On the Outside
“Bardo Being” (2002), by Alex Grey. © Halle Saint Pierre
The Halle Saint Pierre, a museum specializing in underground, outsider and folk art, located at the foot of the Sacré Cœur in Paris, always holds thought-provoking and sometimes disturbing exhibitions. Its current show, “Raw Vision,” celebrates the 25th anniversary of the pioneering outsider art magazine of the same name.
Founded in London in 1989, Raw Vision was the first magazine to focus on underground popular art and bring it to international critical attention. Partly reflecting its influence, so-called “raw” art has won increasing recognition over the past couple of decades, with works entering museum collections and even, this year, making it into the Venice Biennale.
The French term for outsider art is Art Brut, and there often is something brutish about it, but it can also be extraordinarily refined, even delicate, if no less shocking.
The show in Montmartre focuses on a kind of art rooted in heightened imagination. Eighty artists from Europe, the United States, Africa, India and Japan are represented with works of inventive fantasy, ranging from the heroic to the intimate, macabre, crazy and hilarious. Many of the artists have suffered – from illness, abandonment, isolation, institutionalization of various sorts – and it shows.
Walking into the foyer, the first thing you see is a set of three huge rectangular murals by the contemporary American artist William Thomas Thompson. Born in 1935, Thompson was a self-made millionaire businessman who, in mid-life, was simultaneously bankrupted and struck down with a crippling disease, which left him with very little control of his hands. While on a Hawaiian medical retreat in 1989, he had a vision that he interpreted as a call from God to paint. Completely self-taught, he executed a series of 50 religious paintings known as the “Revelation Murals.” He is still painting works characterized by strong, striking colors and a unique style of brushwork that is the product of his disability.
One of the best-known artists in the show is Henry Darger. Born in 1892 in Chicago, he was placed at the age of eight in a Catholic children’s home for the poor and then into an institution for “feeble-minded” children, from which he escaped eight years later, to live much of the rest of his life as a reclusive hospital janitor. After his death in 1973, his extraordinary lifework was discovered, including a 15-volume epic, “The Story of the Vivian Girls.” This fantasy history of an uprising of slave children against a race of evil oppressors is accompanied by hundreds of illustrations mixing collage compositions and tracings with delicate watercolor paintings. Ranging from idyllic to horrific, it includes scenes of child torture, murder and mutilation. The characters are often hermaphroditic.
Another famous outsider artist included in the show is Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), who spent most of his life as a patient in a Swiss mental institution. Wölfli channeled intense obsessions and hallucinations into densely
“Untitled” (1920), by Adolf Wollfli. © Halle Saint Pierre
detailed mandala-like colored-pencil drawings filled with birds, buildings and people surrounded by layers of patterns and decorative borders.
This is art that warrants close attention. Often superficial prettiness, even beauty, is a camouflage for a darker message. It is a reminder of the fine borderline between creativity and madness – a porous frontier zone inhabited by both outsiders and errant visionaries.
As a follow-up to this show, you might want to visit the exhibition “Absolument Excentrique” at Paris’s Hôtel de Ville; the LaM modern art museum in Lille, which houses the largest outsider art collection in France; or just take another look at the work of Vincent Van Gogh, William Blake or Camille Claudel, all outsider artists in their own way.
Halle Saint Pierre: 2, rue Ronsard, 75018 Paris. Métro: Abbesses or Anvers. Tel.: 01 42 58 72 89. Open Monday-Friday, 11am-6pm; Saturday, 11am-7pm; Sunday, noon-6pm. Closed December 25, January 1, January 7-9, May 1, July 14 and August 15. Admission: €8. Through August 22, 2014. www.hallesaintpierre.org
Hôtel de Ville: Salle St-Jean, 5 rue de Lobau. 75004 Paris. Métro: Hôtel de Ville. Tel.: 01 42 76 51 53. Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-7pm. Closed on public holidays. Through November 9. Free admission. www.paris.fr
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