Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Art Brut

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), a wine merchant until the age of 41, coined this term (Raw Art) to describe a collection he was building of works made by untrained artists. These people, he felt, were free of the deadening effects of the academy and social conventions — especially visionaries, prisoners, children, the insane. So the movement was subversive in terms of its rejection of received notions of art. The works were physically attacked at a show in Paris in 1946. In 1948 he and Andre Breton of the Surrealist movement established a non-profit company to study and collect Art Brut. They celebrated, for example, Adolf Wölfli, who spent thirty years working on an enormous autobiography in an asylum. The terms “Outsider Art” or “Visionary Art” are sometimes used in conjunction with Art Brut.

The Cow with the Subtle Nose (1954).
Inspired by the discovery of Lascaux cave paintings in 1940, and by Paris graffiti captured in photographs, thisnaïve, goofy, but friendly work breaks from the European tradition of bulls in art symbolizing fertility or macho heroism, such as Picasso’s minotaurs.

Jazz Band (Dirty Style Blues) (1944)
This graffiti-like frieze involves rubbed and smeared random colors.

A kind of primordial sludge is characteristic of Dubuffet’s early works; later, he is influenced by the style of doodles, and the works become puzzle-like.

Dubuffet counted among his friends the playwright, mystic, and one-time surrealist Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), who also understood madness first-hand. Art and writing became Artaud’s method for defying his insanity. For example, he created self-portraits by charging the paper with crayons, typically breaking them.

Madge Gill (1882?-1961), was an illegitimate child whose ashamed mother hid her away for many years. She became an English housewife and spent nearly all her life in London. At age 37 she began to draw: “I felt that I was very certainly guided by an invisible force, without being able to say what its real nature was.” She decided she was a medium, guided by an unseen spirit she called Myrninerest who was the force behind her obsessive drawings of girls’ faces enclosed by intricate flowing patterns of intertwining shapes, and behind inspirational writings and enormous drawings in indian ink on rolls of material her son rigged up on spools. She tended to work in the half-dark.

Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) was born poor in the Bernese district and at 8 years old was working as a goatherd.He worked later as a woodcutter, farm laborer, and laborer in town. At 25 he showed a disturbing predilection for very little girls. He was arrested several times and was finally sentenced to two years in prison. At 31, he was sentenced to permanent confinement in the Waldau hospital, a situation that made him so violent that he spent most of the next 20 years in solitary. In 1899 he began to draw, write, and compose music obsessively, often from morning to night, for the next 30 years. Thus his output is extensive, including hundreds of drawings, stacks of writings, and musical compositions that no one has succeeded in deciphering.

Works Consulted

The Art Book. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1996.

Artaud, Antonin. “From Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society.” In Art in Theory 1900-1990. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Cambridge: Blackwell Pub. Inc., 1993. 595-599.

Dempsey, Amy. Art in the Modern Era: A Guide to Styles, Schools & Movements. NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc., Pub., 2002.

Dubuffet, Jean. “Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art.” In Art in Theory 1900-1990. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Cambridge: Blackwell Pub. Inc., 1993. 593-595.

– – -. “Notes for the Well-Lettered.” In Art in Theory 1900-1990. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Cambridge: Blackwell Pub. Inc., 1993. 590-593.