When she was seeking out works for what would be the first exhibition of outsider and naive art in Israel, Ruti Direktor, chief curator at the Haifa Museum of Art, received a negative reply from the Collection de l’Art Brut (Collection of Raw Art), in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The administrators of the collection (which was initiated by French artist Jean Dubuffet, who also coined the term “Art Brut”) refused to lend artworks to the Haifa Museum, stating that works from the collection would be lent only on the condition that they are exhibited alone and never with naive or folk art.
Direktor, however, was intent on showing local naive and folk artists, as well as established international outsiders, so she proceeded with her initial intention, but the scenario was typical of what could be seen as a purist approach occasionally adopted by those involved in the field of outsider art. For Direktor, who has long been an admirer of that type of art, the distinctions between it and naive and folk art are not quite so distinct.
The resulting exhibition, made up of works on loan from the American Folk Art Museum as well as from private collections, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s Engel Gallery, presents an exotic mix of 27 international and Israeli outsider, naive and folk artists. The haunted and unsettling works of classic outsiders such as Henry Darger and Morton Bartlett are placed in stark contrast to the more decorative and simpler folkloric forms of Shalom Moskovitz, better known as Shalom of Safed, and Moshe Elnatan, to name but two.
Outsider art first began to attract attention in the early part of the 20th century. Studies carried out by European doctors on patients, who felt compelled to create art, were published in lavishly illustrated books. These studies influenced such artists as Paul Klee, Max Ernst and even Picasso. But Dubuffet, more than any other artist, actively sought out such art and was primarily responsible for bringing it into the public spotlight, eventually amassing a collection that numbers in the thousands and is now permanently housed in the aforementioned museum in Lausanne.
For the most part, these artists were self-taught and worked outside what would be considered art-world norms, having no contact with museums or galleries, and paying little heed to the traditions or techniques of the Western art-historical canon. Many of them were known to have suffered from mental disorders and inhabited society’s peripheral regions, living off-the-grid lives, often creating their work in secret, with a quiet, and at times obsessive, determination.