They are everywhere at the moment, the insider-outsiders. Advanced creative capitalism likes figures from the cultural margins who switch to the mainstream – business punks, nerd billionaires, Steiner entrepreneurs, major-label Satanists, outsider artists. Whereas traditionally, the latter tended to be corralled and cultivated in special biotopes (like the art collection of the psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, or Charlotte Zander’s permanent exhibition at Schloss Bönnigheim), today their works increasingly appear in contexts where one would usually expect to see insider artists. The current insider-outsider boom was launched by Harald Szeemann’s epoch-making documenta 5 in 1972 that took for granted the inclusion of both everyday visual culture and the art of what then were termed ‘mentally ill’ people. Today, artists previously classified ‘naïve’, ‘primitive’, ‘mad’ or at least as ‘misfits’ populate group shows like the 55th Venice Biennale (Massimiliano Gioni’s The Encyclopedic Palace, 2013), feature in specialized fairs (like the chic Outsider Art Fair, Paris/New York) and are honoured with solo shows at art museums (like Adolf Wölfli at Kunstmuseum Bern, 2008). The latter applies to the Swiss artist Hans Schärer (1927–97), whose peculiar Madonnas and bawdy watercolours from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are currently on view at Kunstmuseum Aarau.
At the age of 21, Schärer left vocational college to become an artist. When he moved to Paris in 1949, where Art Brut was on the rise. The environment was favourable for autodidacts like Schärer. In 1956, back in Switzerland, a busy exhibition schedule won him a degree of success in the art world. This Aarau exhibition – paired with Schärer’s inclusion in Gioni’s Venice show – should elevate Schärer from the largely Swiss phenomenon he remained during his lifetime into the international ranks.
At the Kunsthaus, however, the approach is less encyclopaedic than in Venice. Out of Schärer’s diverse oeuvre, including music and ceramics, curator Madeleine Schuppli has (with very few exceptions) selected only the Madonnas and erotic watercolours. Entering the exhibition, one is faced by a seemingly endless parade of paintings full of iconic Mothers of God – ‘iconic’ in the sense that Schärer, like the Byzantine icon painters, offers variations on a single formula. They are all bust portraits with neckless transitions from head to babushka-like body. Physiognomic details are kept to a minimum. At the level of the solar plexus, many have oval elements recalling vulvas, like interfaces between the sacred and the sexual.
The Kunsthaus show reveals how blurred the lines are between outsider art usually described as ‘manic’ or ‘obsessive’ and venerable church art or even serialism. It also reveals the difference between Schärer’s originals and their reproductions. Online and in catalogues, one might take Schärer for a bizarre Pop artist: brash, bright, flat. In the museum, on the other hand, the details obscured by reproductions are dominated by an Art Brut quality – paintings with shells or small stones attached, for example (Madonna mit Muscheln, Madonna with shells, 1974) or a ‘gold’ background evoked using cheap metal strips, which seem more in keeping with our profane times (Madonna, 1982).
In the erotic watercolours, this rawness lies more in the motifs. Tongues dart towards genitals and breasts, bottoms stretch cheekily upwards, priests shag buxom dames, and naked young women ride a sledge (Schlittenfahrt, Sleigh ride, 1971). All politically incorrect, of course, the works recall a fundamental diagnosis by the German band Deichkind: ‘Liposuctors, asparagus cutters, professors / all dream of public nudity in rock star poses.’ In a permissible fit of kitchen sink psychology, one might explain the current fashion for outsider art as the indirect wish fulfilment of a culture of prudish conformists: Oh, to pursue one’s own obsessions so brazenly, to portray one’s own dirty fantasies in such unveiled form as Schärer did!
Translated by Nicholas Grindell