Naked Wife Jostles Spacecraft Plan at Outsider Art Show

The outsiders are heading inside -- at least in the art world.

First at the Venice Biennale, and now in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, there are prominent displays of work by individuals with ideas and ways of life that are distinctly non-standard. Some lived out their lives in mental hospitals; others were homeless on city streets.

“The Alternative Guide to the Universe” at the Hayward (until Aug. 26) is an exhibition of what is sometimes dubbed “outsider art” -- meaning by individuals not officially recognized as artists by art-world insiders. Included are highly unorthodox takes on architecture, science and, in one particular case, the artist’s wife.

The result is enjoyable partly because of the sheer eccentricity of many of the ideas and artists involved. Take the case of Marcel Storr (1911-1976), who was convinced that Paris (where he lived) was in imminent danger of destruction by nuclear attack. After that, he believed, the President of the U.S. would borrow his visionary drawings to help with the reconstruction.

How Storr -- who was illiterate, deaf and worked as a street sweeper in the Bois de Boulogne -- got hold of this idea is not quite clear. His works suggest that he envisaged Paris being reconstructed as a cross between the Kremlin and the Brighton Pavilion, in a range of pinkish-red hues: rather pretty, though not really an improvement.

Megalomaniac Buildings

As you walk around, you realize that outsider artists belong to groups and stick to genres just like insider ones. Megalomaniac and futuristic building schemes are a preoccupation, for example (just as they are with actual architects).

Swiss-American A.G. Rizzoli (1896-1981) was, graphically speaking, much more sophisticated than Storr, having received some training as a draughtsman. A bachelor, he lived with his mother and slept in a cot at the foot of her bed.

Many of his elaborately imagined buildings were symbolic representations of people, including his mother -- reconfigured as a cathedral -- and “The Mailomile” (1936), in which a postman was, he explained, “metamorphosed into a structure following classical proportions throughout.”

Then there are those who made art out of their private lives, such as Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983). After marrying his wife in 1943, the baker from Wisconsin spent much of the next two decades photographing her semi-nude or in extravagant costumes that recalled those of Hollywood stars Rita Hayworth and Carmen Miranda. These images seem like the records of a happy if unusual relationship.

Homeless Painter

The career of Lee Godie (1908-1994), if not conventionally successful, was triumphant in another way. She managed to work as a painter while living on the streets of Chicago. She also produced a series of photographs of herself in various costumes with assorted props and makeup, all taken in photo booths. She was, in other words, the Cindy Sherman of rough sleepers.

Another subcategory are off-the-wall scientific thinkers, among them Karl Hans Janke (1909-1988), who during 40 years spent in a rural psychiatric hospital in East Germany developed (as the catalog puts it) “strikingly original theories about the history of the universe and evolution.” His numerous inventions for spacecraft and nuclear devices were signed and stamped by his doctor.

All of this is entertainingly odd, and some of it, such as A.G. Rizzoli’s drawings, visually compelling as well. Still, I found myself thinking that the barrier between artists who are in and those left out is wafer-thin. To their contemporaries, William Blake and Vincent van Gogh must have seemed every bit as nutty as some of those in this exhibition.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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