The Collection de l’Art Brut (Art Brut museum) in Lausanne, Switzerland is one of my favorite museums. I’m here to see the Daniel Johnston show because it closes tomorrow. It’s unusual to see American artists in Lausanne but not, for some reason, at l’Art Brut, which featured Seattle’s Gregory Blackstock last year and currently the late Charles Steffen of Chicago. The Blackstock show was in the same space as the Johnston show: a low room in the back on the second floor, painted white and brightly lit (unusual for this museum whose main exhibition halls are matte black with dark carpeting).
The curators have done a nice job. Johnston’s work doesn’t really hold a lot of weight on its own – you need to understand the whole Daniel Johnston thing: the man, his music, the film. The curators of the show know this and so there’s a tape loop of his music playing softly overhead. Behind one of the display walls is a television showing The Devil and Daniel Johnston with French subtitles. There are half a dozen people watching raptly, each with their own headphones. On the opposite wall there’s a display case with a photo of Kurt Cobain wearing the Johnston T Shirt and a stack of SxSW cassette tapes with Johnston’s hand drawn labels on them.
The show is ok, and I like Daniel Johnston, but it doesn’t take much to process drawings of BONER and SLUT rendered in office supplies. I end up thinking instead about why I like this museum as much as I do.
I probably shouldn’t.
It seems exploitive to have an entire space dedicated to “art by crazy people,” to bundle it and show it and charge at the door, and yet I don’t feel anything of the sort: I sometimes leave l’Art Brut feeling tired, but I never leave angry.
There were many reasons I moved to Lausanne, but a big motivator was a desire to deliberately and definitively change the course of my life. I didn’t expect to find (nor did I find) anything lifechanging in this country, but I did change my life and I did it because I wanted to, and because I could, and because I can.
That’s more than most of the artists whose work is shown in the museum can say. Most were institutionalized, many died in hospitals or prisons. Almost all were captives: of a system, of the government, of their families or simply their own illness.
The museum was named and founded by the private collection of Jean Philippe Dubuffet, the French painter and wine merchant who once bragged about the amount of money he made selling booze to the Nazis, and whose naively styled work should not be confused with a lack of sophistication in art or in life.
One of Dubuffet’s later sculptures stands in the Chicago Loop, where I lived and worked while attending the Art Institute a dozen years ago. Then (and now) I find the work utterly hideous, but I love that it is there, made more attractive by the fact that it adorns the forecourt of the JRTC, one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen.
Dubuffet is problematic. Johnston is problematic. I am problematic.
What almost all museums do is remove artwork from its real-life context and insert it into a market context. Museums tell us what movements and genre a piece belongs to, what role it plays in history and, ultimately, how much the work is worth. Museums seek to de-problematize art by quantifying it, something artists aren’t very good at.
The work in L’Art Brut is beautiful because it’s wild. The museum is professionally and carefully done but, like the presentation of animals at a zoo, you get the impression that the museum trappings (the cases, the lighting, the wall labels) are there for your own protection – to allow you to observe from a polite distance without being injured. In this, l’Art Brut it is one of the most honest museum I’ve seen. No framing can take the edge off the work, which is dangerous, and frightening, and feral.
The best are the works done on institutional detritus, like The Electric Pencil, a book of drawings done by James Edward Deeds on the back of hospital forms, which (the wall text tells me) was nearly lost when Deed’s relative gave it as payment to movers, who were unappreciative and threw it in the trash. The book was saved by a passing child on a bicycle, whose family kept it as a curiosity for years before someone realized it was actually “worth something.”
I also enjoy the few and more recent interviews with caretakers of the artists, many of whom have lived their entire lives with serious mental illness and whose charges have died shortly before filming. In these you see humans poignantly struggling to weave their lived experience of difficult family with the outside world’s sudden and unexpected blessing of their lives as art. You see confusion and outrage mingled with pride and delight, a desire to convey the enormous toll of dealing with a mentally ill parent or child with the pleasure of seeing their struggle (and their own by extension) finally recognized.
This conflict, the growl and churn with each other and with the dehumanizing systems we buffer each other with, is why I love this museum. This space is a monument to artwork made without hope or desire for recognition, work that was done simply because it needed to be, and which exhibits enough power to transcend all efforts to fit it into context.
My favorite work in the permanent collection is a full-length crochet lace wedding dress that floats over a nearly invisible black form in the middle of a black room. The dress was made over a period of several years by Marguerite Sirvins, a woman who died in a psychiatric hospital in 1957. It is described as her “final major work” and was assembled by hand using threads that Marguerite pulled from her own bedsheets.
I can’t tell who Marguerite wanted to marry, I can’t tell if she wanted companionship, or escape from her prison. I don’t know if she thought marriage would make her whole, or prove her worth, or if she simply wanted to be regarded and remembered in the mind of another. I don’t even know if she was lucid or half-dreaming as she spent those years knotting the tiny thread into shape, but I swear I can feel her through the glass.