Lady with the Rose, 1882, by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Lady with the Rose, 1882, by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844-1907)
Edmonia Lewis had so much acting against her success during her time, yet she overcame prejudice to become a highly celebrated neoclassical artist. Born to a free African-American father and a Native American mother, she was orphaned at only five years old. As she grew, she was raised by her Chippewa aunts, and supported by her brother – who financed her course at Oberlin College in Ohio. She changed her Chippewa name of ‘Wildfire,’ and became known as ‘Mary Edmonia Lewis.’ While the college was considered progressive for its time, Lewis was subject to racism and prejudice. She was accused of poisoning her roommates, was badly beaten by a mob, accused of stealing supplies, and was eventually refused to be allowed to graduate. All were probably racially motivated, as there was little to no evidence to support them. This, however, led to her being tutored by the sculptural artist Edward Augustus Brackett (1818-1908).
Under the tutelage of Brackett, Lewis’ skills grew, as did her commissions. She earnt enough money off of creating portraits to fund her travel to Europe. She eventually settled in Rome, where her love of neoclassicism flourished. She experienced much more freedom there, in terms of her career and her spiritual identity. Many sculpture artists flocked to the area, due to the availability of marble, and skilled workmen. Lewis, however, preferred working through her process alone. Most other artists employed other workers for some part of the model work.
Edmonia Lewis’ work revolved around her own identity. She celebrated both her African-American and Native American heritage. She was often inspired by this heritage, and of the representation of historically strong women. This is all seen in works such as ‘Forever Free’ (1867), ‘Old Arrow Maker’ (1872), and ‘The Death of Cleopatra’ (1876).
Not only was Edmonia Lewis a woman, but she had African-American and Native American heritage and lived through the American Civil War. She faced strong prejudices that endangered her life. Yet she became one of the most celebrated sculptural artists of her time. She continues to be an inspiration to people today.
’Hiawatha,’ and ’Minnehaha,’ both created in 1868, by Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844-1907).
But the fearless Hiawatha
Cried aloud, and spake in this wise:
“Let me pass my way, Kenabeek,
Let me go upon my journey!”
And they answered, hissing fiercely,
With their fiery breath made answer:
“Back, go back! O Shaugodaya!
Back to old Nokomis, Faint-heart!”
Then the angry Hiawatha
Raised his mighty bow of ash-tree,
Seized his arrows, jasper-headed,
Shot them fast among the serpents;
Every twanging of the bow-string
Was a war-cry and a death-cry,
Every whizzing of an arrow
Was a death-song of Kenabeek.
Weltering in the bloody water,
Dead lay all the fiery serpents,
And among them Hiawatha
Harmless sailed, and cried exulting:
“Onward, O Cheemaun, my darling!
Onward to the black pitch-water!”
– An excerpt from ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ 1855, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). This was a poem that Lewis often drew inspiration from.
Above: ‘Forever Free,’ 1867, by Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844-1907).
‘The Bird Collector,’ and ‘Masked Eros,’ by Fatima Ronquillo (1976- )
Balogh for mut zur wut, 2018
Not too long ago I did some research recognizing characteristics of Outsider Artists, comparing and contrasting the artists Henry Darger and Adolf Wölfli. I found the works they created to be really interesting, especially in relation to their mental health.
‘General View of the Island Neveranger,’ 1911, by Adolf Wölfli.
From the Cradle to the Grave, Book 4.
The Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) is an extreme example of Outsider art. Wölfli created art against the backdrop of schizophrenia and isolation. The state of his mental health becomes immediately apparent when viewing his artwork, due to the overwhelming nature of it. This high level of work seems to have given Wölfli a form of protection against his violent psychosis at times, and has now been described as the “locus classicus of schizophrenic art.” It can be recognised in his creation ‘General View of the Island Neveranger’, where Wölfli experienced a drive to fill every space to a dazzling degree. It contains a wealth of lines, symbols, text, and musical notes. The term ‘horror vacui,’ (the horror of empty space) has often been used in relation to Wölfli’s concentration with space and symmetry, however it is not entirely justified. It is perhaps more of a need to explore all his obsessions at once, rather than a fear of an empty page. It was necessary for him to create not just content, but an organised world of his own. He formed his imagined autobiography with a fantastical life, which was a far cry from his reality. In evidence of this, ‘General View of the Island Neveranger’ is composed of text relating to this fictional autobiography and figures plucked from his imagination. Those incorporated into his stories take part in endless adventure.
Adolf Wölfli was extremely isolated after being institutionalised. As a result of this, his inspirations are internal and come across strongly on paper. Using ‘General View of the Island Neveranger’, an illustration of these inspirations, comes in the form of the miniscule snail and human heads incorporated with the cross. These held a fascination for Wölfli. They represented transformation and rebirth, and therefore became intensely repeated motifs in his work. The idea of “liberating itself from the body’s enclosure” was behind these symbols. Other symbolic reiteration includes the repetition of music notes, an essential part to his work which transforms it into a strange composition. When listening to the product of this composition, even the music itself contains very repetitive sounds.
‘Untitled: Before the War,’ and ‘Are Almost Murdered Themselves as They Fight for Their Lives,’
date unknown, by Henry Darger.
The American artist Henry Darger (1892-1973) invented both beautiful and horrific worlds through his cartoon creations. Darger meets the definition of an Outsider artist for a number of reasons, especially due to his self-inflicted separation from the mainstream of society beginning at a young age. As he had suffered from extreme poverty, experienced the loss of his mother, and was institutionalised during his childhood, Darger found the reality of life to be too painful. Resulting from this, he created his own imaginary world through art, particularly through that of his ‘Realms’ narrative.
Looking at Henry Darger’s volumes of works, his obsessive traits are very clear. His obsession with childhood and fixation on young girls, his most common subject matter, is at times overwhelming in his works. In his untitled work, which I will name ‘Before the War,’ we see how detailed his created world can be. It’s large width is filled with children, and idyllic icons of nature. Each girl is given their own dress and action, as well as their own identities, personalities, and sayings represented through the small text. Even the species of children vary. Some of the children are less human, and more resembling fairy-like beings. This work is overcrowded not just visually, but the information behind it is a product of astronomical detail through his stories of fantasy adventure.
Outsider artists can sometimes engage with reality, while others deliberately retreat from it. It can be seen in the examples of both Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger that they chose to retreat from their reality of hardship, and instead reconstructed their own universe from it. Regardless of their impoverished backgrounds and mental health concerns, they never lost their ability to play and create fantastical fictional worlds, creation much like you see in childhood. It is obvious in their works how their childhood trauma affected them.
When comparing the works of these artists, the most transparent aspects of their alienation are seen. Their obsessive traits, as mentioned before, in relation to space and repetition can be first recognised. A principle element to Outsider art is the isolation from the mainstream. This is a characteristic which Wölfli and Darger certainly shared. Wölfli, being institutionalised, and Darger being a recluse, resulted with very inward-looking world views. They became their own source of inspiration and their works were therefore very symbolic. It is understandable that certain aspects of their lives would be amplified into obsessions. For instance, Wölfli’s love of music, and Darger’s duelling relationship with Christianity are frequently seen. Wölfli’s musical notes are once again recognised as the dominant focus in many of his works. Darger’s artworks often mimic horrific scenes based on the Christian Passion. Children are crucified and the narrative itself sets the faithful against evil and the non-religious.
Less obvious themes throughout the artists’ works are psychologically deeper. The traumas that both suffered early in life, combined with their impoverished backgrounds, resulted in them becoming emotionally stunted. This created a drive to return back to the innocence of childhood, a common narrative in their artworks which may also provide an understanding on their shared fixation of young girls. In their artworks it seems they constantly sought to reinvent their childhoods. As mentioned, Wölfli attempted this by creating an alternative fantasy autobiography, and Darger formed many versions of himself through alter-egos. They created their own universes not completely divorced from reality. The fantastical lands and the figures that fill both their works stem from a loose connection with reality.
In summary, perhaps the most notable similarity between Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger, is that they simply made art for themselves and from themselves. They had no stronger drive than to create and delve into their own universes. They did not wish to fit into the academic categories of their time, but considered the fact that not creating was illogical. It was a way of expressing the exploration of their individuality. However, because of the pure expression of this, we’re left with questions: particularly the question of what really is Outsider art? Today, their works are shown in museums and in exhibitions. It creates the juxtapose of the outside and the inside. Outsider art has garnered its own status in the art world, yet we still cannot exactly identify what it is. By exploring the works of Wölfli and Darger, common aspects can be seen, but not always precisely defined. We can only recognise possible similar characteristics through exploring the lives of the artists.
‘Madame Beauvoir’s Painting’ and ‘Marie-Antoinette Is Dead’, by Fabiola Jean-Louis
“The materials used for the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors.”
Undine Rising from the Waters, 1880’s, by Chauncey Ives (1810-1894)
Gettin’ Religion (1948) and Black Belt (1934), by Archibald Motley Jr. (1891-1981)
The Greek Slave, 1843, by Hiram Powers (1805-1873)
The Octoroon Girl, 1925, by Archibald Motley (1891-1981)