Haifa Museum Brings Outsider Artists Inside the World of Israeli Art

Exhibit Showcases Work by Henry Darger and Shalom of Safed

The Outsiders: Shalom of Safed’s painting of ‘King Solomon’ is on display as part of an exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Art.
Courtesy of Haifa Museum of Art
The Outsiders: Shalom of Safed’s painting of ‘King Solomon’ is on display as part of an exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Art.

By Graham Lawson

Published April 18, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
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From the outset, the works executed by these artists have been intertwined with their strange life stories, their disturbed inner worlds reflected in the often compulsive stylizations and strange visions of their creations.

For the purposes of the exhibition, Direktor wanted to show connections among outsider, folk and naive art. These are seen particularly with regard to technique — for example, a general disregard for traditional rules of perspective. One of the most striking features seen in the works of several of the outsiders is that of horror vacui, a Latin phrase translated roughly as “fear of empty space,” often resulting in no part of the paper or canvas left bare or without a mark. This tendency is seen in the works of Adolf Wolfli, Aloise Corbaz and Carlo Zinelli as well as in the miniatures of Edmund Monsiel.

Several of the artists whose work is exhibited here were diagnosed schizophrenics and were known to have experienced hallucinations and visions. The concentrated array of figures, faces and designs, seen particularly in the works of Wolfli and Monsiel, are rendered with a seemingly obsessive attention to detail.

The paintings of Minnie Evans and Henry Darger feature wonderfully vibrant colors. Of all the artists exhibited, it is Darger whose works are likely to attract the most attention. Having been confined to what was referred to as an “institution for feeble-minded children” for the greater part of his youth, Darger lived as a virtual recluse for the remainder of his life. Through an illustrated and voluminous manuscript stretching more than 15,000 pages and several hundred paintings, Darger created one of the strangest and most convoluted oeuvres in art history.

In the large-scale paintings presented, Darger’s apocalyptic tale plays itself out against a backdrop of Civil War battlefields and pastoral landscapes. The lead characters, a group of seven named The Vivian Girls, lead hordes of young girls in an ongoing struggle against an evil regime. Darger’s storylike scenarios are fascinating and beautifully colored; the whole effect is a kind of dark fairy tale.

For all the strangeness and singularly personal visions seen in the outsider works, none is quite as eerie or disturbing as the 15 photographic works on show by Bartlett. He is considered an outsider photographer, although this description does not quite accurately describe the elaborate process involved in his work. A graphic designer by profession, he devoted his spare time to fashioning a series of made-to-scale, remarkably lifelike dolls, which he then photographed, the end product being a kind of theatrically staged scenario.

His only subjects, young boys and girls alternatively naked or clothed in cutesy attire and arranged in a variety of childlike poses, gave voice to hearsay, never confirmed, about his sexual preferences. These rumors were in no little way helped by Bartlett’s own statement about his creations: “My hobby is sculpting in plaster. Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies — to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels,” he wrote in 1957. The photographs and the figures make the viewer uncomfortable, yet have a strangely compelling power. It is as if we have stumbled onto a peep show, or a carnival sideshow, meant only for its creator’s eyes.


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