A simple definition of Outsider Art

Since its conception in the early 1970s, outsider art has evolved from a movement “on the fringes of society” to a popular movement. However, it has retained its original spontaneous aspect. In this article, we give you a definition of outsider art.

What is outsider art?

Outsider art is a term coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, who highlights self-taught artists. Their work is the result of their past experiences and is not constrained by society. Originally created by psychiatric patients, prisoners and outcasts, the works illustrate their fragile mental state and their original perspectives of the world.

The abandoned tradition

In keeping with the avant-garde spirit of the 20th century, one of the key themes of outsider art is the rejection of society’s values. The works are created according to the impulses of self-taught artists. They do not conform to any particular style or previous movement. This distinguishes them from naïve artists who have been inspired by existing movements. The result is raw and moving works that are unique to each artist.

Where it all began

Having himself dropped out of school, Dubuffet’s works are often considered part of the movement. Sharing the values of these marginalized artists and with the desire to destigmatize mental illness, he coined the term outsider art to legitimize their artistic work.

Popularization of outsider art

Jean Dubuffet began collecting works in the mid-1940s. In 1976, he opened the Collection de l’outsider art to the public in Lausanne. Subsequently, other cultural venues such as La Maison Rouge and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris began to organise exhibitions on these artists. Although they were initially of little interest to the public, these exhibitions brought their unconventional works into the mainstream culture.

Revolutionary artists

Adolf Wölfi is a major artist of outsider art. After a difficult childhood, he spent two years in prison and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Other outsider art artists include Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage and Alfonso Osso. Although they have different styles, their paintings, drawings and sculptures have in common a great freedom of form. The abundant use of colour and the almost childlike aspect of their works, due to their lack of formal education, is the true definition of outsider art.

The polemic

It is not surprising, given its unconventional roots, that outsider art generates debate. Indeed, unethical themes such as – violence or the sexualization of children – are shocking. Nevertheless, they are not subject to the same requirements as conventional artists since their works are not created for exhibition. Their work is more of an impulsive response to their experiences.

Where are we today?

Today, you can discover outsider art in the LaM’s permanent collection, which houses more than 5,500 works. You can also visit the Outsider Art Fair in New York and Paris. In addition, the Lausanne Outsider Art Collection supports self-taught artists in new exhibitions every year. This year, it is hosting the 4th Biennial of Outsider Art: theatre until 26 April 2020. It is clear that the movement has inspired the work of many experimental artists.