society places on us, the ‘True Outsider’ has perhaps taken on a romantic hue, an escapist ideal from our busy world…not to say that it does not exist, because it does.

Personally, I feel that culture and art, like human beings, are to be amorphous and shape shifting to give any real static status to a form. They are just  ideas really and hard to pin down in ‘reality’ (whatever that is).  I would think it is growing  increasingly hard as time goes by to be able to be truly outside…TV and branding are examples that spring to mind. These are the social sedatives/stimulants of our time and very few remain immune from this. I suspect that this was less of the case when the ‘outsider’ term was coined. However, I do speak from a limited knowledge base here, this is just me free styling.

From my perspective, to be outside is to not care about trends or letting who likes my work stop me expressing. It’s about authenticity and expression. I have lived experiences and views on life that I want to share with people because they offer a different, and I believe, positive perspective from the one that prevails. It’s also about challenging the status quo…who decides what art is and who is an artist. Who can succeed and who cannot? Let’s have choice!

 

UK artist Anthony Stevens

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Much as I intend to focus my research on Canadian outsider artists, I learn about other interesting artists through my blog. Anthony Stevens, an outsider artist in the UK, contacted me recently and we have exchanged many interesting emails about his beautiful fabric artwork and how he came to be an artist. In Anthony’s own words:

I am a U.K based, self taught Artist. I use my work as a form of therapy and self expression. When not producing art, I also work as a Peer Support Specialist and engage in Buddhist culture and peace activities. Primarily, my work is about expressing and processing trauma and it’s after effects. I guess it’s me dancing with my inner dynamics so that I can find a rhythm that is both constructive and wonderful. My work is heavily influenced by my practise of Nichiren Buddhism and chanting ‘Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo’, especially the concept of ‘Nothing is wasted’. This has become manifest by my choosing to work primarily with scrap fabrics. By choosing to do this, I am forced to look creatively and perceive potential in what may seem to be useless and beyond repair. This is in direct correlation with how I strive to perceive my life and my experiences. As with life, it is sometimes a painstaking and frustrating process, but ultimately I feel joy and satisfaction with the result.

Below are samples of Anthony’s work. You can see more on the UK website called Outside In (which provides a platform for artists who find it difficult to access the art world). The next blog will be an interview with Anthony.

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ant stevens 4    ant stevens 10    ant stevens 2

 

 

 

Conference: Ethical Issues in Outsider Art

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I attended an International conference on outsider art in May. It was held at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, where the Prinzhorn collection is housed. The conference was initiated by the Prinzhorn collection and the European Outsider Art Association.

About 75 people attended the conference, most of them from European outsider art organizations like museums, studios and educational institutions. It was an incredible experience to be with a group of people who live and breathe outsider art; for once I didn’t have to explain what outsider art is and why I love it.

Over two days, papers were presented  (and lively discussions followed) on ethical issues around outsider art.  There were two main topics: dealing with outsider artists and the ownership of outsider art. We discussed the artists’ rights to equality; the viewpoints of artists, gallerists, psychiatrists and art promoters; and the ownership of outsider art. I’ll give you more details in upcoming blogs.

The most animated discussion was around ownership of outsider art: who has access to it, what permissions are needed, and so on.  One organization, for example, is working with psychiatric hospitals  in Germany to gain access to and archive their patients’ artwork.  Some hospitals have agreed to join the project, while others have not.

There was some grumbling about institutions that will not release their patients’ artwork (when the patient cannot give his or her own consent). There was a feeling that it is in the “public interest” to document this artwork. While I agree that it would be interesting to see the work, I can understand the institution’s position. Looking at it from a legal perspective (which I can’t help doing), there is no “right of access” to anything in the doctor/patient file, particularly by a group of strangers!  (An exception, of course, would be if there were an investigation into the practices of the institution and a need to access medical files and hospital records.) By denying access, the hospital is protecting their patients’ privacy – and so they should. If you were incapable of making the decision yourself, would you want your private artwork to be exposed to the public? I think not. A great deal of this artwork is produced from a place of trauma, and it is simply not appropriate to wretch that artwork from the hands of the creator and his or her care-giver. Period.

I expressed an unpopular view with respect to deceased artists. Some people were of the view that once an artist has died (and the next-of-kin are not available to consent), the artwork is available for public viewing. In my opinion, and aside from the legal ownership issues (to be discussed in a future blog), the curator must be extremely sensitive in deciding whether to exhibit the artwork. For example, if the artist has portrayed a traumatic event in graphic detail (such as sexual abuse), perhaps it is just “not right” to show that work to the world. Remember again:  the work was created in a private setting, for personal reasons. Would you want the world to know of your personal, private Hell even after you were dead? Probably not.

What is your view?