MARIA GUGGING, Austria — Do those who devote their lives to concocting new modes of creative expression find art, or does art-making, with all of its challenges and rewards, somehow find them?
Aficionados of powerful art might be less concerned with that question than, say, art historians who are interested in a particular artist’s motivations. Still, all psychoanalyzing aside, from time to time certain artists’ personal stories and the unique nature of their creations may suggest that, for such individuals, art was a life-saver, and the works that emerge from their imaginations feel shot through with a sense of urgency.
Such is the vibe emanating from the psychologically charged drawings of the self-taught Austrian artist Philipp Schöpke (1921–1998), which are now being showcased in philipp schöpke.!, a career-spanning retrospective at Museum Gugging, the anchor institution of the Art Brut Center Gugging arts complex in Maria Gugging, located in the Vienna Woods, about twelve miles northwest of Vienna.
On view through March 10, the exhibition probes the development of one of the more intriguing — but still less well-known — bodies of work in the world of art brut. As much as the term “the artists of Gugging,” alluding to the arts complex’s residence program, which has become synonymous locally with definitive forms of self-taught and marginalized art, even among his Gugging peers, Schöpke has long held a lower profile. This revealing exhibition may raise it considerably.
Organized by Museum Gugging’s director, Johann Feilacher, and Maria Höger, a young, German-born art historian, who, in recent years, has served on the museum’s research and curatorial team, philipp schöpke.! traces the evolution of its subject’s distinctive draftsmanship and presents an analysis of his art’s themes and technical character.
During a recent walk-through of the exhibition, Höger observed, “One of the reasons why Schöpke might have been overshadowed by such Gugging artists as August Walla, with his big, colorful paintings, or Johann Hauser, with his bold images of women, is that, frankly, Schöpke’s works often have been regarded as ‘difficult’ — and to some viewers, even a bit scary. But if you look closely, you’ll see how inventive and sophisticated they are.”
In an introductory text in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog — another volume in the museum’s ongoing series of well-produced monographs about prominent, Gugging-related artists — Feilacher recalls, “There were two kinds of states in Schöpke’s life: an active one and a withdrawn one. He created his drawings during the active state, which could occasionally also be described as hyperactive.”
Feilacher, who arrived at Gugging in the 1980s and knew the artist well, notes that, after long periods of apparent inactivity or after an outing with his peers from the arts complex’s communal residence, during which he could appear completely detached, Schöpke would suddenly spring into action and enthusiastically recount every detail of a group trip or launch into an energetic art-making session.
The first of his parents’ three children, Schöpke was born in 1921 in a small town in Lower Austria, a large state in the northeastern part of the country. Regarded as awkward and inept, as a young boy he was teased by other children and chided by his father. In 1939, after the Nazis’ annexation of Austria into Germany and following the start of World War II, Schöpke, who, as a teenager, had worked as a farmhand, became a mold-making apprentice at a foundry. In early 1941, he was drafted into the German military, only to soon be sent back home to recover from a mysterious head injury. Had he been bullied while serving as a soldier?
In time, Schöpke was sent for various stays to the Mental Health and Care Facility at Gugging, the former, now-defunct psychiatric hospital out of which today’s Gugging arts complex evolved. (The current arts center has nothing to do with such a hospital anymore.) Remarkably, he did another short stint in the military, only to be dismissed again. In and out of psychiatric hospitals, and rejected by his father, a locomotive-factory worker and Nazi sympathizer, Schöpke returned to the psychiatric hospital at Gugging for good in 1956. He was 35 years old, and it became his home until the end of his life.
There, the psychiatrist Neo Navratil, who examined drawings made by his patients for diagnostic purposes, noted, “To be honest, it must be said that Philipp Schöpke cannot draw at all.” In a 1979 magazine article, Navratil wrote, “In the case of Philipp Schöpke, we find the extreme opposite of what is called drawing talent.”
Eventually, Feilacher, who became Navratil’s assistant in 1983, turned around that kind of blind dismissal of Schöpke’s artistry by championing it and that of other patients of the psychiatric facility. Succeeding Navratil as director in 1986, he transformed what had now become known as the “Center for Art and Psychotherapy” into an artists’ community, establishing its Artists’ House and eradicating the use of the word “patient” to describe its residents.
In the current exhibition, Schöpke’s pencil drawings from the 1960s and 1970s show the artist offering simultaneous external and internal views of his subjects — male figures, young girls, and small animals, such as chickens or dogs. Often his human figures appear with outstretched arms; Schöpke outlines their bodies with simple strokes and describes his subjects with carefully observed and neatly rendered kneecaps, eyebrows, or toes.
But he also depicts their internal organs with X-ray vision: serpentine intestines turn up in a picture of a man, and a rib cage appears in that of a woman who, the artist notes in a caption, is 27 years old. (She also has a red-colored heart; Schöpke places that organ far to the right of the breastbone, not to its left, where it actually is located inside the human body.)
By the 1980s, Schöpke had developed his signature style of depicting human subjects — with mounds of fluffy, wiry hair and broad mouths filled with spiky teeth. These long ribbons of teeth are both comical and monstrous, resembling the ominous-looking bullet belts of soldiers and terrorists. His simultaneously naked and see-through subjects’ corporeal details include genitalia and, in one drawing of a pregnant woman, the baby she is carrying in her womb, which appears as a kind of cage.
Schöpke sometimes drew large animals, including seals and whales, whose bulbous forms he surrounded with concentric lines or shaded areas as if to accentuate them. Color creeps into his drawings of the 1980s, when he added colored pencils to his use of plain pencils to shade a whale’s big body or lend a more vivid sense of volume to a standing figure’s luxuriant outpouring of hair, hair, hair.
Höger notes in the exhibition’s catalog that, in his later works, Schöpke “drew figures and then colored in large areas in colored pencil or crayon on top of them,” sometimes producing “large-format works suggestive of very different moods and displaying painterly qualities,” with expanses of luminous hues that spread out and overlap. Höger points out that these works may be compared to the abstract images of the Gugging artist Anton Dobay (1906–1986).
In Schöpke’s most gestural, energetic, abstract compositions, some viewers may also find affinities with the distinctive lines of such well-known modernists as Cy Twombly or Joan Mitchell, next to whose pastel-on-paper abstractions Schöpke’s own, made with plain pencil and crayons, would certainly provoke a fascinating dialogue. In an untitled, large-format drawing in pencil and colored pencil from 1991, for example, Schöpke offers a riot of vigorous, vertical-diagonal strokes in black and red, along with patches of yellow and green, a wildfire of color swelling and sweeping across his broad pictorial space.
Works like this one, or Schöpke’s monumental “Frau Mitzi” (watercolor pencil and pencil, 1988), commanding the room from a deep-scarlet wall of its own, prove that, for all the value of Navratil’s diagnostic drawing test, when it came to appreciating Schöpke’s creations, the good doctor got it wrong. In her illuminating catalog essay, Höger notes that, given his hardscrabble background, Schöpke became someone who was “destined to slip down through every crack in a reality defined by a Nazi mentality” as well as “a person whose existence was surely shaped by danger and contempt.”
Apparently, through his art, Schöpke found — who knows what? Solace? Relief? Redemption? Perhaps a sense of self-worth and identity the “normal” world had denied him?
Long overdue for the kind of in-depth reassessment the current Museum Gugging survey generously provides, this artist’s unusual body of work and the vision it expresses offer only hints to understanding their secrets. But that’s okay. For there is something very satisfying in the suggestion that art found Schöpke just as the self-taught Austrian draftsman found art’s inestimable power — and in the show’s revelation of a substantive artistic legacy that deserves to be more widely discovered.
philipp schöpke.!, curated by Johann Feilacher, continues at Museum Gugging, Art Brut Center Gugging (Am Campus 2, Maria Gugging, Klosterneuberg, Austria) through March 10.