BY Noemi Smolik in Reviews | 10 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23

The Shadow of the Avantgarde

Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

BY Noemi Smolik in Reviews | 10 MAR 16

Morris Hirshfield, Girl with Pigeons, 1942, Oil on Canvas, 76,1 x 101,7 cm, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015 © Foto: SCALA, Florence, 2015

On the evening before the opening of the 1913 exhibition Target, painters Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova invited the public to a discussion in Moscow. In the exhibition, along with their own paintings and those of Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin, they showed painted shop signs and works by the domestic servant Pavljuchenko, the miner Bogomassov, and the Georgian folk painter Niko Pirosmani. Instead of discussions, however, chairs soon began flying through the room. The police arrived. What had happened? The public was horrified – less at the ‘primitivism’ of the ‘autodidacts’, however, than at the fact that it was almost impossible to tell the four painters’ works apart from the works of the self-taught. 

The exhibition The Shadow of the  Avant-Garde. Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters at the Museum Folkwang in Essen demonstrates how helpless people still feel today when works by autodidacts (or, as they’re now often called, ‘outsider artists’) are shown alongside those of professionals. The present show poses more questions  than answers: how do autodidacts and professionals differ? Why do the works of one group wind up in the museum, while those of the other do not? What debt does avant-garde art owe to the art of the self-taught? 

These questions immediately come to mind upon entering this exhibition, which includes works like Acrobat (1930), by the sign painter Camille Bombois, whom the gallery dealer Wilhelm Uhde discovered and showed for the first time in a 1928 exhibition in Paris titled Naive Art; The Emperor of Wahaua (1920) by the painter Max Ernst; the Apollo-8 sculpture (1969) by the miner Erich Bödeker; and Holy Mary of Egypt  (1912) by the painter Emil Nolde. The eye wanders to Henri Rousseau’s three jungle paintings, made between 1905 and 1910 – Rousseau, as the show’s subtitle suggests, is the exhibition’s true focal point. The former customs official’s paintings are among the few works by an autodidact to make it into the collections of the world’s most important museums. Nearby, Picasso’s Woman with Artichoke (1941) reminds us of the influence Rousseau had on avant-garde painting. 

Grouped around this pairing are several individual booths showing the works of 13 artists whom curators Kasper König and Falk Wolf have counted among the autodidacts: for instance Bill Traylor’s starkly reduced portraits from the years 1939 to 1949; the  photographs of women Miroslav Tichý took in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s and 70s using homemade cameras; wood and cement sculptures by Bödeker from the 1960s that earned the fascination of Joseph Beuys; undated biblical scenes painted by Adalbert Trillhaase, who was active in the Rhine Valley between 1918 and 1936; and the visibly clumsy salon paintings of the American Louis Michel Eilshemius, whose works’ commercial value Marcel Duchamp attempted to raise by presenting them in an exhibition in 1917 at deliberately inflated prices, an effort that proved to be in vain – the paintings did not sell. 

The exhibition suggests commonalities between the artists of the avant-garde and the autodidacts. But what might these be? What stands out most in the works of the self-taught is their compulsion to repeat, and the openness of their dream worlds, visions and desires. This must have come as a revelation to artists at the beginning of the 20th century, concerned as they were with resisting the dictates of realistic representation as demanded by a pragmatic, bourgeois public. In addition, the works of the autodidacts made it clear that art’s function isn’t only to enlighten, but to heal. Among the self-taught, it’s no accident that many of them were patients at various clinics, or that they began their artistic activities following an existential crisis. The importance these facts held for the avant-garde has only become clear over the past several years.

The exhibition also demonstrates how difficult it is to find criteria to reliably measure professionalism. In the catalogue, the lack of an academic education is repeatedly cited as a criterion for differentiating between ‘artists’ and the self-taught. In this vein, the curators prefer the term ‘autodidact’ to ‘outsider’. And yet, the photographer  Tichý studied at the art academy in Prague, while the painter Eilshemius also had academic training behind him. On the other hand, neither Wassily Kandinsky nor Malevich, whose professional standing no one would call into question, ever attended an art academy. Moreover, it would have been good to learn more about whether and how the works of autodidacts have been treated differently since Rousseau’s time. With its tendency to dehistoricize, the exhibition seems to suggest that the answer is: not really. And so, 100 years later, one stands before these works just as puzzled as before – with the difference that today, discussions don’t usually require police intervention. That, at least, has changed. 

Translated by Andreas Scrima

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.