Category Archives: Europe

The Prinzhorn Collection


I’m back on track (sort of) after returning from the conference in Heidelberg  and finishing a course on visual culture.  I have a lot to report.

The International conference was initiated by the Prinzhorn Collection and the European Outsider Art Association to discuss ethical questions around outsider art. It was held at the University of Heidelberg, where the Prinzhorn collection is housed. Since 2001, the collection has been on display in a former oratory of the University of Heidelberg and it has always been my dream to go there.

I don’t know what I expected or hoped to see – maybe a museum the size of a large house. In the photograph above, the museum is in a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the tall building in the foreground.


Sadly, the museum is very small, and only a tiny (very tiny) portion of  the permanent collection is on display at any one time. I saw a cabinet of original wood carvings by former psychiatric patients under the care of Hans Prinzhorn. You would recognize the carvings because they have appeared in almost every outsider art book published (like the one by Karl Brendel to the left). I approached the cabinet with a shock of recognition – the carvings were so familiar to me, but still surprising to see the real thing. They are small – something that is difficult to appreciate when seeing a photograph in a book. They are all about 12 inches (30 cm) tall, but the carvings are detailed and exquisite. I wished that I could hold them. I am always struck by the incredible creativity and imagination in every piece of outsider art that I see, and these were no exception.

The entrance to the museum holds a reception desk, a couple of benches,  a very small collection of books, and a few postcards. The main exhibit room is quite large, with a balcony that wraps around 3 sides of the room.

73a2c67d24Currently on exhibit is the work of Ovartaci (1849 – 1985), from Denmark (shown below). The theme of much of his work is transformation; he castrated himself in his transition from male to female. Other life-sized paintings and paper mache figures are fantastical creatures representing various reincarnation cycles of his life – a butterfly, bird, puma, and tiger. His own painted bed is the centre-piece of the exhibit, in a re-creation of his room in the psychiatric hospital.

Around the balcony were a few drawings from the permanent collection, as well as gorgeous photographs by Ono Ludwig, also on the theme of gender roles.

The most peculiar thing (to me) was the curator’s decision to refer to Ovartaci as “he” when Ovartaci clearly identified as female. I asked why that decision had been made and was told that the original biographical/archival material referred to Ovartaci as a male, and they decided to follow that decision. I doubt that the same decision would be made in North America…







Ethical issues in outsider art


I recently joined the European Outsider Art Association   a fairly new organization established in 2009. (Thank you to Nita in Sweden for telling me about it.) Given the lack of dialogue about outsider art in Canada, I was delighted to discover the EOA and find a group of professionals with whom I could explore outsider art issues.

The EOA’s purpose is to strengthen the voice of outsider art by improving intercultural cooperation and dialogue across the European borders. Its objectives are to:

  • create a favourable environment for those in this field willing to share experience, exchange good practice and set up partnerships at a transnational level
  • collect knowledge and share out information on activities and movements in the international outsider art scene
  • contribute to the shaping, development and implementation of national and European policies and legislation
  • create a forum for promoting, exploring and debating the history and contemporary state of outsider art
  • promote the rights of outsider artists

I will be attending a conference in Heidelberg in May (2013), called Ethical Issues in Outsider Art. The purpose of the gathering is to clarify what constitutes an ethically responsible approach to dealing with artists and artwork in the outsider art field. Because outsider artists are often not able to represent themselves in the art world or the art market, the curator, dealer, or buyer has an obligation to act responsibly.

In the past, psychiatrists typically claimed the work of their patients for themselves. But who actually owns the artwork? In many situations, the answer is not clear.

In speaking with the director of one open studio, I learned that it is common practice for organizations that sponsor the workshops or studios to claim ownership of the artwork produced there. This was described to me as an ethical and moral issue. It’s not just that; it is also a legal issue! Copyright remains with the artist unless and until the artist assigns it to someone else. You can imagine the difficulties that arise when the artists are mentally or intellectually challenged.

I am interested to hear what ownership views are among outsider art professionals, what practices are common, and how they can be standardized (and enforced) to protect outsider artists. I will report back from the conference.

Adolf Wölfli, composer


Wölfli ’s artwork is dense with text, numbers, and musical notations. Repetitive music was droning at the  Wölfli museum in Prague and I thought it interesting that they had matched such discordant sounds to the exhibit. It is hard to describe the music – haunting and somewhat eerie. There were photographs of  Wölfli  playing his hand-made instruments – rolls of cardboard rolled into a trumpet shape. Although my son manages to produce deep, rumbling sounds from a didgeridoo, I couldn’t see how anyone could produce such sounds on a cardboard tube.

The Adolf Wölfli Foundation addresses the big question: do these musical notes mean anything?

Naturally enough, the question whether Wölfli’s can be played is asked again and again. The answer is yes, with some difficulty. Parts of the musical manuscripts of 1913 were analyzed in 1976 by Kjell Keller and Peter Streif and were performed. These are dances – as Wölfli indicates – waltzes, mazurkas, and polkas similar in their melody to folk music. How Wölfli acquired his knowledge of music and its signs and terms is not clear. He heard singing in the village church. Perhaps he himself sang along. There he could see song books from the eighteenth century with six-line staffs (explaining, perhaps, his continuous use of six lines in his musical notations). At festivities he heard dance music, and on military occasions he heard the marches he loved so well. More important than the concrete evaluation of his music notations is Wölfli’s concept of viewing and designing his whole oeuvre as a big musical composition. The basic element underlying his compositions and his whole oeuvre is rhythm. Rhythm pervades not only his music but his poems and prose, and there is also a distinctive rhythmic flow in his handwriting.

I saw a CD for sale at the museum and asked (through silly sign language) if it was Wölfli’s compositions. Yes, it was. When I finally got to play the CD, I discovered that it was not the music playing at the exhibit, but something similar – more rumbling notes, more discordant sounds in a minor key. The CD cover is blank. I have no idea who composed or performed this music, but suppose it was compiled especially for the exhibit. The Internet offers a bit of help with recordings of  Wölfli ’s simple tunes as well as pieces “inspired” by him. The simple tunes are what you would expect from someone who had grown up hearing folk music.

A few musicians have composed music “inspired” by  Wölfli . Danish composer  Per Nørgård, is probably the best known of these. Here is one of his compositions:    It is ominous. It won’t make you think of a spring meadow…

Finally, we’re back in Canada for the next blog. I’m off to the Toronto area to meet up with Leigh Cooney and Alma Rumball’s family.


Adolf Wolfli in Prague

I know this blog is supposed to be about Canadian outsider art, and I will get back to that topic soon. First I have to tell you about my side trip to Prague when I was in Berlin. I was extremely lucky that a very large collection of Adolf Wölfli’s work was on exhibit at the time.

Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930) is one of the granddaddies of all outsider artists. He was born in Bern, orphaned at the age of 10, lived in state-run foster homes, worked on a farm, and ended up in a psychiatric hospital where he spent the rest of his life. He suffered from psychosis and vivid hallucinations. Wölfli had no previous interest in art, but began drawing spontaneously around 1899 while he was institutionalized. His collection grew to about 25,000 pages of writing and 1,600 drawings.

Wölfli’s prolific writing started with his autobiography From the Cradle to the Grave. It begins in the usual way, with information about the date and place of his birth, and then quickly transforms the details of his desolate life into an epic story of his magnificent childhood. The main character is named Doufi (from Adolf) who leaves Switzerland for America with his family. For the next 3,000 pages, illustrated with 750 drawings, maps, and portraits, Doufi travels around the world and survives grand and dangerous adventures.

In the second part of Wölfli’s writings, the Geographic and Algebraic Books, St. Adolf II describes how to carry out the St. Adolf Giant creation after his death. The earth will be purchased, then the universe. Numbers cannot express the gigantic dimensions of his mental world, so Wölfli expands the numerical system after quadrillion to include regonif, suniff, untif, vidoniss, weratif, xylottif, and so on to the highest number called “anger”.

In the third and fourth collections of writings, Books with Songs and Dances and Album Books with Dances and Marches, Wölfli celebrates his world in poetry, song, scales, drawings, and collages. During the last year of his life, Wölfli worked on a final collection called the Funeral March, as if he were composing a requiem in anticipation of his own death. He illustrates the central themes of his world system in keywords and collages of pictures torn from magazines.

A clinic doctor became interested in Wölfli’s artwork and saved thousands of pages of writings and drawings. Dr. Walter Morgenthaler later published a book  Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist), which introduced his patient to the art world. French artist, Jean Dubuffet, saw the work of Wölfli and other artwork from patients in psychiatric institutions and “Art Brut” was founded. (See first post, When you come to a fork in the road.)

The exhibit in Prague was called Wölfli – Creator of the Universe and that was an appropriate description of his life’s work.  The exhibit offered a cross section of Wölfli’s oevre in about 10 rooms of exhibit space.  I watched as viewers inched through the exhibit, savouring the details of every piece. It was definitely not an exhibit to breeze through on your way to the gift shop.

Wölfli’s drawings are extremely intricate; every inch of the page is filled with details that we have come to recognize: his symbolic bird figure, the man with racoon-like eyes, mandelas, tiny dots and later, musical notes and text. At one point Wölfli told the hospital staff that he did not produce the work himself. He thought it should be obvious that he had divine inspiration to produce the artwork as he would never have been able to create it from his own mind. In another comment, Wölfli says that he knows his work is the product of an insane person. I wondered if the line between fantasy and reality was always blurred or whether he had moments of clarity. What is it like to be the creator of a universe?

To sum up Adolf Wölfli’s life work in a few paragraphs does not do justice to the depth and scope of his universe. There is always more to see, more to hear. The next blog will be about Wölfli’s musical compositions.

Encouraging artistic expression

I had an opportunity to attend the opening of a unique art exhibit in Berlin. I was invited by the director of Gallery Art Cru, the only outsider art gallery in Berlin. Germany has an interesting philosophy when it comes to nurturing art and everyone is included. People with mental disabilities are invited to attend special studios to experiment with art supplies. An artist is present, but he or she does not teach art nor give direction to the attendees. The artist’s role is to explain how materials are used and to answer questions that arise. It is not art therapy, as there is no discussion about the meaning of the works created; nor is the studio’s purpose to “heal” individuals. It is just a studio space, but remarkable things happen there.

A private law firm in Berlin hosted the opening of Marco Born’s first exhibit. Marco, a young man in his 30s, had been experimenting in the studio for a few years. When he discovered painting, he focused solely on painting. When he explored clay sculpture, he did nothing but sculpture. And when he worked on metal sculptures, that became his passion until he felt he understood the medium.

Although Marco didn’t speak English, we talked about this work through a friend who translated for us. Marco doesn’t prefer one media to another – he has thoroughly enjoyed every day in the studio. I really loved his clay scultpures, which were hand-molded and rough-textured. Beautiful to look at and touch. If I lived in Berlin, I would have lugged one home with me.

Marco also learned to create sculptures with metal. These are welded metal strips around a rock. I would have lugged one of these home with me, too.

What I found so different in Berlin is the prevailing belief that art heals, even when it is done for no specific purpose and without instruction. This concept is fascinating and intriguing to me. Is it true? If one of my artist-readers has any thoughts on this topic, please drop me a note. I suspect you have a lot to teach me.