This week, the new movie “The Electrical Life of Louis Wayne” starring Benedict Cumberbatch will be screened at the cinema. Its arrival was accompanied by a suggestion that the illustrator suffering from mental illness was a disturbed “crazy artist” and therefore a classic example of “outsider art”.
Wayne (1860–1939) became well known for his capricious cat illustrations, depicting caricatures of pets covered in fur with human clothing and activities. In fact, like Vincent van Gogh (for example), he wasn’t exactly an “outsider artist”, but a trained professional who became mentally ill. Outsider artists can, by definition, come from any background except Wayne. They are the “ordinary geniuses” of everyday life, transcending the background and creating visual works that are unaffected by training and relevance to the mainstream art world. Their visionary work reflects their emotions and is considered by viewers to be the purest visual expression ever discovered.
It is true that our perception of outsider art began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was then called a “psychiatric hospital.” Of course, outsider art (art forced by self-taught creators) must have existed for hundreds of years, even if the examples weren’t evaluated or preserved. However, several enlightened hospital psychiatrists first saw that certain patients created great originality and powerful work. The psychiatrists kept the paintings that were routinely shed, and the first collection was gradually put together.
These items were not considered as “art” as diagnostic aids and specimens showing various conditions. Some early examinations of the patient’s work were done in the 19th century, but the first serious study of psychiatric expression, Bildnerei der Geistesranken, was published by Hans Prinzhorn until 1922. His book, with its massive illustrations and theory of creativity, was the first to tell the patient’s work as an art, and the ten “Schizophrenia Masters” celebrated on his page were the others. It was determined that he created a work that was as effective as the mainstream form.
Not everyone agreed with this assessment. In Germany, Adolf Hitler opposed it. Adolf Hitler saw evidence in the Prinzhorn collection that contemporary art is contaminated by madness and degeneration. The works of the Prinzhorn collection were officially exhibited alongside the works of Franz Marc, Oskar Kokoschka and Paul Klee at a series of Entertetechnst (“Degenerate Art”) exhibitions throughout Germany in the late 1930s. ..