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MARIA GUGGING, Austria — For die-hard aficionados of art brut and outsider art, there is a pilgrimage path that winds through Western Europe and includes, among other attractions, the offerings of such must-see institutions as the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, Germany; the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland; and the Art Brut Center Gugging in this small town just northwest of Vienna.
Now, with gehirngefühl.! kunst aus gugging von 1970 bis zur gegenwart, Museum Gugging, a central part of the larger Art Brut Center Gugging complex, is presenting a wide-ranging survey of works made over almost half a century by autodidacts who have been closely associated with that institution. The exhibition’s mouthful of a title, with its quirky punctuation, translates into English as “brain feeling.! art from gugging from 1970 to the present” and takes its odd key phrase from a drawing by the Gugging artist Johann Garber (born 1947) showing an assortment of colored blobs labeled “DAS KLEINE FADE GEHIRNGEFÜHL” (“the small, dull brain feeling”). Scheduled for a long run, gehirngefühl.! will remain on view through April 11, 2021.
Featuring some 150 works by more than a dozen artists, it allows the museum to showcase their diverse visions and achievements while also recalling its own development over the years and that of the larger art center of which it is a part. In the show’s catalogue, the museum’s director, Johann Feilacher, a psychiatrist who is also a sculptor in his own right (known for large, abstract wood pieces made with chain saws) explains that gehirngefühl.! begins its story in 1970, the year that marked the first entry of works by Gugging-related art-makers “into the art world [with] an exhibition at Vienna’s Galerie nächst St. Stephan, which was a kind of initiation ceremony for the future artists.” At the time, such a presentation of self-taught artists’ works in a contemporary-art setting was still something of a radical gesture.
Feilacher’s informative text recalls the history of the multifaceted Gugging art center, which originated with the work in the late 1940s of psychiatrist Leo Navratil at the former Mental Health and Care Facility at Gugging, a now-defunct psychiatric hospital that was located on the same site. In the course of treating patients there, Navratil became interested in the more creative results of a drawing test he employed for diagnostic purposes. In the 1960s, after becoming familiar with the writings about the art of the mentally ill by such European psychiatrists as Walter Morgenthaler (1882-1965; his patient was the Swiss art brut creator Adolf Wölfli), Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933), and Marcel Réja (1873-1957), Navratil wrote and published his own Schizophrenie und Kunst (Schizophrenia and Art, 1965). However, his notion that a person’s mental illness could be seen as a source of his or her artistic creativity did not win much favor from his peers and was later debunked.
Still, Navratil appreciated the theorizing of the French modern artist Jean Dubuffet, who recognized unique, hard-to-classify creations made on the margins of mainstream culture and society as “art brut” (his own original genre label, which means “raw art”). Gugging’s 1970 gallery show in Vienna had drawn the attention of Austrian avant-gardists like Arnulf Rainer, and following that groundbreaking event, Navratil went on to promote the artworks of some of his most notable patients, such as Johann Hauser (1926-1996) and Oswald Tschirtner (1920-2007).
In 1981, at what is today the Gugging art center site, Navratil established the Center for Art and Psychotherapy, a residence where some of his artist-patients could live and work. In the gehirngefühl.! catalogue, Feilacher writes that the house “represented social progress among the terrible conditions of psychiatry at that time.”
In 1986, Feilacher succeeded Navratil in his post and soon embarked on an ambitious program to transform the identity and outlook of the Gugging facility. Under his directorship, the Center for Art and Psychotherapy became the Haus der Künstler (“Artists’ House”). Its residents were invited to paint its façade and, thereby, to more personally claim the building as their home. Out went the loaded label “patient;” from now on, Gugging’s resident art-makers would be known as “artists,” with emphasis placed on each one’s personhood and distinctive creative expressions.
Feilacher and his colleagues brought works by Gugging’s artists to the public’s attention through museum, gallery, and art-center exhibitions, and at art fairs in Europe and overseas. (“Artists from Gugging” has become a familiar name, with considerable brand value, at the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York.) In the late 1990s, the growing institution that evolved out of the artists’ residence established its own gallery in the renovated former children’s wing of the now-closed Gugging psychiatric hospital, where the associated artists were able to show and sell their works. In 2006, the Museum Gugging opened in a section of the restored structure, which today also houses the renamed (after its director) galerie gugging – nina katschnig; an open-to-the-public, communal art-making studio; and a gift shop.
The exhibition gehirngefühl.! dips into various private collections as well as into the holdings of a private foundation that is related to but separate from the museum; it collects art brut works made by artists who are associated with Gugging as well as by those who are not. The result is an impressive survey of mostly paintings and drawings by such well-known Gugging creators as Hauser, Tschirtner, and Garber, along with Johann Fischer (1919-2008), Rudolf Horacek (1915-1986), Franz Kernbeis (born 1935), Heinrich Reisenbauer (born 1938), Arnold Schmidt (born 1959), Philipp Schöpke (1921-1998), Günther Schützenhöfer (born 1965), Karl Vondal (born 1953), and August Walla (1936-2001). Some of the more recent additions to the Artists from Gugging roster whose works are on view in gehirngefühl.! include Leonhard Fink (born 1982), Helmut Hladisch (born 1961), Jürgen Tauscher (born 1974), and Laila Bachtiar (born 1971).
While no all-encompassing, Gugging-institutional style per se may be evident in all of the works on display, strong draftsmanship characterized by boldly outlined forms, rendered in plain pencil and sometimes reinforced by the use of colored pencils (which reaches a dazzling, ferocious pitch in some of Hauser’s emblematic images), is common among these artists. So is the tendency of several of them to reduce their subject matter — from apples to human figures and helicopters — to their most basic lines and forms with sophistication and flair.
“Two Angels” (acrylic on canvas, 1986) by the iconic Gugging artist Walla is on display, a six-and-a-half-foot-wide explosion of color whose standing, winged figures are covered with decorative patterns — as well as the acronyms of Austrian political parties. Walla, who famously painted murals on the walls of his room in the Artists’ House, was known for packing assorted symbols and inscriptions into his pictures. In 1984, he contributed the image “DEVIL.GOD.!” to the house’s façade; he also created “Paradise,” a ceramic panel that now stands at the entrance to Gugging’s campus.
Also on view are Hauser’s futuristic-expressionistic portraits of women in pencil and colored pencil on paper — rich primary colors outlined in velvety-black graphite — which offer a stylized, fantastical art brut riposte to Willem de Kooning’s monstrous, semi-abstract women of the 1950s. By contrast, Vondal’s work is marked by gentle pastels, layered collage elements (his own cut-up drawings along with pebbles and toothpicks), and dreamy eroticism. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Nina Ansperger, a young art historian working at Museum Gugging, notes that Vondal’s viewing years ago of the 1968 soft-porn film Die Nichten der Frau Oberst (known as “The Colonel’s Wife and Her Nieces” in English) was “the artist’s formative visual experience.”
Tschirtner made his drawings of strange figures (which have become known as “head-footers”) with single, continuous lines, without ever lifting his pen from his paper’s surface. Several of these works are on view, with their subjects’ heads seeming to float above their long, stringy extremities — they are at once arms and legs — with no torsos in sight. Schützenhöfer’s interpretations in pencil and colored pencil of everyday subjects strip their forms down to their basic geometries in unexpected ways, shrinking a wheelbarrow’s handles to wiry protrusions and its wheels to tiny stubs, or transforming an umbrella into a chubby mushroom shape. Similarly, in his drawings Hladisch turns a coat hanger into a little boat. His fruit trees look like upright, old-fashioned clothes irons, decorated with dangling growths.
Leonhard Fink, one of Gugging’s youngest artists, began visiting the facility’s open studio in 2001 and showing his drawings at its museum in 2012. He has resided in the Artists’ House since late last year. The son of a geographer-geologist, Fink grew up exposed to maps, and his work reflects his own interest in the layouts of cities and the contours of the land. Rich in visual textures, his pictures depict, in meticulous, aerial-view detail, named places that he researches and whose features he develops into sprawling compositions.
Commenting on how someone like Fink successfully settles into the Gugging community, Feilacher told me, “The Artists’ House is the source from which the artists derive their ‘life elixir.’” It allows them, he said, “the freedom in which to create whatever they want to.”
Fink may be one of the house’s youngest residents, but Laila Bachtiar, an experienced athlete born in Vienna into a family of musicians, is one of the wider art center program’s newest participants.. She is also one of the few female members of the Gugging artists’ community.(Since the Artists’ House was originally set up for men, its program has tended to focus on male artists, but times are changing, and the broader art center’s outlook is, too. Its gallery’s programming notably reflects this evolution.) Bachtiar also uses graphite pencil or colored pencils to make abstract images in which ducks, elephants, and other animals are drastically abstracted, their distorted forms neatly blended into her patchwork-like compositions. They are made up of deftly shaded rows or sections of pencil strokes whose overall appearance resembles tree bark or densely woven fabric. Feilacher observed, “She works in a very focused, slow, continuous way. This is visible in the concentrated nature of her works.”
For those who cannot make the trek to Gugging anytime soon, the gehirngefühl.! catalogue — another of this museum’s large-format, lavishly illustrated volumes, which are some of the best in the field — offers fine summaries of the exhibition’s content and its featured artists’ careers. Consider it a kind of travelogue for prospective pilgrims who may already be planning their journeys to one of art brut’s most venerable destinations.
brain feeling.! art from gugging from 1970 to the present continues at Museum Gugging (Art Brut Center Gugging, Am Campus 2, Maria Gugging, Austria) through April 11.