Monthly Archives: May 2012

Josef Hofer


The one outsider art gallery that I found in Berlin is called Galerie Art Cru.  I stumbled into the gallery after a seemingly hopeless search (I am always lost) through the Oranienburger district of Berlin. I walked in and announced to two people, “I finally found you!”. Those two people turned out to be the gallery director, Alexandra von Gersdorff-Bultmann, and her son Kolya – more members of my tribe. As you other lovers of outsider art already know, any mention of your passion will normally be met with a bored look, bordering on derision. But, I promise, when you find other members of your tribe, you will intuitively know that you “belong” somewhere.


The works of Josef Hofer (Pepi) are currently on exhibit and Alexandra took time to introduce me to his work. Hofer, now in his sixties, was born deaf and mute. He lives in a care home in Austria. He attended a basket making workshop for many years before joining an art group in 1997. Since then he has poured all his energy into drawing and painting. He draws all day, every day, to the extent that it is difficult to get him to take a break.

Pepi grew up on a farm. His first pictures were of farm tools and machinery, like tractors and pitchforks, drawn separately across the paper before him. Gradually, his work became more complex, with the drawings of a person filling the entire page. He would work as if he were dressing the person – first the body, then layers of clothing. One day Pepi was given a full-length mirror. What seems such an ordinary event to us was, in fact, a revelation to him. Having only seen his reflection in a small mirror until then, he was suddenly confronted with his entire self.

The exhibit is titled “Josef Hofer un der Spiegel” (Josef Hofer in the Mirror) and that is a perfect description of the collection. Josef draws figures framed by coloured lines (perhaps an expression of the basketry that he made). Josef’s exploration of his own nude body is an expression of discovering his own sexuality. He draws himself standing naked before a mirror, posed in various positions. His genitals sometimes feature in the drawing, as much of a remarkable discovery as everything else in his new world.

You either delight in Hofer’s work as an expression of self-discovery, or dislike them for their crudity. But no one expects (or hopes) to find Romantic Monet-like impressions in outsider art, do they?

Hofer has made a spectacular entrance into the world of outsider art. His work is now part of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. Galleries in New York and Paris also show his work.



The Prinzhorn collection


As any serious tourist will do, I checked the Internet for flea markets and outsider art in Berlin. I discovered a long list of flea markets, but only one outsider art gallery. I thought there would be more galleries since the world of art brut sprung into existence in Germany with the Prinzhorn collection  in Heidelberg.

We owe a lot to Hans Prinzhorn who, after studying art history and philosophy around 1900, received training in medicine and psychiatry during the First World War. In 1919, he began working at the psychiatric hospital at the Universityof Heidelberg. He was responsible for expanding a collection of art created by the patients. The work was started by Emil Kraepelin and by the time Prinzhorn left in 1921, the collection had grown to about 5,000 pieces of art produced by 450 patients.

Shortly after, Prinzhorn published his first book, called Artistry of the Mentally Ill. He included work done by patients at the Heidelberg hospital. His colleagues were not greatly impressed, but the art world was. Artist Jean Dubuffet was excited by the book, and coined the term “art brut” to describe the “raw” art work created by artists who had not been influenced by the outside world. To Dubuffet, these were expressions of “pure” creativity.

Prinzhorn almost faded into obscurity when he opened a private practice in psychiatry, but the art world changed forever. Shortly after Prinzhorn died in 1933, the collection was stored at the University of Heidelberg. Enter the Nazi regime. An art exhibit in 1937, titled Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibited a few works from the Prinzhorn collection along with some other works of modern art. This “modern” art was banned on the basis that it was “un-German”. Degenerate artists were dismissed from teaching positions, forbidden to exhibit their work, and sometimes forbidden to produce art at all. “Real” German art was traditional in style and promoted racial purity, militarism, and obedience. In short, the entire genre of modern art was labeled as contrary to the ideals of German society.

Fortunately, the Prinzhorn collection was stored away at the University rather than burned. Many years later, in 2001, the collection was put on display at the University of Heidelberg. I have wanted to see the collection since studying art history a lifetime ago but, sadly, the museum was closed for the month of May, and I was not able to see it. That pleasure awaits a future trip.


Morton Bartlett goes to Berlin

I timed my trip to Berlin to see the Morton Bartlett exhibit at the Bahnhof museum. (See earlier blog about Morton Bartlett.)  Marion Harris organized this major collection to be shown in Berlin. Although I had seen some Bartlett photos at the Outsider Art Fair in NYC a few years ago, I had never see the dolls nor the original photos. The collection is now in various museums around the world, so it was a rare opportunity that I couldn’t miss.

The exhibit alone was worth the trip to Berlin. The exhibit includes many of the original photos that Bartlett took. They are small (about 5 x 7 inches) and framed. It also includes some dolls. I didn’t know what to expect. I have seen many photos of the dolls, and know the story of  Bartlett’s creation, but still it was a surprise.


The dolls stand about 3 ft tall. They are an assembly of various body parts – Bartlett made heads, arms, torsos and legs separately, then put them together in various poses for his photographs. For example, the head of a girl might be attached to the body of a doll posed as a dancer, ready to be photographed.  The whole purpose of Bartlett’s creation was to photograph the children, doing “normal” things like dancing, talking to a dog, sleeping, and reading.

I now understand how this turned into a life-long project for Bartlett. There are hundreds of body parts. In addition to creating the dolls, Bartlett also made their clothing. As no patterns were found in the collection, it is thought that he also designed the clothes. He taught himself to knit in order to make sweaters. He sewed delicate skirts, dresses, and pinafores. His neighbours (Kahlil Gibran and his wife), recall hearing Bartlett’s sewing machine every evening, but they were not aware of his secret family.

I discovered that dolls make people feel uncomfortable, and this certainly is the case with Bartlett’s work. I don’t quite understand that, but I know it is true. I wondered if there was a gender difference in play. Having spent my childhood playing with dolls and believing they were my children, it was not a stretch for me to accept Bartlett’s obsession.

In addition to this general discomfort, others find the dolls to be the subject of misplaced eroticism. I don’t see that either. The collection touched me as I sensed his longing for a family of his own. It triggers memories of my own longings and losses. I left with a sense of wonder.

Berlin = street art

I am staying in former East Berlin and street art is everywhere. It’s not something that I know much about, as the trend hasn’t reached the far lands of Vancouver. I’m not sure that my Vancouver neighbours would agree that it can be as  striking as our ocean and mountain scenery.

It used to be called graffiti, but that term is now only used to describe art that vandalizes property. (It’s probably still called graffiti by those who hate it.) Street art varies quite a bit – from a small drawing to a picture that covers the side of an entire building. I stumbled upon an area in Friedrichshain that is a mecca for street artists. The area used to be a railway yard, and covers about 3 or 4 square blocks. There are maybe 20 ramshackle buildings there, and all are bars and clubs that come alive late at night when I’m already tucked in bed. Every inch of every building is covered in art. It’s a colourful and delicious blur to the eye, especially in such an otherwise drab setting.

I happened upon a young man, “Falkland”, who was painting the side of a building the size of a warehouse. I stopped to chat while he was taking a break from work. He was creating a black and white painting of a cowboy who had been shot, and falling backwards. It was an impressive image – detailed and in perfect perspective. Hard to do, I would think, with a 40 ft tall canvas. He was painting with a large brush at the time, but had a bucket full of supplies like spray paint, paint cans, and various brushes.

I had just read an article, Wild West Germany, in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Had I not read that article, I would have been puzzled at Falkland’s choice of subject. Apparently Germans have had a long-standing love affair with cowboys of the Wild West. In fact, some would say they are somewhat obsessed with it. It started with the novels of Karl May from the late 19th century. Over 300 million of his novels have been sold and they are better known to the Germans than the works of Thomas Mann. Every year in northern Germany there is a Karl May festival visited by over 300,000 people. I asked Falkland if he had read Karl May’s novels as a child, and he admitted (somewhat sheepishly) that he had.

Falkland hopes to become famous some day. He is studying communications at school, but likes to take a break from tedious computer work. He had been commissioned to paint the building, and was honoured to have been offered the work. It was an acknowledgement that he stood out among the hundreds of other street artists in Berlin. No fee had been mentioned in the negotiations, but he hoped that he would be paid for his time. I got the impression that the exposure and recognition was far more important to him than the money. His ultimate fantasy is to be invited around the world just to paint buildings. It would be enough if his expenses were paid, as that would allow him to travel the world and do what he loves to do. He had recently been to Cuba and did some street painting there. He was not asked to do it, but says the residents loved his work and encouraged him to paint whatever he wanted in their neighbourhood.

Given the prevalence and tendencies of Berlin street artists, I asked Falkland if he was concerned that his work might be defaced. He knows that it will be defaced with graffiti as soon as he’s finished. However, he thinks it will be restricted to the landscape, which is closer to the ground. When I asked why anyone would do that to another artist’s work, he said it’s because they are sending him a message: he has sold out by doing a commissioned work. I asked how he would feel when that happened, and he had quite a philosophical view of it all. He knows that nothing lasts forever. His work is just there until it disintegrates with the weather or until someone else obliterates it. I suggested that it was kind of like a Buddhist sand painting. He gave me a miniscule smile in response – the first in our long conversation.




The Berlin wall


A panel on the Berlin Wall of Soviet leader Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart, Honecker.

My first plan for Berlin was to see the remaining wall. There is about one mile of it left standing, and it is called The East Gallery because artists from around the world came to paint it in 2009. I understand the project was undertaken to remedy the deteriorated condition of the artwork/graffiti on the wall. It is an impressive sight. The wall is about 20 ft high, and each artist has used about a 10 ft length, sometimes more. The art is colourful and bold. Most images and text are a plea for peace.

There were a handful of tourists there, snapping photos, and it is a very low key environment. I expected there to be the usual collection of vendors harrassing the tourists, but there were none! On the other side of the wall is a river that divided east and west. The shores of the river were called “no man’s land” and it was heavily guarded by soldiers whose instructions were to shoot to kill. I understand that many thousands lost their lives trying to scale the wall. It was a sad walk along the west side as I imagined the difficult lives of those on the east side. A narrow swath of land made all the difference in the world to those trapped on the other side.

Getting to and from the wall was an adventure in itself. Those who know me know that I am useless at directions and maps, so using the subway was a challenge. On my way there, I got off at the wrong station and found myself in a major shopping plaza. Oh well, I guess I’ll go shopping for awhile.  🙂  The trip home from the wall was worse. I got on an express train by mistake and found myself travelling with a squash of commuters at the end of the day. There were no stops along the way. We passed forests, houses, churches, pastoral sights, greenhouses, and more forests for a very long time. I think we were close to Amsterdam by the time the train stopped. I made my way home, alone on the train back to Berlin. Good thing I wasn’t in a hurry.



The spirit drawings of Alma Rumball


Even though I describe outsider art as a non-genre, I do see similarities from time to time. I discovered, for example, that both Madge Gill and Guo Fengyi took direction from the spirit world in their automatic drawings (see previous blogs). I was recently introduced to the work of Alma Rumball (1902 – 1980), a Canadian artist who produced work of the same description.

Alma Rumball was from a family of Muskoka pioneers who settled there in the 1870s. She spent a lot of time drawing as a child, and eventually left the farm to work as a painter in a ceramics factory in Toronto. By all accounts she enjoyed a typical social life there. She returned to Huntsville, Ontario in the 1950s and her life took a dramatic and unexpected change.  She lived the life of a recluse and did not venture out except for family functions. About that time, Jesus appeared, with a panther, and commanded her to draw and write in order to help humanity. She understood there were other levels of spiritual existence and began to communicate with a “genius”, who was a turbaned spiritual guide named Aba. (Interestingly, the panther totem represents spiritual knowing and is said to present itself to those who are intuitive, psychic, and artistically inclined.)

Alma referred to her spiritual guide as the “Hand”. She watched as it chose art materials and drew detailed drawings and images on its own. Alma said: “I’m as excited to see what the Hand will do as you are. I can’t accept credit for them (the drawings); you see, I don’t do them.” She watched as the Hand drew images of unfamiliar forms and faces, as well as Joan of Arc, Tibetan gods, and images of Atlantis. Her drawings are intricate and beautiful.

Automatic drawing was a technique used by the surrealists as a way to connect with their unconscious. It was an intentional act, performed to reveal something of the artist’s psyche. The artist’s hand was allowed to move “randomly” across the paper, thus removing any rational control of the product.  Andre Masson started the method and it was taken up by Joan Miro, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, and Jean Arp.

Surrealist automatic drawing is different than the mediumistic drawing experience of artists like Rumall. In her experience, something (like a spirit), took over her conscious self and produced the drawings. The spirit, not the artist, is the source of the message. The drawings are intended to activate something in the viewer that raises consciousness. In surrealistic automatic drawing, the artist learns something about his or her own psyche. In mediumistic drawing, the spirit intends to communicate something to the viewer and cause a shift in consciousness.

Alma’s work is now in the careful hands of her nephew and his wife – Colin and Wendy Rumball. The collection has been exhibited in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Glastonbury, Beijing, France and Australia. A documentary film, The Alma Drawings, created by filmmaker Jeremy Munce examines the mystery of Alma’s life and art. The film won the award for best direction – Short to Mid-Length, 2005 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. I look forward to seeing the film and the collection of drawings later this year, and will report back on that event.

The entire collection of Alma Rumball’s drawings can be seen on this Facebook page.

Missive from Billsville (Bill Anhang)

Bill Anhang followed up our telephone conversation with this information – and a poem – about fractals. Seems that he stays in contact with other engineering brainiacs, like Benoit Mandelbrot, whom he chatted with in his fractal art days about five years ago. He has also spoken with Nick Holoniuk who is the inventor of the Light Emitting Diode, and Kapany, the inventor of optical fibers. The people who came up with Wireless Power are at MIT and due for his visit shortly.

I have never read a poem about fractals (or Mandelbrot) and I suspect few of you have either. Here it is:

 Ode to Fractals and their Papa Benoit

Olde Benoit Mandelbrodt was a  sailor
He set out on the high sees
For to encounter a monstor
he took along a Equastionee

He hid in a wave that was tossing
Its broiling top head in infinity
and hit it on the head solid
and full heavy mightily.

The wave lurched and it thundered
It toppled and squirted and
again and again
toppled and gave birth to a
Iiterative Gumblated Fractile Csea

Ole Benoit he grabbed it,
he spun it from pole to pole
and over the horizen and down
the equatorial and boreal
into one helluva crunching debris.

When it was all over,
and it lay calm at his shivering feet
Lo and behold he had it,
The Mandelbrot Jamboree…

Everyone stood in amazement,
transfixed as foxes at sea,
What is it?  they cried and shuddered
as the Mammoth settled to snooze,

Shouting, “Gimme oh gimme,
a thouzand bottles of booze….”
And forthcame from olde Bonoit’s
wooden stumps whereon he stood
Spiggots speewing maggots,
all soaking in the finest old  booze.

My Goodness, cried the rollicking  monster,
turning suddenly to fractals sonore
I’ll give ya all the fractals yee craves,
yee olde Mandelbrot spiggot of Lore.
Thus yielding to our Benoit endless supply of fractile gore.

Oh fractile so tactile and fragile and agile
Come lay your head at my feet
A  creptilian reptile whose flashes ductile
repose in Suctilian Ceasarian Solemnity.