photo | brut / interview with Bruno Decharme

Interview with Bruno Decharme by Paula Aisemberg

How did this group of photographs come together, and how did you get the idea of proposing an exhibition?

The corpus took shape over time, as did the acquisitions in the collection, beginning in the early 1980s. There are now five thousand works, including about four hundred photographs. I acquired the photo- graphs haphazardly, without really thinking about an organized grouping. In 2017, I was talking with a friend who has an interest in amateur photographs about the idea of organizing an exhibition that would show amateur photographs alongside “brut” photographs. This thought arose from our long conversations about folk art, self-taught, and other kinds of work. From my point of view, the criterion of being self-taught, even if it breaks away from the norm of “academic arts,” is not a guarantee of the “high creativity” found in art brut; the dialogue might therefore be interesting.

I did not see that exhibition.

In fact, it never took place, but the discussion about it drove me to dive into my collection of photographs and to enhance and complement it. Studying other art brut collections, I found that some do include photographs, but in an isolated way. They do not really represent the wealth of the corpus; usually, not many artists are represented. Even more surprising is that historical collections, such as the Collection de l’Art Brut built by Jean Dubuffet, have only a few photographs.

Why do you think that is?

It is difficult to answer that question. According to Céline Delavaux[1], the concept of art brut was invented to challenge the very definition of art, or what at the time was called “the fine arts.” From this perspective, Dubuffet preferred to collect works in which classic media—drawing, painting, sculpture—had been used but which presented a contrast with what was traditionally shown under these rubrics and, at the same time, were more perplexing (for example, embroidery or sculpted cork). During Dubuffet’s period of collecting from 1945 to the late 1960s, photography was still seeking legitimacy as a fine art; therefore, the inventor of art brut’s “anti-academic” offensive did not target it.

Now your collection of photographs will be shown at the Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles in 2019, and then at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City in 2020.

Sam Stourdzé, the director of the Rencontres, has long wanted to organize an exhibition of art brut photographs. I presented an exhibition idea that I conceptualized with Barbara Safarova to him, and he immediately proposed to show it at Arles in 2019. Next, I spoke to Valérie Rousseau, curator of art brut and self-taught art at the American Folk Art Museum, who became a partner in the project. It was no doubt the right time because such an exhibition has never been organized, except for one in the United States, but it focused mainly on folk and vernacular photographs[2]. Like any collection, mine, of course, does not contain all of the artists—to my great regret!—so I invited others, both private collectors and institutions, to join me to expand this artistic territory. I extended the invitation also as a friendly gesture to other art brut collectors.

Is that an explanation for the origin of the subtitle Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie?

Yes, it is a nod to the Compagnie de l’Art brut, founded by Dubuffet at the end of World War II.

I would like to talk about the question of definition. What is special about these “brut” photographs?

When you base yourself solely on definitions, you will always find someone with the counter-example to challenge those criteria, so I will answer on several levels. Because your question concerns the definition of art brut applied to photography, you could say that the category of brut photography comprises pictures, prints, photomontages, and photocollages made by creators outside the art world and conventional art circuits, who live in a mental institution or in solitude and marginality, in either the countryside or the city. This sociological definition sets out the borders of an exploratory territory, but the specificity of art brut also enters into play, which is what I find interesting. I love art brut because it involves artists whose production goes well beyond the definitions of art in the Western sense of the term. Many of them are visionaries, mystics, or geniuses at bricolage. They ignore aesthetic codes and categories and, in doing so, they shake up how we think. Each in his or her own way pro- poses another possibility that forces us to review or shift our relationship with the world. They put a different type of knowledge into play.

It seems that creators of brut photographs often opt for techniques and inspirations that are varied, unexpected, original, and not academic. Can you talk about this?

Some of the creators practice photography as it is usually understood. These are often self-portraits, such as those by Marcel Bascoulard, Lee Godie, Luboš Plný, Marian Henel, and the artist known as Zorro, to name just a few of them, but there are also Albert Moser’s and Miroslav Tichý’s photographs, which are “recordings” of the world around them. Many others use photographs found in magazines as a basis for their imagination. They cut out, digest, assimilate, and appropriate these journalistic or advertising images; that is the case for Adolf Wölfli, Charles Dellschau, Karel Forman, Milton Schwartz, Ilmari Salminen, and Fumihiro Endo. Some creators, such as Henry Darger, Leopold Strobl, Paul Humphrey, Dominique Théate and Curzio Di Giovanni, use them as a more or less camouflaged source for which they are an inspiration for creating drawings. Sometimes, magazine photographs become the raw material for objects: Kazuo Handa cut out narrow strips of paper from pornography magazines and then rolled them up to make small tubes, which he threaded together to make cigarette holders. Finally, there are the “mental projection” photographs by Ted Serios and Frédéric, as well as the spirit photographs that show our obsession with capturing manifestations of the hereafter and tormented souls.

We often hear that art brut creators are impelled by an urgent need. It seems to me that this is a false debate. All “true” artists are motivated by the need to create. Do you agree?

I share your point of view. It is not so much the urgent need to create—and how would that be measured any- way?— that makes the difference, but the specificity of their gaze at the world. Most artists brought up on art culture have aesthetic concerns in the broad sense of the term, whereas art brut creators operate in the mode of mental representation without the intention of making art. Their works are like music scores played on a parallel stage in another time; they could be called mythological.

I would like to revisit the word “bricolage” that you used and that speaks to me.

But it is not just any bricolage! It is highly inventive bricolage. Some created their own cameras and devel- oped their own printing method. The imperfection that results, sometimes bordering on abstraction, as in Tichý’s photographs, produces an extra complement of emotion and inventiveness. Many of the collages offer an unusual freedom, such as the intriguing images by Jesuys Crystiano; the surprising photomontages of martyrs dating from the late nineteenth century; the works of Luboš Plný, who made his own body a terrain for cartographic exploration; and Alexander Lobanov’s photomontages. Original techniques, such as those of Leopold Strobl and Elke Tangeten, give access to other readings of the world. Most of these artists are concerned not with making something good—in whatever sense one uses the word—but with providing evidence of a vision. Horst Ademeit’s work, for  example, explodes the distinction between science and belief. Zdeněk Košek’s approach starts from the statement, “If I do not try to solve all of humanity’s problems, who else will?” He therefore tries to solve these problems by noting everything he hears, sees, and feels in the form of diagrams and plans in order to “contain” it all. When he alters erotic photographs (sex and weather were the same thing for him), he is acting not as an artistic provocateur but as a humanitarian trying to accomplish a mission that he had to tackle or risk seeing the world collapse. It seems to me that his project is of a different order than that of most artists. In other words, art brut is not situated in the register of symbolic representation that defines art; in my view, that is what makes it radically different.

To return to the idea of the collection, there is a good share of subjectivity in the choices, correct?

Essentially. When Dubuffet put together his art brut collection, he based his choices on criteria that he invented. But beyond his definition, in the final analysis, he used his eye and sensibility to make a selection and decree, “This is art brut, and that is not.” As far as I am concerned, I did not choose certain creators whose works are in other art brut collections simply because they did not speak to me. Collectors go beyond the theoretical question of definitions, and I think that is what makes exhibitions that present pri- vate collections interesting.

Have we begun to answer the question about whether there is a specificity about “brut” photography?

To all those who might deny this specificity, I would suggest leaving the framework of definitions and being guided by the works. Having organized numerous art brut exhibitions, I have noted that visitors leave each one shocked and overwhelmed, not just emotion- ally but psychologically. They have seen works that have nothing in common with each other and do not resemble what one usually sees in shows in which the artists are more recognized; these are dazzling works made by seemingly unlimited imaginations. The visitors have sensed the work of artists of a particular genre who feed on particles of culture and then divert, transform, and remix them, writing a history other than the conventional one of established culture. They have been overwhelmed by this disturbing strangeness. Perhaps they have had an experience that threw them back into the limbs of primitive psy- chic structures. Simply put, with art brut, there is always something special going on.

[1] The academic Céline Delavaux founded the CrAB, a collective for reflection on brut art, and devoted her thesis to the writings of Jean Dubuffet.

[2] Create and be recognized: Photography on the Edge, exhibition presented in 2004-2005 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography & Film (Rochester, New York). A catalogue has been published at the occasion (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2004).