An Interview with Roger Cardinal, “The Father of Outsider Art” (Part 1)

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An Interview with Roger Cardinal, “The Father of Outsider Art” (Part 1)

Interviewer: Roger McDonald


[Text]  ISHIDA Eri

[Photograph]  Roger McDonald

[ Edit]  Arts Initiative Tokyo

This article is a translated version, which was originally published in Japanese language on 21 May, 2017.

Reading time:5 minutes

(Date updated)07 June, 2019

(About this story)

The 1970s marked a turning point when alternative forms of art started to resonate with people. It was during this time that British art critic Roger Cardinal translated and continued the concept of art brut, which had been coined and defined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, and further expanded it through his book Outsider Art, which was published in 1972. Similarly to art brut, the term “outsider art” has also been discussed in many different ways. What was the background to his invention of the term? And how does Cardinal now reflect on the 45 years of its history since the term’s inception? The curator Roger McDonald visited his former teacher in his home in the outskirts of London. McDonald’s interview with Cardinal is published in several parts.


Photo: Nahoko Morimoto

The Path from Surrealism to Art Brut

Roger McDonald: You published the historically important book Outsider Art in 1972. What led you to write this book?

Roger Cardinal: I wrote a book on Surrealism with a friend, Robert Short, titled Surrealism-Permanent Revelation,01 which was published in 1970. Our publisher was a small press called Studio Vista, which was working on the idea of putting out a library of books about Surrealism02 and the avant-garde.03 I had been researching the Surrealism movement in Paris at that time, and I was asked if I had something I would like to write about. I said that I would like to look at the writings and the verbal imaging of Arthur Rimbaud,04 the French poet, wander, and miscreant who fascinated me.

As I was further researching Rimbaud, I realized that writing about Rimbaud was going to be a matter of tracking down material I already had, which did not seem to be original. However, this research opened up my eyes to the fact that there was something else happening in the world of visual art. I suspect part of the reason I switched over to the world of outsider art had to do with the long work we had done tracking down visual material for the book on Surrealism.

At some stage I was asked if I had thought of Jean Dubuffet’s05 idea of art brut.06 While I had little knowledge of what was going on in the world outside academic07 art at that point, I saw that there was a demonstration of some of Rimbaud’s ideas: to take the dream seriously, to let the imagination be a primary element in any creative work, and to rely on things going wrong in a different direction from what you had planned. I think a lot of the thinking around the principles of Surrealism had to do with whether I could make something out of it myself and to know about it. It took me very little time to shift my focus to art brut.

The Revolution Jean Dubuffet was Plotting in the Art World

McDonald: Did you know Jean Dubuffet then?

Cardinal: I had heard about Dubuffet, but had not realized that people who had been influenced by Dubuffet’s philosophy were producing a kind of revolutionary movement. I was carefully observing what he meant and how that fitted into the ideas of the avant-garde.

In his pronouncements he says something like this: “There is something else that you have missed entirely. Take a look at these people who happen to be thwarted in their normal life and development, have had a bad accident happen to them, or those who are heartbroken because their girlfriend never wrote back. There can be so many reasons why people drop into some kind of apathy or depression.”

McDonald: In other words, everyone has the potential to become an art brut artist tomorrow.

Cardinal: Surrealism sensitized me to that because they studied things like suicide. Surrealism made use of anti-rightwing positions, too. For example they took up the Marquis de Sade08 as one of their heroes just to get their enemies mad, which are the bourgeoisie, the educational system, and the political right. These things are bouncing around in the background in the 1930s and 1940s. It became obvious that I had found something really good in Dubuffet’s theories and I began to read his polemic thinking that he was another Surrealist! Dubuffet belongs in the same kind of pantheon of people that one should know about, that one should respect, and that one should travel with in mind. They are part of your intellectual equipment.

McDonald: And it was then that you started writing the book.

Cardinal: I told my publisher about Dubuffet, and they said that this was interesting and that I should find out more about it. At some point I wrote a proposal for a book and The Art of the Artless was the title at one point, I remember.

Cardinal: A lot of outsider art rotates around issues of personality, of asking who I am, which means going deep into the inner self of an individual. So this kind of research could be dangerous, provocative, and damaging to you in such a way that you may never be able to write a book again.

McDonald: The mainstream art world at that time had rigid rules and fetters, which is unimaginable today. Your theme was something that could challenge and anger the art world.

Cardinal: Yes. I was in my early forties and still young enough to feel that I could take charge of this. I went to Paris to get ammunition for this book. It was like a kind of intellectual raid on Dubuffet, who didn’t seem to mind very much. When I went to see him and spoke to him, he had seen my proposal and the first chapter or so of my book. Day by day over about three weeks, I was looking at material, three or four artists per day with guidance from Dubuffet himself, besides going through the pamphlets and a series of books about the general sphere of art brut he authored. Dubuffet was a guerrilla warfare man, really. With these writings, he was challenging the unsuspecting Parisian art world.

McDonald: Against this backdrop, Dubuffet’s art brut encompassed an element that is much more political than today.

Cardinal: Yes, but unfortunately not many people took any notice of his efforts.

McDonald: There is a 27-year gap between 1945, when the term “art brut” was coined, and 1972, when you published Outsider Art. As far as I know, no researcher or critic publicly researched art brut during these years, which makes me think how pioneering you were.

The First Readers of Outsider Art

McDonald: In the book, you speak about an “alternative kind of art” and how Dubuffet was criticizing an academic idea of art. From the perspective of today, where the art world is now so expansive and incorporates almost anything, it sounds like a whole other world. Was it so rigidified and policed back then?

Cardinal: Well, this all happened long ago, and it is long dead. At the time I was starting to write the book and recognize names of artists that I had never heard of. I felt that the time was right for certain things to happen. The fact is, though, that my book was largely ignored. There was a paperback version for the US and a hardcover version in England. It did not sell at all. But many artists found out about it and were ready to be indoctrinated into this alternative world.

McDonald: First it was the artists who took notice of the book, followed by art critics and historians.

Cardinal: In 1979, we had an exhibition, “The Outsiders,” at the Hayward Gallery in London. Dubuffet had already shown some of his collection in public, but outsider art had never been exposed to the wider public up to this point. This was another reason that I was so grateful to him for approving my work. I don’t think he actually read my book, as his English was not that good. But he could see where I was headed and he seemed to be quite pleased about the whole enterprise.

McDonald: Where were you “heading” and what was the book’s actual content?

Cardinal: The book summarizes the important parts of Dubuffet’s work, and I added some other impressive groups of intellectuals that I had found to further enrich the discourse, namely Walter Morgenthaler,09 who looked after Adolf Wolfli and wrote the first book about him, Hans Prinzhorn10, the great collector of psychotic art, and Leo Navratil,11 of the Gugging Collection, who found an artistic quality in mental health patients and cultivated their talents from the 1950s.

Gradually things became normal to me. “Oh, here is another person that had visions,” I would think. “Here is another artist that was said to be suicidal and then began to see things on the wall that they began to copy. And here is another person that had this bad luck in their life and started bringing pebbles from the sea home and stuck them all round their house.”

Read part 2.


01: Surrealism-Permanent Revelation

Surrealism: Permanent Revelation is co-authored by Roger Cardinal and Robert Stuart Short, and was translated into Japanese by Jun Ebara and published in 1977 by Parco Publishing. The book gives an overview of the background to the Surrealist movement and also explains the literary experiments conducted by the Surrealists and their usefulness through illustrations.

02: Surrealism

Surrealism was established in the aftermath of World War I when French writer and poet André Breton (1896–1966) issued the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Continuing the spirit of Dada and drawing on the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the movement revolutionized the literary and art scenes. It advocated for the liberation of humanity from the constraints of social structures through expressing dreams, illusions, and the unconscious while eliminating reason and logic. Surrealists employed such experimental techniques as automatism (automatic writing) and dépaysement (dis-placement or dis-orientation). Originating in Paris, the movement was influential worldwide in the 20th century.

03: Avant-garde

“Avant-garde” is used on this website to refer to avant-garde art. This was a visual revolution that took place from the end of the 19th century into the 20th century with the aim of pioneering artistic expression that could destroy the conventional concepts and forms in art. It also encompassed criticism of state authority and the bourgeoisie. Surrealism is one of the many avant-garde movements and forms that emerged at this time, which began with Impressionism in the 1870s and later included Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, and the Russian avant-garde.

04: Arthur Rimbaud

(1854–1891) Known as a “precocious genius,” Arthur Rimbaud was a major poet of 19th-century Symbolism. Against a backdrop of social instability, Rimbaud wrote such poetry collections as A Season in Hell and Illuminations within the span of just a few years in his late teens, causing a storm among the younger generation in Europe and revolutionizing the literary scene. He abandoned poetry when he was 20 years old and, after changing occupation multiple times, ended his life at the age of 37. His poetry became legendary and had a great impact on the Surrealist movement.

05: Jean Dubuffet

(1901–1985) Jean Dubuffet was a French painter. He inherited his father’s wine business and became a painter in his forties. He was one of the pioneers of the avant-garde Art Informel movement. In 1945, rejecting the old-fashioned values and fetters embodied in the Western art tradition, Dubuffet coined the term “art brut” (literally, raw art) for paintings made by people who had not received a formal art education, including those with mental disabilities and so-called “primitive” people, and widely promoted them as art.

06: Art Brut

The term “art brut” literally means “raw art” in French. It was coined in 1945 by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to advocate pure artistic expression free from the conventions of techniques and trends, made by artists who have not received a formal art education. British art critic Roger Cardinal later translated this into English as “outsider art,” which then became widely recognized around the world.

07: Academic

“Academic” generally means what is scholastic, traditional, and conforming to conventions. The term as used on this website specifically refers to normative realist painters and their artworks that are influenced by the traditions and formality of European art academies. Although art academies in Europe produced many elite artists, they had conservative tendencies.

08: Marquis de Sade

(1740–1814) Marquis de Sade was a French aristocrat and novelist during the French Revolution era. His libertine novels were so free from the constraints of morality, religion, and law that the word “sadism” is today derived from his name. Exploiting his privileged position as an aristocrat, Sade led a dissipated life of adultery and cruelty against prostitutes and women from discriminated groups. His debauchery cost him dearly, to the extent that he spent almost the entire last half of his life in prisons and psychiatric hospitals in Paris. Most of his novels were written in prison, based on his sexual fantasies. Sade’s work angered the bourgeoisie at the time as it shed light on how fornication had become normalized in the aristocracy.

09: Walter Morgenthaler

(1882–1965) Walter Morgenthaler was a Swiss psychiatrist who later became well known in the history of art brut and outsider art. As Adolf Wölfli’s attending doctor, he came to be interested in Wölfli’s paintings, which Wölfli voluntarily started making for his mental stability. Morgenthaler then published A Mental Patient as Artist in 1921. After Hans Prinzhorn’s book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, was published in the following year, Wölfli’s paintings began to sell.

10: Hans Prinzhorn

(1886–1933) Hans Prinzhorn was a German psychiatrist and art historian. A year after Walter Morgenthaler introduced Adolf Wölfli to the public, Prinzhorn published Artistry of the Mentally Ill in 1922, a historically important book that includes roughly 150 works of art created by people with mental disabilities, which he collected from psychiatric hospitals and institutions across Europe (a Japanese translation, retitled What Did People with Mental Disabilities Create? The Origin of Outsider Art and Art Brut, by Akira Hayashi was published by Minerva Publishing in 2014). This book was the first of its kind to investigate the creative endeavors of people with mental disabilities, and influenced avant-garde artists at that time as well as the founder of art brut, Jean Dubuffet.

11: Leo Navratil

 (1921–2006) Leo Navratil was an Austrian psychiatrist. Finding an artistic quality in the drawings his patients created, he continued to tutor them carefully from the 1950s onwards in order to nurture their talents. His efforts eventually came to fruition when the work of his patients became highly valued as the result of widespread exposure through a documentary film and books. In 1970, Navratil organized an exhibition and, in 1981, he established the “House of Artists” in a wing of Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, where patients (that is, artists) can devote themselves to creating art while living together.