The House of Artists, Gugging: photography by Alois List
Approximately 20 kilometres north of Vienna is a small building on a hill, adjacent to the Vienna Woods. It is known as The House of Artists and belongs to the village Maria Gugging. Despite its unremarkable and provincial setting, this house is one-of-a-kind, nurturing some of the most interesting artistic talent in the world.
Since 1981, The House of Artists has been inhabited by representatives of art brut. Coined by the French painter, Jean Dubuffet, the term translates as “raw art” and refers to art made outside the mainstream or academic canon. It’s a subject that has been extensively written about and analysed, but in its simplest form, art brut eschews the traditional standards of beauty in celebration of a raw and humanist production of art.
The story of The House of Artists begins in the late 19th Century. In 1885 the Lower Austrian Mental Asylum Gugging-Kierling was founded, growing substantially throughout the decades in the Gugging area and where inhuman atrocities were committed against those who were considered mentally unwell. The asylum was closed after 125 years in 2007, leaving a scarred imprint of the so-called “patients” who were victim to Austrian National Socialist’s regime during 1903-38.
Leo Navritil, a co-founder of the art brut movement, was a psychiatric doctor at the asylum. From the age of 25, Leo’s interests lay in the intersection of psychiatry and art, deeply influenced by the scientific publication of 1949’s Personality Projection in the Drawing of the Human Figure (A Method of Personality Investigation), by the American psychologist Karen Machover. In 1954, Leo conducted drawing tests with patients in Gugging as a means of diagnosis for patients who weren’t forthcoming with verbal expression. However, it did not take long for the doctor to realise that the resulting drawings surpassed its simple function for diagnosis, and the creative energy of some of his patients poured out through the materials they were given.
Consequently, Leo became the catalyser for the first generation of Gugging artists that, to this day, create work in the The House of Artists. Leo continuously championed the deeply-intuitive art created by representatives of Art Brut throughout his career. He published many works on the relationship between art and psychiatry including Schizophrenia and Art. A Contribution to the Psychology of Formal Configuration and The Plastic Activity of the Mentally Ill. A contribution to the psychology and psychopathology of formal configuration. The latter was published in 1922 by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, another pioneer of art brut who collected over 5,000 pieces of art created by over 450 patients.
The Prinzhorn collection is filled with some of the most contemporary-looking art you could find today, despite the fact that it was created in the last century. The collection is a unique insight into the inner psyche, with thousands of papers brimming with expressions of tense anxiety. Some of the most emotional work is created by Emma Hauck, admitted to an asylum in Heidelberg for schizophrenia. Emma wrote obsessively to her absent husband in pages of intense, overlapping scribbles. The words are inscribed with pencil and form beautifully delicate compositions that convey Emma’s desperation through the manic scrawling. Layers of overlapping words form dense and emotive textures, her work is a haunting plea of love that was sadly never answered as Emma died in the asylum. Artists such as Emma are now well-known through the now-famous Prinzhorn collection, influencing key artists of the expressionist movement such including Paul Klee and Edvard Munch.
Over the decades, art brut has steadily gained recognition for its highly-original and emotional output. Aesthetic rhythms and repetition are frequently seen, the act of gestural rhythm and repeated symbols seems to offer a release. Scribbles, dashes, mark-making, an infinity of dots, hold the stresses of their artists’ minds compositionally. The work is devoid of a formal artist training, there is no foreshadowing nor sense of perspective, instead, the work is overflowing with rich, symbolic imagery that feels totally intuitive to the artist’s communication.
During the 1980s, the Gugging hospital restructured and a unique opportunity arose for a group of artistically gifted patients and their psychiatrist Leo Navratil. Leo founded the centre for art-psychotherapy, housing 18 patients who could use the space to support their creative output full time. In 1983, Leo’s assistant Johann Feilacher became artistic director of Museum Gugging and leader of The House of Artists once Leo retired. In the same year, the iconic mural on the building’s facade began and three years later, the building’s name changed to today’s The House of Artists. Crucially, the label “patient” was removed and the public interest moved towards the creative output of the artists and not their mental status.
Artistic director Johann Feilacher and Gugging representative Edith Wildmann spoke to It’s Nice That about the innovative creative space and the inner workings of the organisation. Johann selects the residents at The House of Artists, “paying special attention to already existing works and the artistic talent of the potential residents. There is no limit to their stay”, making the The House of Artists a truly exceptional artist residency. The house is attached to the nearby Museum Gugging and Galerie Gugging where the artists’ work is displayed and sold, if they desire it. Other artworks become part of the museum’s permanent collection. The museum additionally holds an impressive collection of art brut work for visitors to experience. Artists such as Johann Hauser, August Walla, and Oswald Tschirtner have garnered international acclaim through their experiences at the house, exhibiting around the world from Tokyo to Philadelphia.
On the everyday workings of The House of Artists, Johann and Edith explain how the house provides an “assisted living community for people with artistic talents and special needs, who live and work there. Today, 13 persons live here, most of them are artistically active. The open studio is well attended everyday, it is not only a working area for artists living in Gugging but also open to everyone who wants to become creative in a generous and supportive atmosphere… The permanent collection at Gugging grows continually and the artworks can be presented in the changing exhibition in the museum or can be borrowed as loans internationally”.
At Gugging, they differentiate between artistic work and art therapy, Johann and Edith “do not offer art therapy but assistance for the individual creative process”. Although being creative has a positive effect on people’s mental health, Johann believes “there is no difference between artists with special needs and others. The question is rather whether a person is talented or not — the likeliness of being talented is the same”.
Ultimately, the art world is becoming increasingly more accepting and sensitive to “other” types of art, outside mainstream culture. The reception and distribution of art from minority cultures is often still stigmatised because of the inherent labels attached to the work which prevent it from being viewed critically. “The stigmatising exclusion of social groups according to the principle of nominative determinism” continue to perpetuate a “conceptual hierarchical system” in art. Whether these social groups consist of disability, race or gender, adhering to this system only reflects a one-dimensional understanding of society.
However, there are contemporary movements such as art brut and the work of Leo, Hans, Johann and Edith that embody an inclusive approach to art which tries to understand the work in a de-hierarchised manner.
In today’s context of the Western art world, galleries and institutions are endeavouring to become more representational — whether that be in a tokenistic vein or through a genuine concern – these ideas have only just landed in our mainstream channels. Whereas the work of Gugging has gone above and beyond itself in recognising and supporting the artistic potentials of a minority community for the past 30-odd years. Representatives of art brut continue to enlighten the world with the aesthetic freedom that so many “mainstream” artists strive for. Famously, Picasso said “it took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”. Similarly, in contemporary illustration, more and more creatives attempt to capture a sense of naivete in their work whereas representatives of art brut is unaware of aesthetic trend and create their work completely authentically. Perhaps the key to their originality involves their detachment from the mainstream and unaware of trends. Their aesthetic is a true interpretation of how they experience the world and should be critically viewed as such.