The Kunstforum brings the women of Art Brut to the forefront

With the current Zeitgeist’s fondness for inclusivity, it is perhaps unsurprising that Art Brut has made a comeback. Originating in the psychiatric institutions of the early 20th century, it showcases the raw creativity of society’s outcasts, shunning all pretensions in favor of a primal, undiluted creativity.

But even outcasts have their outcasts: “Flying High” at the Kunstforum is the first exhibition to take a global look at the women of Art Brut, featuring 316 works by 93 female artists from 21 countries.

Curated by Ingried Brugger and Hannah Rieger, the exhibit is structured around the Prinzhorn, Morgenthaler, Dubuffet and L’Aracine collections, the former two established by psychiatrists researching the interplay of creativity and pathology, the latter by artists enthralled by the unrefined works produced on the fringes of society. Inspired by Prinzhorn’s work, it was the French avant-gardist Jean Dubuffet who eventually formalized their output as Art Brut (raw art).

The exhibit gets off to a running start: paintings of flexing body-builders greet you in the lobby, their bulging muscles a shock of blue, yellow and red scotch-taped to a pristine white background. Created by contemporary Cuban artist Misleidys Castillo Pedroso, they send a clear message: in the world of Art Brut, anything goes.

Kunstforum Flying High: women artists of Art Brut
Misleidys Castillo Pedroso © Nilo Klotz

Flying High is a treat for both culture vultures and the uninitiated, connecting on a visceral level that bypasses rationality and aims straight for the gut. These artists might have spent their lives in asylums, but in their work, they were free. Anarchic by definition, there is no aesthetic consensus, with exhibits as diverse as the women behind them – frenetic or dreamy, obsessive, scribbled and sculpted. The dynamic layout of the Kunstforum lends itself well to such eclecticism, organizing the works thematically in rooms, nooks and archways without enforcing a strictly linear experience.

The female artists of Art Brut were mostly overlooked, even by the men who so diligently scoured asylums for art from the other side of sanity. While a famous woman of Art Brut might seem a contradiction in terms, Aloïse Corbaz, whose work fascinated Dubuffet, comes closest. Inspired by thwarted dreams of becoming an opera singer, her drawings are a prominent part of Flying High, which opens with a 14-meter-long dreamscape of romance and drama dominated by sensuous female figures and their defenseless admirers.

Kunstforum Flying High: women artists of Art Brut
Aloïse Corbaz © Nilo Klotz

Corbaz’s bright drawings are balanced out by the claustrophobic beauty of Madge Gill, a medium who painstakingly crafted black-and-white swirls and patterns interspersed with soft female faces. She had to fend off enthusiastic buyers in her final years, insisting that her spirit guide Myrninerest, and not she, was the true owner.

Kunstforum Flying High: women artists of Art Brut
Madge Gill © Nilo Klotz

If artistic expression is one side of Art Brut, the other is the evolving role of psychiatry. Formats evolved over time, from the modest sizes and materials of the Prinzhorn and Morgenthaler collections, where incomplete names and unknown birth and death dates hint at lives lived and lost in asylums, to the larger-than-life contemporary work of Julia Krause-Harder, who receives ample recognition and support.

Working at the Atelier Goldstein in Frankfurt am Main, it’s Krause-Harder’s aim to re-create the skeletons of all the known dinosaur species. Based on meticulous research and built out of candy wrappers, office supplies, textile, wire and other unusual materials, two of her sculptures bookend the exhibition. As an artist with autism, she is representative of the broadening of Art Brut to include those with disabilities, spirit mediums and other outsiders.

Kunstforum Flying High: women artists of Art Brut
Julia Krause-Harder © Uwe Dettmar

As the outsiders become increasingly established beyond Dubuffet’s wildest dreams, Art Brut’s unrefined beauty is well on its way to making the label itself redundant. Flying High provides conclusive evidence: the works presented are not great female art, or even great Art Brut.

They are, quite simply, great art.

Through June 23, Kunstforum Wien