Has there ever been a time when artists from writing cultures have not been intrigued by the expressive character of what linguists sometimes refer to as “visible language”? Of course, in some traditions, such as that of ancient China (as well as that of Japan, whose language uses Chinese characters that are often pictographic), calligraphy — an art of brush and ink — gives form to both the literary and the artistic. In such cultures, to a remarkable degree, the acts of composing words and of drawing or painting images can become indelibly fused.
Such points of reference — along with Egyptian hieroglyphs; illuminated medieval manuscripts; decorative Islamic calligraphy; hand-written diaries and letters; hand-painted signs; advertising posters; and comic books — may come to mind while visiting Vestiges & Verse: Notes from the Newfangled Epic, an exhibition that opens tomorrow at the American Folk Art Museum (and will remain on view through May 27).
Organized by Valérie Rousseau, AFAM’s curator of self-taught art and art brut, this survey calls attention to the integration of text and image in works made by a diverse group of artistic autodidacts. In them, these two elements are inseparable and, expressively speaking, equally potent.
Many of the illustrated texts — or are they annotated pictures? ⎯ on view feel so intimate in character that to see them gathered here, exposed, is to enter into a zone of heightened aesthetic awareness — of their makers’ deeply personal motivations and of the creative process itself.
“Looking at the writing practices of some of the classic art brut artists — this was one of my starting points in assembling this exhibition,” Rousseau said during an interview at the museum. She added, “Sometimes, since they invented their own writing systems or used familiar languages in unusual ways, it is impossible to translate their texts. Still, the art-and-image works they created are fascinating — as objects, as forms of communication, and, indeed, even as literature.”
Rousseau explained that, in the exhibition’s title, she uses the word “vestiges” to mean “fragments.” She said, “By bringing these works together so that we may examine their different structures and the artists’ different ways of combining images and texts, we provide an opportunity to see what such works may have in common. One could say that, structurally and perhaps in other ways, too, they all share a certain kind of logic.”
Vestiges & Verse opens the same weekend that the 2018 Outsider Art Fair is taking place in New York. Against that backdrop, AFAM’s exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view, up close, some of the art brut and outsider art genres’ holiest grails, including works by the Swiss artists Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) and Aloïse Corbaz (1886–1964), the American Henry Darger (1892-1973), and Charles A. A. Dellschau (1830-1923), a German-born immigrant to the United States who settled in Texas. Also featured are drawings, paintings, collages, and various kinds of books produced by less well-known outsiders; even for informed admirers of this kind of art, they will come as revelations.
Rousseau pointed out that the fragility of many of the text-filled works on view poses challenges for curators and exhibition designers, whose goal is to display such items in ways that allow visitors to personally engage with them. After all, while such objects cannot be physically manipulated, they demand a more up-close, intimate kind of viewing experience. AFAM’s exhibition-design team has found a solution in the creative use of video screens and iPads equipped with custom-designed software that allows museum-goers to turn the photographically reproduced pages of numerous book works, even as they find themselves standing right next to their handmade originals. This interactive feature manages not to overwhelm objects hanging on walls or presented in specially constructed vitrines.
Over a period of many years, Wölfli produced a 45-volume, 25,000-page magnum opus whose various sections have different titles. Here, several of its richly illustrated pages are on view; they come from From the Cradle to the Grave, a section of the large work in which the artist, serving as both the narrator and protagonist of his tale (through his alter ego, “Doufi”), recalls his childhood. Wölfli, who regarded himself as a composer as well as a storyteller and artist, often included musical notation of his own invention within his drawn compositions.
Although his drawings often serve to illustrate passages of his grand, unfurling narrative (in which his other alter ego, “Saint Adolf,” later exuberantly creates the universe), the texts that appear within his pictures are not merely descriptive captions: sometimes they also help propel the storytelling and incorporate an element that is present throughout much of Wölfli’s grand oeuvre — a distinct musicality that becomes very evident when his texts, which he wrote in his native Swiss-German dialect, are read aloud. Buried in one drawing on view, for example, is a rhythmic sequence of nonsense syllables: “Pimm = Bemm = Bamm = Bomm = / Bumm: Pimm = Bemm = / Bamm, = Bomm = / Bumm: Pimm = Bemm = Bamm, = / Bamm = / Bumm.”
Vestiges & Verse also offers several large, double-sided, mixed-media drawings from Darger’s epic tale, The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which the Chicago recluse began writing sometime between 1910 and 1912, and finished in the late 1930s.
A good-versus-evil story influenced by Victorian children’s literature and accounts of the US Civil War and World War I, as well as by Roman Catholic liturgy (Darger was devoutly religious), In the Realms of the Unreal, as the big work is commonly known, pits the intrepid Vivian Girls — seven honorable little sisters — against monsters and legions of menacing soldiers.
The exhibition presents the spine of one of Darger’s scrapbooks, which originally contained numerous drawings, along with the first volume of In the Realms…. With its tattered, cardboard cover, it is a veritable Shroud of Turin in the art brut/outsider art field. (It is now in AFAM’s permanent collection. The museum also houses an extensive archive of Darger’s source materials.)
On view, too, and rarely shown publicly, is Corbaz’s Cloisonné de théâtre (“Theatrical Partition,” early 1950s), a 46-foot-long scroll upon which the artist— using colored pencils, the sap of crushed geraniums, and watercolor — visually recounts a romantic tale, partly inspired by her own youthful, amorous adventures. These included an actual affair with a theology student and an imaginary fling with Germany’s Emperor Wilhelm II, in whose court she had once served as a governess.
Dellschau was known for his collage-filled drawings of flying machines. On view in Vestiges & Verse are several of these works from the early 20th century, removed from an original bound volume and displayed in sequence so that visitors may get a sense of their intended narrative context. Some of Dellschau’s illustrated notebooks are here, too.
Among the more unfamiliar works in the exhibition are the ink-on-paper drawings of the Spanish artist Josep Baqué (1895-1967), who worked as a policeman in his native Barcelona and devoted his free time to art-making. After he died, his niece inherited his life’s work, an illustrated manuscript of more than 450 pages filled with images of some 1500 imaginary creatures, which Baqué had classified according to his own taxonomy.
Psychologically and emotionally intense are the works of the Belgian Ariane Bergrichter (1937-1996), a former fashion model who began making art when she was in her early 50s. Her notebooks contain anguished transcriptions, in upper-case letters, of the hallucinatory voices she heard, which harassed and threatened her (“OH, SHE IS SO STUPID […] ONE OF THESE EVENINGS, I WILL ATTACK”). In lowercase script, she wrote her reactions to such statements. Along with her texts, Bergrichter produced collages, whose dense compositions are packed with ballpoint-pen or felt-tip-pen scenes of daily life. After she died, her children found her artworks neatly folded up and packed away in a suitcase.
Several of Malcolm McKesson’s wiry-scribbly, ink-on-paper images are on view, too; the scion of a family-run chemical company, for which he worked after studying at Harvard University, McKesson (1909-1999) began making his erotically charged pictures in the early 1960s. He also wrote a novella, Matriarchy: Freedom in Bondage, and while the images he created are neither pornographic nor especially erotic, they do relate to the sadomasochistic themes found in his writings. For the studious, samples of those texts are on display. McKesson once described Matriarchy, whose protagonist is a Harvard undergraduate, as a “semi-fantasy of a lost opportunity for true expression of servitude at early maturity.” Clearly placing himself within the book’s narrative, he added, “I fall under the spell of a beautiful woman who subjects me to her will with love and domesticates me in a feminine environment.”
Visionaries aplenty are represented in Vestiges & Verse: The enchanting and quietly surreal drawings in mineral pigments and watercolor on paper of Melvin Edward Nelson (1908-1992), who lived on a hilltop farm in Oregon, reflect his fascination with electromagnetic fields. He believed that the marks he made on paper were “caused by the tremendous force of the speed of the planetary atom burning its imprint into the surface of the Earth.”
Filling a wall of the exhibition’s largest gallery and looming over other works, the diagrammatic paintings of the late Paul Laffoley (1935-2015) explore alchemy, utopia, and a sense of universal oneness in and through time. A one-time apprentice of the innovative modernist designer Frederick Kiesler, the young Laffoley later befriended Andy Warhol, who allowed him to stay at his home in exchange for watching late-night television test patterns.
Vestiges & Verse offers much more to discover and savor, such as the curious little notebook of the Frenchman Jean Fick (1876 – ?), about whom little is known, except that he called himself “Ambassador My God.” Filled with indecipherable symbols, his tiny volume, which fits in one hand, is that most satisfying kind of artifact: an aesthetic jewel whose mystery is its power and allure.
Rousseau is not deterred by what is most challenging or impenetrable about the works she and her collaborators have brought together. In her notes in the exhibition’s accompanying booklet, she observes, “In a digital age marked by decoding and encryption, when the very modes of communication engage different cognitive perceptions and sensibilities, we can imagine that these distinctive bodies of work — once dismissed for their illegibility, unconventional materials, and grandiosity — might be considered as newfangled models for the present day.”
Vestiges & Verse is the kind of richly rewarding exhibition that makes a visitor want to rush back home and write and draw, and write and draw, and write and draw some more.
Vestiges & Verse: Notes from the Newfangled Epic continues at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Place, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through May 27.