Anyone who drove a state highway through the small American town of Hazlehurst in the 1980s would have seen the gorgeous billboards in Mary Tillman Smith Park. With these self-made signs, Smith advised motorists, for example, what to do with their money. Occasionally, banners changed text and image.
Mary Tillman Smith (1905-1995) was born into a family of thirteen children. The African American family worked as sharecroppers in rural Mississippi. It is only later in life, when Smith has a home of her own, that she begins to paint. She makes figures and objects out of scrap materials. She paints pictures of herself, friends, neighbors or farm animals on old corrugated iron, usually accompanied by texts in which God plays a prominent role. Her home and garden slowly grow into a studio and exhibition space. The simple visual language is reminiscent of that of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is remarkable that Smith and Basquiat were uneducated, but it is Smith who is mainly associated with art brut or art outside.
In recent years, women in the visual arts have gained a lot of ground. The book was published last year The story of art without men From Katie Hessel. The book offers a very comprehensive overview of women artists through the ages. In 2021 it became the project The other half Created by the RKD, in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum and the University of Amsterdam, to make women in Dutch art history more visible. Women artists also dominated the main exhibition at the recent Venice Biennale Dream Milk.
Names like Mary Cassat, Judith Leyster or Artemisia Gentileschi are less known to people. Women artists who have worked outside of established art movements are becoming increasingly visible. in The story of art without men In the chapter “Art Beyond the Mainstream,” Hessel describes the work of Aloise Gorbaz and Sister Gertrude Morgan, two women often associated with outsider art. Hessel consciously chose not to use the term “external art” in class to avoid exclusion. The title makes clear that these women are not always seen as artists in mainstream art, but as a separate category.
Often works of art remain outside of entrenched art in the background
The term outsider art originates from the 1970s and is seen as the English equivalent of the term art brut. French painter Jean Dubuffet introduced the term in 1945. Brute art It is seen as “spontaneous” art made by an unskilled artist who has no interest in the established art world. Dubuffet referred to established art as art culture. In his own work he took an example from the expressions of savage artists, which he considered immaculate. Many artists who are perceived as wild artists or outsiders suffer from psychological complaints. The bad thing about the term outside art is that “outside” automatically denotes “inside,” a status from which the “outside artist” is previously denied.
Classifying Smith’s work as outsider art today seems a bit naive. The percentage of women attending the Academy of Arts in the early 20th century was low. At the end of the nineteenth century, women were given permission to pursue an art education, but it was not immediately clear that they would actually go to the Academy of Arts, let alone as a black woman. Smith worked because she wanted to work and used her garden because that was the space she had. She may not have been preoccupied with her place in art history, nor was she part of a prominent art movement. These are aspects that play a role in explaining its action.
Like Smith, the African-American Clementine Hunter (1887-1988) is uneducated and works on a farm. At night she has time to paint. Her paintings show everyday scenes in which the white church itself and the blue river appear frequently. The figures in her work are often bustling, among colorful fields, washing lines, houses, and cooking pots. It is not outside art, but mainly folk art with which Hunter’s work is associated.
The term folk art gained popularity in the early 19th century, when the lives of rural people were glorified with romanticism. Folk art is seen as art with a utilitarian character. Like outside art, folk art is made by unskilled makers, who are said to have no great artistic pretensions. A great starting point when you consider that for so long society did not offer much room for women’s artistic claims.
Take work, for example Women’s right quilt, made circa 1875 by American Emma Sevey Stahl, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The quilt shows how a man and child show the door to his wife. Over her shoulder is a banner reading “Women’s Rights”. The same woman addresses the crowd in another photo, the sign now planted next to a speaker’s chair. They are delicate images made of tapestry, and can be read as a kind of comic. Now you can see the quilt as active art. But in the nineteenth century, quilting was generally seen not as an art form but as a craft. Girls from different walks of life learned the quilting technique at an early age. Quilts were made for festive occasions, with the images referring to social events or biblical stories. Not much is known about Emma Sevi Stahl. Who she was and why she created this quilt, we can now only guess. Although she spoke of women’s rights, her identity may have been hidden behind needle and thread, the trappings of the housewife.
One of the most famous female artists associated with outdoor art is the Englishwoman Madge Gill (1882-1961). Impressive are her ink drawings, in which the figures are enclosed in many lines. The leaf, sometimes gigantic, fills the gills to the brim. She herself declared that she was prompted by a higher power, which she called Myrninerest. There are even works signed by Gil as Myrninerest. In 1922 she was temporarily committed to a psychiatric institution. Remarkably, however, the criteria for naming outside art are by no means always tenable. Artists like Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch also struggled with mental health issues. However, the works of these well-known artists do not appear in exhibitions or books on outside art.
It is certainly not that there is no theater for folk art or outside art. For example, the outdoor art fair takes place every two years in New York (January) and Paris (October). But museums and galleries always display works in a context specifically intended for outside art or folk art. Artists are moving away from mainstream art.
In 2020, the New York Drawing Center exhibited works by Chinese artist Guo Fengyi (1942-2010). The introductory text of the exhibition asked why Guo Fengyi had been rejected as an outside artist for so long, especially since part of her works were based on Chinese spiritual theories such as i ching. In the i chingalso Book of Changes, the relationship of man to the universe is described. In addition, Fengyi was engaged in qigong, a Chinese movement theory through which she experienced visions. She translated these visions into her drawings. With strong pen strokes, Fengyi drew many tall creatures. The numbers are a cross between gods, animals and humans. The question of whether Fengyi is an “outsider” or an “insider” shows that the line between self-confessed spiritual experiences and experiences we dismiss as “crazy” or “uneducated” is thin.
Like Venge, the Swiss Emma Kunz (1892-1963) made drawings with a spiritual purpose. Kunz did healing, telepathy, and divination sessions. Her tight, shimmering graphics were used for these sessions. So art as an accessory serves a higher spiritual purpose. Her work has been associated with outside art on several occasions. On the one hand, she is compared to her contemporary Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), an artist who has gained increasing recognition in recent years. Koons’ work also shows that art is often not as straightforward as the terms in which we try to classify it.
Folk art judges the artist by his limited education, and external art places the artist outside of society. Therefore both terms have a stigmatizing effect. Now that interest in women artists has increased, it is time to disallow the degree of education and psychological well-being of the artist, in addition to gender, because only in this way can we create an overview of the history of our art that is as comprehensive as possible.