Ever since the early 1960s, Arnulf Rainer (b. 1929) has been collecting Outsider Art: work by people on the fringes of society, including psychopaths, schizophrenics and other mentally ill people. The most important artists in this area – Hauser, Soutter, Maly, Wölffli and Aloïse – will all be represented in this exhibition. Their work will be shown in relation to an unusual selection of Rainer’s own works.
Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer was still very young when he first encountered Surrealism (an art movement in which madness is regarded as the ultimate expression of creativity). The experience motivated him to collect documents and photographs relating to art and mental illness. Rainer decided to train at the Academy of Art in Vienna, but abandoned the course almost instantly when he found that the teaching staff regarded his art as degenerate. An encounter with Breton, the founding father of Surrealism, also proved disappointing. These experiences in the early 1950s confirmed his belief that he needed to seek inspiration far outside the walls of the established art world. He developed his well-known ‘übermalungen’ (overpaintings), in which he reworked the surface of paintings or drawings by himself or by fellow artists.
In the 1960s he began purchasing works of what would later be dubbed Outsider Art or Art Brut. Via his Czech wife, a psychiatrist, he bought works of art from psychiatric institutions in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In Vienna, he became friendly with psychiatrist Dr Leo Navratil, who was working at the Klosterneuburg Hospital (now known as Guggin) and offering talented patients, such as Hauser, the chance to concentrate on their art full-time. Rainer bought drawings and paintings by Guggin artists. Navratil in his turn held exhibitions and produced publications and invited Rainer to speak at international medical conferences.
In the early 1960s, Rainer made various drawings while experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol to produce a state of mental confusion. He also became interested in the ‘catatonic phenomena’ – the voluntary adoption of bizarre and inappropriate attitudes – sometimes associated with schizophrenia. In 1968 he made his first ‘Face Farces’: black-and-white photographs showing himself in all sorts of uncomfortable positions, with his face contorted into a variety of grimaces, the contours and lines of the image being accentuated with felt-tip and chalk.
Although the influence of the Outsiders is hard to deny, Rainer has never explicitly discussed the relationship between his work and theirs. This exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum will include not only Rainer’s rich collection of Outsider Art, but also examples of his own work, such as his Face Farces and various overpaintings of photographs of expressive busts by the 18th-century Viennese sculptor Franz Zaver Messerschmidt. Remarkably enough, Rainer went on during the 1990s not only to overpaint drawings and paintings by Outsiders, but also to allow some of them to produce overpaintings of his own work.