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Klaus Mecherlein M.A.

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outsider art

What is outsider art?

The work of Outsider artists is characterised by abundance of inventiveness, incessant imagination: creation from emotional life, and their unconventional artistic language. As mentally or psychologically handicapped people, they live on the margins of society and, detached from public cultural life, create art works of great urgency and persuasiveness. Works that must be understood first and foremost as documents of an unexpectedly rich mental life. Outsiders are academically untrained, quasi semi-professional artists. They form an independent artistic scene in that, unaffected by the movements of contemporary artistic development, they have preserved a special primality of artistry.


The artistic creation of the mentally handicapped already has a long tradition. The continuity and change of this art, and its reception, are illuminated by the term "Outsider Art", which has gained international currency. This word coinage assigns their work to a special position in the context of fine art. It derives partly from the social conditions in which the art is produced, and the specific experiences associated with these conditions. On the other hand, the term also emphasises the artists' status on the margins of culture. Despite the fact that, through their art, they have had a significant influence on artistic expression and development from classical Modernism to the present day, they have remained quite literally "outsiders" in terms of cultural perception.


The discovery of these spontaneous works of art at the beginning of the twentieth century caused euphoria among leading artists of the European avant garde. Their identification with their colleagues working mostly in institutions or in complete seclusion was just as strong as the inspiration that emanated from the non-indoctrinated creativity of the work. In the pictures (and texts) of inmates of psychiatric clinics, which had been published at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, they celebrated the "pure inventive gift", "the miracles of the artistic mind, which shimmer up from the depths beyond all rational thinking" (Alfred Kubin). Artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, and especially the Surrealists Max Ernst and André Breton, identified radically with the creative method and the image worlds of these cultural outsiders, which open up a completely novel view of the world and the depths of the human soul.

With the theoretical foundation of this "extra-cultural art" (art brut), the French artist and art theorist Jean Dubuffet - in particular through his extensive activities as collector - became its patron and guide from the mid-1940s. His lifelong argumentation for the artistic relevance of outsiders has determined how they have been perceived until the present day. Under the name art brut, and later Outsider Art (Roger Cardinal, UK), it has exerted an inestimable influence on the development of art since classical Modern Art. A tradition of outstanding artistic creation that is now over a century old, confirmed by museum and private collections, including many in the German-speaking world.

momentary situation

The development of this artistic scene must now be viewed against a vastly different sociological and medical background. While Outsider Art for a long time remained an insiders' tip among artists, collectors and aficionados, its creation is increasingly promoted by institutions for the handicapped and psychiatric clinics. Supervised studio cooperatives, art workshops or services that border on art therapy promote their clients' art and form centres of creative transmission throughout Europe, linked to the Outsider tradition. Outstanding examples of the contemporary work of mentally handicapped artists, and their promotion, are offered by the studios from nine European countries whose artists are presented at the euward in the Haus der Kunst.

Outsider Art is currently attracting almost as much public attention as ever before. At the same time, the work of Outsider Artists, their creative existence, still usually evades the ideals of the established culture. The artistic status of their work means no less than an upsetting of the traditional cultural self-concept.

Texts: Klaus Mecherlein, Curator of euward