Art brut and its origins are laid bare at Museum Gugging.

Amongst the many startling visions on display at the Museum Gugging is an unassuming pencil sketch of a man dressed in a mundane suit, shirt and hat, drawn by Jaime Saguer, an institutionalized former farmhand and alcoholic born in 1896. Unassuming, that is, until your eyes chance upon the drawing’s immensely evocative title: President of Unrealities. The shift in tone is so abrupt and powerfully strange that you find yourself reevaluating the image and the artist who made it.

The Museum Gugging holds a unique position within the landscape of Austria’s art institutions. Located on the outskirts of Vienna, this former psychiatric clinic is one of the few museums worldwide expressly dedicated to the exhibition and cultivation of art brut (raw art), a term coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet in the late 1940s to describe work produced outside the confines of the creative establishment. Dubuffet sought to avoid the inevitable ossification that tends to accompany “cooked” art from academies and galleries, instead focusing on the rough demiurgic power of untrained outsiders, most notably the mentally ill.

Also a home to artists who live and work on-site, the museum’s ever growing permanent collection is supplemented with exhibitions relating to the art brut movement.

Currently, they’re hosting a reprise of the formative exhibit (curated by Dubuffet himself in 1947) that introduced art brut to the world at large; it offers both a compelling overview and a fascinating glimpse into how the movement came to be. Forming the core of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, the works displayed show how Dubuffet adapted and refined his definition of art brut, initially also including folk art from non-European cultures, children’s drawings and work by people with no formal artistic training.

Worlds unto themselves

Trained as a mosaicist and running a secondhand shop for much of his life, Pascal–Désir Maisonneuve (1863–1934) was a particularly late bloomer when it came to making art: At the age of 64, he began portraying prominent figures of the time using shells held together by plaster. The Tartar (1927) is an especially striking assemblage, calling up feelings of absurdity, bemusement and bewilderment in equal measure.

Robert Gie (1869–?) plied his trade as a carpenter until hospitalized for hallucinatory disorders, whereupon he created drawings of figures pierced by complex channels of etheric interconnections and “cosmic circulation systems” (his own words). In all likelihood, his images depicted the world as he actually experienced it; viewing them feels more akin to sharing the visions of a seer and less like witnessing an artist’s flights of fancy.

Committed to a psychiatric clinic at the age of 30 on molestation charges, Adolf -Wölfli (1864-1930) produced tens of thousands of pages of drawings, prose and musical notation, despite having no previous training or inclination for art. In its meticulous, obsessive intricacy, The Rose Garden (1922) demonstrates the almost dizzying depths of the microcosm he created.

Of course, as many of the movement’s most celebrated practitioners underwent psychiatric treatment (and in many cases today, continue to do so), there is an unsettling undercurrent to celebrating their art, one that carries a faint air of pleasure at the expense of another’s trials and tribulations.

However, when witnessed and studied in person, the power of these artworks is undeniable – stemming from a place more primal than the intellect, there is an urgency of expression and thrumming vigor to them that serves as a formidable demonstration of art’s essential expressive power.

Through July 2, Museum Gugging