‘Outsider Art’ is defined as the production of art and imagery by individuals practising out with cultural and societal norms. It originates from the research of mentally ill in-patients by psychiatrists in the early 20th century, the art of whom influenced contemporary figures such as Jean Dubuffet and Andre Breton. Dubuffet characterised the output as ‘Art Brut’ (or, ‘Raw Art’), becoming greatly impressed by what he regarded as the purity of their creativity. Their work was produced without training, indeed without awareness of itself as art at all, the result being what Dubuffet saw as a wholly unfettered directness; completely lacking in inhibition and undistorted by cultural bias.
Now an avidly collected field with its own dedicated art fair held annually in New York and Paris, the remit of ‘Outsider Art’ has expanded to include any untrained figure producing work on society’s margins, through disability or eccentricity, for example. The collection we will offer in our 18 April Modern British & Contemporary Art auction represents a rare body of examples dating from that earliest definition of the genre.
Dr. Alec C. Dalzell 1905-1990, painter and psychiatrist, was appointed Medical Superintendent of Friern Hospital in 1945. Already the Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 had strongly influenced his ideas about the root source of art, and fuelled his interest in the links between creativity and mental illness, the boundary between illness and art. He had also been influenced by Hans Prinzhorn’s book, The Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922), and several of the styles represented in his collection have a family resemblance to the ‘schizophrenic masters’ illustrated in Prinzhorn’s work.
By 1945 there were a large number of displaced, war-traumatised persons in Friern Hospital including many Jews and others from Eastern Europe, Poland and the Ukraine. Images from this group appear to have particularly interested Dalzell; for example the biographical carpet-picture by ‘Prof. Erkhoff’, or another patient’s extensive text and graphic diary of Hospital life made by using blue crayon on toilet paper.
The collected images are highly individual, full of precision and intent. Dr. Dalzell believed that meaningful activity for patients was therapeutic. His collection was shown to staff and students within the hospital a number of times. Perhaps because these works interested him more as a painter than as a doctor, they do not appear to have been collected to illustrate particular pathologies. The comments attached to the corners of some of the work refer only to the mood of a patient while making the work.
By the 1960’s sedation (by chlorpromazine for example) had become an accepted way to control patients. Heavily sedated patients were no longer able to produce work characterised by the kind of impulsive energy, or intricate hypnotic detail that prompted Dalzell to make his collection. Indeed, the art room activity variety of Occupational Therapy which he had encouraged became known as ‘diversionism’.
Of his collection of written work, letters and journals collected from various hospitals in South London beginning in the 1930’s, Dalzell said that, as with the visual pieces, it had been the artistry of the writers that had interested him. He recalled a moment when reading a stream-of-consciousness novel given to him by one of the Bloomsbury Group and thinking: "my patients can do that".
After the 1960’s, Friern Hospital was slowly wound down. In 1993 the old asylum was converted into luxury flats and renamed Princess Park Manor. This unique collection comes to market directly via Dr Dalzell’s descendants.