Georgiana Houghton and Outsider Art. Jane McChrystal.
Some critics see Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings, on show at the Courtauld Gallery (link to previous review) until 11th September, as “outsider art”. I was already aware that “naïve” or “primitive” painters, such as Henri Rousseau and Alfred Wallis, could be considered outsider artists and had also heard the drawings and paintings of people with experience of psychosis or conditions such as autism dubbed as outsider art. Wanting to know more, I delved a little deeper and began to wonder about the value of categorising Houghton’s work in this way or viewing any artist from the perspective of a particular movement or school.
The first specific reference to outsider art appears in Jean Dubuffet’s 1949 manifesto L’Art Brut (raw art) prefere aux arts culturels. He championed the work of artists with no place inside the art establishment, no art education and no ambitions to earn a living or make a name through creating art. He was especially interested in the output of people living with psychosis, exemplified by his final protégé, Andre Robillard, a long-term resident of psychiatric institutions whose psychiatrist introduced him to Dubuffet. Robillard made pictures and models portraying children, animals, sputniks and guns designed to “kill his misery”. Above all, Dubuffet prized the dynamic quality of such work born, he believed, directly from the artist’s imagination, unmediated by the regulations and values of the guardians of contemporary art culture.
Although Dubuffet was the first to formalise the idea of outsider art, a tradition of collecting the artistic work of people with psychiatric conditions already existed. In his Artistry of the Mentally Ill, published in 1922, the Psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn pioneered the analysis of patients’ work from an aesthetic point of view rather than presenting them as an expression of psychopathology, using the collection of art housed in the Heidelberg Clinic. In it he proposed that the genius of the acknowledged masters of art was closely allied with the kind of madness that could land others in the asylum. Although no effort was made to establish a collection of psychiatric patients’ art for any purpose in Britain at that time, it is clear that artistic talent was encouraged in at least one psychiatric institution in the nineteenth century, as the painting of Richard Dadd attests. He was a traveller and painter of oriental scenes until he became unwell and murdered his father, believing him to be an incarnation of the devil. He was detained in the 1850’s in Bethlem Hospital where, under the benign regime of its director Dr Charles William Hood, he had access to the expensive materials and the facilities he needed to achieve his paintings of fairy realms. These dark, microscopically detailed pictures, such as The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke can still be seen in Tate Britain.
By 1972, when Roger Cardinal wrote Outsider Art, the term had been extended to include: folk art, art produced by prisoners and aboriginal art. Today, the core concept of outsider art remains the same: the process which produces it is more significant than the resulting artefact. As with Dubuffet, the imagination is all. Outsider art is still the province of those with no place in contemporary art culture, no art education, career aspirations or the desire to make money. Their work should spring solely from the imagination and be entirely original.
Trying to define Houghton as “outsider artist” doesn’t seem to yield any firm conclusions. Certainly the critical reaction to her 1871 Bond Street exhibition – “aberrant” – seems to confirm her marginality. However, strange as her belief in spiritualism might seem to many of us, the need to contact dead relatives in the next world drove many Victorians and Edwardians, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes, to regular participation in seances.
Her enthusiasm for the spiritualism, held in common with many others of her age, also calls into question any idea of her as a cultural virgin. In the end who can realistically claim to be completely isolated from the influences around them? Despite his incarceration, Robillard’s fascination with Sputnik is proof that he was very much aware that he was living in the space age.
It is true she had some training in the use of watercolours, but there is no evidence of education within the academy. Her distance from the art establishment might suggest a disinterested approach to her drawing, but she had her own ambitions to promote her work to the public and make a profit.
The question of autonomy in her creation is quite ambiguous. She believed that her hand was being guided by angelic beings, old masters and her departed sister, while we might view them as the product of pure imagination.
Undoubtedly she was inventive, as shown by her use of abstraction and eschewal of perspective in advance of so many other painters. For Houghton the process of making her art was all important, depending, as it did, on channelling messages from the spirits. Although, again, this is difficult to link unequivocally with outsider status, as she believed her work portrayed an actual spirit world rather than the contents of her imagination.
The difficulty of sticking the “outsider artist” label on Georgiana Houghton raises two important questions. Is it worth trying and does it enhance or detract from understanding her work?
I’d like to return to them in a later piece, as well as considering the broader question of why it seems important to locate artists within a particular movement or school and who benefits most from the attempt.
Jane McChrystal © 2016.