What is your background?
I chose a life in the shadow, behind the camera, behind the artists and artworks that I collect. From time to time, we must take a step towards the light to answer questions that some might ask: who is the collector?
Life began to get my attention when, against the advice of my family, I decided to do what I wanted: to study philosophy and become a filmmaker. I was fortunate enough to have excellent professors: Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, Dominique Lecourt, Michel Foucault, Pierre Macherey, Jacques Derrida, and others. And I started in film business as an assistant of Jacques Tati.
How did you discover art brut?
In 1967 I had seen the exhibition of the collection of art brut of Jean Dubuffet at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Probably too young, I kept it a distant memory, apparently it did no leave any immediate trace. Later, with my studies in philosophy certain things became clearer to finally become an essential component of my future life. Yet this period of the 70s that radically challenged the society and its dominant ideology, had surprisingly little interest in art and creation, the questions that concerned me the most. While courses in aesthetics were interesting, those of the history of art were conventional and boring. A Swiss friend told me that a young professor in Lausanne named Michel Thévoz was lecturing on highly captivating subjects. It was in Lausanne in the summer of 1977 – in the collection that Jean Dubuffet had previously dedicated to the city – that I discovered, to my utter amazement, works of art that looked as if they were from another planet. The meaning of all those questions that I had asked myself during my university years suddenly became clear.
A year later, in 1978, chance led me to a small drawing by Adolf Wölfli that was being sold for the price of a common postcard. That was my first acquisition. By now I had caught the bug. In the early eighties, I began to make a living in the movies: that was the beginning of the collection that thrives for over thirty years. At first I fumbled blindly; I lacked a trained eye. I confused works of art brut with what is called “art singulier” (usually translated into English as “outsider art”). “Singulier” is a vague term that I don’t think says much, because what else is art if not personal and unique? I started to follow my instincts and established my own personal style.
Wasn’t art brut at that time the preserve of the Collection of Lausanne?
In those years we were no more than ten collectors to take an interest in art brut, thanks to the work of pioneering art dealers such as Phyllis Kind in Chicago, Gérard Schreiner in Switzerland and then in New York, and Thomas Le Guillou in Paris. A work of Henry Darger, Aloïse Corbaz, Adolf Wölfli or Auguste Forestier was worth several thousand francs at the time, nothing like their current prices. I was thus able to collect pieces which are impossible to find today and in a few years, I have collected several thousand historical works. With time, an art brut market took shape, but I have always looked for works on my own. I was lucky to have made some extraordinary discoveries such as Zdenek Kosek, Lubos Plny, Janko Domsic and many others. At the same time, my work as a filmmaker gave me the opportunity to film some of these artists. Several of these cinematic portraits are combined in the full-length film Rouge Ciel from 2009, which also features people who have contributed significantly to the study of this field: psychoanalysts, art historians, enthusiastic amateurs, writers, and more.
What kind of collector are you?
I have always collected with the aim of making these treasures public. At home the walls are pristine and the collection travels. After twenty years of collecting, I wanted to create a structure, a kind of think tank which would welcome other enthusiasts of art brut who would use my collection as a tool for their research; I was curious what they could teach me. abcd (art brut connaissance & diffusion) was born in 1999, to publish, produce and organize exhibitions; since 2004 it disposes of its own exhibition space in Montreuil.
Why did you become interested in art brut?
This is a disconcerting question; it is like asking someone why he fell in love. To analyze it would break the spell. A collector prefers to stay in the dark, he relies on his instincts and does not theorize. There is an internal logic that eludes us and that drives a collection, an instinct, a work speaks to us or it does not. I can however tell you about the journeys in my head that art brut inspires me.
How do you know whether a work is art brut or not?
My collection is part of the history of art brut, my choices, my eye have been nourished by it. Since most people seem to appreciate them and, being kind, they ascribe them a certain quality, I think there is no reason to doubt that what I collect is art brut! Funny thing, more and more collectors and dealers come to visit and ask, as a favour, to include some of their artists in my collection, thinking that this would give them some proof of authenticity. Being neither a cheese manufacturer or a distributor of a brand, I only collect what attracts me, trusting only my eye and the vibration of my diaphragm when facing a work. All jokes aside, this is nevertheless a legitimate question because this field of art is complex, paradoxical and we are tirelessly attempting to identify it, without result. Anyway, it is a matter of personal opinion; you can see the differences between the various collections of art brut. For me there are artists that I did not include in my collection, because what they create is not entirely what I like. I also removed some works from the collection because my eye and my criteria have changed.
There exists a clear scale of popularity in your collection.
I am more attracted to works that radiate a certain inner spirituality than unfettered onslaughts of imaginary figures in the style of the expressionists. The works of art brut that intrigue me are works that draw their essence from some “mystical” dimension. They clearly do not address us, but look towards some kind of oth- erness, some “higher instance”. One might say that they look towards “the big Other”. They contain a large number of symbols and make use of all possible forms of symbolism, without achieving any openly stated, unambiguous meaning. They call on us to undertake a spiritual journey, similarly to some abstract works whose proximity to art brut can question us. For example, in a composition by Malevich geometrisation could be a sign of automatism that we notice in certain works of art brut.
But then what is the difference? Is this the intention? Can we identify it in the work itself?
It seems to me that, as with most artists steeped in artistic culture, the paths explored by, for instance, Malevich are purely aesthetic, whereas art brut artists work on the level of mental representations without trying to create “beauty”. In my life I have listened to a lot of music. At a certain time it was a big part of my activity – I worked as a columnist for fanzines. Intensively listening to music can cause altered states of consciousness which can make the buried bodily sensations come up. I often find in the works that I choose similar sensations of enjoyment; some creators of art brut have the ability to invent a visual representation. I am thinking of Julius Bockelt, Anna Zemánková or Yuichi Saito, spreading his ideograms on paper as if he were repeating a sound passed through the filter of Delay effect – a combination of signs whose rhythm invites all our projections. It seems to me that these artists have the talent to make us feel – furtively but intensely – their ability to overlay different layers of meanings – incompatible for us – in a inextricable whole which makes complete sense. There is a number of works that invent “systems”. Wölfli, Kosek, Domsic, Medvedev, Darger: all these artists fascinate me. Their complex and mysterious constructions force us to look for answers and often lead us into states of confusion. It is a confusion that – to take the example of Henry Darger – results from the fact that some of the figures in his drawings and writings are mutually interchangeable. Darger is as much a group of tormented young girls as he is Captain Darger come to save them – or a murderous soldier. If anything, his joy comes from the possibility of playing all these roles at once. The confusion thus arises from the realization that there is no single inner identity, but that you can be everything at once. It is a point of view that we often encounter in art brut and that completely changes our way of seeing the world.
How do you explain this impression of indecision or déjà vu, of a dream that one feels when faced with art brut?
It seems that we are in the presence of scores played on another stage, in another time, which might be called mythological. I love, for exemple, those passionate about calendars and grids; George Widener is a good example. These artists create a certain order for some greater purpose, that is exceeding the organization of our daily lives: this is what makes me dream away. It does not matter if we understand them or not, it’s the order that fascinates us, as in the enigmatic works of Melvin Way. Any formula that has been enounced in the form of an art work is reassuring; is it because it functions as a law and therefore suggests that the situation is apparently under control? This is particularly impactful. Aren’t these works earth-shattering? How can someone so reclusive and isolated manage to invent such universe? It takes a lot of nerve! They must dare, and they dare perhaps because they are inhabited by an invisible force, propelled by something beyond them, and that is what I engage with. I embrace to the history of Wölfli, Georgi, of Kosek, but without any amused distance or condescension. I take what they tell me literally because I think they have something essential to teach us about the world. They invite us to think in a different way.
Can art brut be understood as an artistic movement, as for example Expressionism, Cobra or the Avant-garde?
It does not define either a style or a historical tradition. It cannot function as a model, a current or school because the works it encompasses are totally devoid of any civilizing intention, they are not there to bring people together or promote anything. It is more of a territory, an existential expression and not – compared to the cultural artistic creation – a mode of representation that declares its line of descent. We bring these works together in a collection, but in reality nothing links them to each other. Each artist is unique, possesses his own world. Art brut cannot be considered as a current or a model, yet it plays a key role in the creation of the twentieth century. It has fascinated the greatest artists and often influenced their work.
The concept of art brut was born in Europe in the late 1940s. Do you think it is applicable to other countries today?
At all times and in all places the excluded, the enlightened, the “crazy”, as we would say in the common language, have developed for their own use, feverishly and obsessively, extravagant artistic processes, inventive masterpieces. With the concept of art brut Dubuffet mapped ou a territory and at the same time offered us a method of open investigation.
Is this categorization not dated? Should we not open, break down the barriers?
IIt is not about categorization – this term is too mechanical – but about an evolving concept that has been forged in a particular moment and whose foundation still remains valid, just the process and themes of inspiration have evolved with the times. As I have said, those who defy the social conditioning in a “pathological” way have always nourished our world, the wildest dreams have not disappeared, they evolve with history. Collecting art brut means searching for those dreams to pass them to others. It is this “hard core” which forges the word ART BRUT and of which abcd is a strong advocate. At the same time, confrontation and openness to other art forms are desirable, art brut must not remain in a ghetto, on the contrary, it should be present everywhere it can shine with its brilliant visions.
In English art brut gets translated as Outsider Art.
Yes … Actually no! Personally, I find this expression unfortunate, it reminds me of horse racing or the society with its “winners” and “losers”. Furthermore, this expression is not merely an unfortunate translation of the word art brut, it covers a different field, much broader. Outsider art seems to refer to visual expression constituted more or less spontaneously on the margins of the official culture. A kind of inventory of marginal arts. Everything can be part of it: folk art, naïve art, visionaries, spiritualists, works by the mentally ill, works by prisoners, the homeless, art singulier, artists belonging to Neuve Invention, the self-taught… Too many things that are completely different. What relationship can we, for example, establish between a production of folk art, steeped in tradition and transmission, with the fierce and wildly original work of Darger, Ramirez or Aloïse to name a few?
Would self-taught art be a better translation?
Being self-taught is a necessary condition for belonging to the field of art brut, though there are some contrary examples. Paul Goesch, Achilles Rizzoli or Karl Junker, authentic creators of art brut, had an architectural and designer training. If this condition is partially necessary, it is nevertheless not sufficient. As proof, the naive artists are mostly self-taught. Similarly, young plastic artists who are not from schools or academies are also self-taught and yet have nothing to do with our subject. The term self-taught, by refering only to the criterion of learning, is too vague and confusing inventory for our study. Art brut is not only self-taught art.
Do you collect other types of art?
No, I am single-minded. As a spectator I have a great interest in other forms of art, however I don’t collect them. I sold my appartment to acquire beautiful pieces of art brut but I would not get into debt for a Basquiat or Fontana, although I love their art. In truth, I would have liked not to be so obsessive. I envy collectors with eclectic tastes as is, to name one, Antoine de Galbert – with whom I imagined the exhibition of my collection at La maison rouge in 2014-2015 and another exhibition, Elévations, in 2015, an homage to facteur Cheval.
What is your view on art brut today?
Art brut occupies a special place in the history of art. It challenges the conventional wisdom, disturbs the ordered patterns of knowledge. It stretches our mental structures, turns its back on dogmas and certainties, reveals the complex and often paradoxical twists and turns of the unconscious. Indeed, what is more scandalous for a scholar than the insolent creativity of an unschooled “simpleton” or the fabulous artistic expansion of a “crazy” person? Such as Adolf Wölfli who, at the beginning of the century, produced out of his cell a colossal work, which is among the most important art creations ever. These works of silence often remained in the shadow or were exhibited only in some obscure venues, reserved to the solely – and sometimes jealous – vision of informed experts. This is what explains, in part, that the general public and especially art historians today do not really know art brut. Things have changed in the last twenty years: art brut travels, remarkable collections are being constituted everywhere, mainly in Europe and the United States. The exhibitions are increasing, publications too.
What do you think of the evolution of the art market?
It is partially determining for a collector, and of course we can question the evolution of prices on the rise. One can regret it, be indignant, but it is a sign of a growing interest for art brut. What can we do? Certainly, when we started, me and other collectors, we were guided only by our passion. Today there is a market for art brut and there will be inevitably some buyers whose more or less hidden agenda is to speculate. That’s the way it works, this is nothing new in the history of art – but the real problem is with the creators themselves, particularly vulnerable people who find themselves in the turmoil of the market which they know nothing about.
What future do you see for your collection?
This question weighs on my mind, based on my mood dreams and reality get mixed. I have been in touch with institutions that could acquire a large part of the collection – a possible solution to avoid its dispersion once I am gone. But in my dreams I wish for an atypical place, a temple of knowledge in all its forms because it is not so much art that interests me as the – senseless – quest to understand the enigma that is life. The genius of art brut makes it possible to approach this question in a palpable way, breaking with the Western notion of “art”. And from this point of view, I am close to cultures and civilizations that have retained a link with the foundations of an archaic knowledge. I imagine a place that could, for example, bring together other private collections in other fields of art and knowledge, which would resemble a kind of encyclopedic museum”. In the film devoted to Kosek, I really like his last sentence about his drawings: “I am pleased that they now travel around the world, to show to others what their brain is capable of creating.”
INTERVIEW in L’ART DE CHANGER LE MONDE and in “Building a Better Humanity” by Yannick Le Guern