An Insane Asylum inside Frieze Masters Unlocks an Untold Niche of Art History
There are perhaps few better exponents of art at the fringes of sanity than the late French dramatist Antonin Artaud. “Words say little to the mind... But space thundering with images and crammed with sounds speaks,” Artaud famously wrote in 1933.
These sentiments ring true when considering the 2015 Frieze Masters booth of Helly Nahmad London, no doubt the most talked-about sight across both Frieze fairs on their first two days. The stand is split halfway down the middle, presenting works by French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet (a friend and contemporary of Artaud’s) opposite a reimagining of three interiors—mocked-up versions of spaces in sanatoriums and asylums that Dubuffet visited while in search of inspiration in 1945. Staring upon the mental wreckage of people’s lives, visitors are invited to take in walls scrawled with impromptu images; textbooks and dolls belonging to imagined patients; medication contained in cabinets; invisible convalescents’ sleeping quarters and bedspreads. Separated from the rest of the fair by tall white walls, viewers also find themselves transported by period music.
The aim is to juxtapose Dubuffet’s work—tessellated, almost cubist renderings of scribbled, segmented figures—with the scenarios that inspired it. “I think it’s fantastic to be able to reconnect the works we wanted to show with the original source of that inspiration,” says gallery spokeswoman Georgia Gilbert. Dubuffet coined the term “Art Brut,” for which he is most famous, after visiting places such as those recreated here. These visits also heightened Dubuffet’s interest in German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, which showcases the work of 10 “schizophrenic masters.” This art form, claims the gallery’s official accompanying material, “embraced the outsider, including the ‘primitive,’ the eccentric, and the untrained.” Dubuffet built his career around such sentiments, eschewing painterly tradition for a more frenetic style.
“Dubuffet naturally falls into the territory of art outside the mainstream, so we wanted somehow to cover his interest in that,” says production designer Robin Brown, who worked with producer Anna Pank on the booth. “When Dubuffet went to meet Prinzhorn and visited various asylums—that seemed like the perfect time to set our installation, because it was just on the cusp of Art Brut. We didn’t want to just put Dubuffet opposite some outsider art, as it doesn’t explain anything.”
Brown’s aim, he says, was to “create a backstory,” ultimately to entice people to stick around. The designer achieved this at last year’s booth with his staging of a fictional 1968 collector’s apartment, where real art merged with a faked interior. Fontana gaped above a desk and ashtray; Picasso’s sharp elbows tried to make room between socialist-style posters. This year is arguably more conservative. The booth’s art is displayed separately against a white background, with no side-by-side mixing of the factual and fictive.
So how accurate is Brown’s recreation? “We had a picture researcher in Paris and we spoke to some asylums,” he says. “Patients did decorate their cells and it felt appropriate that you should see someone’s vision. The main room is more of a fiction, though, the idea that they expressed themselves all over the walls.”
While its motivation is apparently commercial, the booth asks complex questions about what it is to be inspired by those who lack equal agency. Would it be more acceptable if Dubuffet, like Artaud, was mentally ill, and felt that an appreciation for “the living whirlwind that devours the darkness” (as Artaud wrote) was a necessary part of life and art? And what does it mean to be spectators to this—especially those who are economically buying into it?
“At some point these artists and the doctors involved sort of exploited the patients,” says Brown. “And some of the patients’ conditions were encouraged by doing mad things. André Breton and Dubuffet were both friends with Artaud, who committed suicide. You could say that encouraging someone like that to produce more tormented art could contribute to his illness.” There is also the flipside, he says, referring to the snobbery among those who don’t believe outsider art should be considered within the art world’s traditional firmament.
How should we parse Dubuffet’s influences, then, while looking on ourselves? This year, the booth is less accessible, but arguably more challenging and brave in the uncomfortable questions it poses. “I’m not aware that any of the artists involved in this ever donated money to mental health or helped mental health in any way,” concludes Brown. “But then Dubuffet did spend his entire life promoting and collecting their work. So there is some balance.”