While a-wandering aimlessly through Primrose Hill yesterday, I came across the Museum of Everything. This is a pretty lofty claim for any museum to make, particularly one that small. The Museum is, in fact, an exhibition of Outsider Art.
Outsider Art is another of those very broad terms. It theoretically means art produced by someone outside of the mainstream art world. However, a few of the artists on display at the Museum (notably Alfred Wallis) are fairly respectable these days, so I suppose an easier definition would be “art by weirdoes.” No doubt someone will tell me off for that definition, but it’s the simplest one I can think of. Outsider artists are often untrained, naive and primitivist in style. The Outsider Art movement started in the 1920s when the psychiatrist Dr Walter Morgenthaler began studying the art produced by mental patients in his care. The concept was enthusiastically embraced by world of anti-establishment art and, over the years, has broadened in scope to the point where I have trouble summing it up in less than a hundred words.
The artworks on display, as you might imagine, were fascinating. Some were childlike, some obsessive, some bizarro and disturbing. Each artist’s work was displayed with a plaque giving some critical perspective, often serving primarily to show how very much cleverer the critic is than you, the plebeian viewer.
One exhibit they had was easy to overlook – a single painting, only about the size of a postcard, hung on the corridor wall. It depicted what appeared to be a cat in abstract pattern form. This was a work by Louis Wain. The critical perspective was by Nick Cave and simply said, “Louis Wain. My all-time favourite artist.” Thanks, Nick.
Louis Wain is a favourite artist of mine. I’ve never really thought of him as an outsider artist, as he enjoyed a great deal of commercial success in the Edwardian era. However, he’s now probably as famous for his mental illness as he is for his actual work, so I suppose it’s a justifiable label.
I first became aware of Wain’s work when I played him on stage a few years back (see Further Reading for a review, below). His thing, as an artist, was cats.
His most successful works depicted anthropomorphised cats, such as the ones on the left. In the Edwardian era, these were hugely popular, and there was even a series of Louis Wain annuals. It’s even commonly suggested (not least by Wain himself) that the popularity of cats as a household pet is in part due to these cartoons.
He was born in Clerkenwell in 1860 and was a sickly child with a cleft lip. He wasn’t sent to school until the age of ten, and was never what you’d call a good pupil, preferring to play truant and go off exploring nature. He trained as an artist and became a teacher and commercial illustrator. In 1883 he caused something of a scandal by marrying Emily Richardson, his former governess. The concept of a younger man marrying an older woman being considered bizarre and perverted at the time (whereas the other way round is, of course, absolutely in line with the natural order of things). Sadly, Emily died three years later from cancer. To entertain her during her long illness, Louis bought a black and white cat named Peter whom he taught to perform tricks. His pictures of Peter gave him his first major commercial success, and things took off from there.
His cartoon cats were, as he saw it, a means of getting closer to human nature. He would satirise current human trends by depicting its practitioners in feline form and even produced cat-caricatures of prominent figures of the day. He also produced semi-realistic portraits of cats (although they almost always had cartoonishly large eyes) and, famously, abstract “pattern cats.”
Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the popularity of his cats proved to be a fad, and by the end of the First World War his work had ceased to be popular. What made things worse was the fact that while he was stylistically versatile, he only really had the one subject. He never quite got the hang of art that didn’t involve cats. An inability to adapt, coupled with his appalling business sense, resulted in his being reduced to poverty. Many of his sketches from this period were actually done in lieu of payment for goods and services.
And at this point I suppose we should get on to the reason he’s classed as an Outsider. From an early age, Wain was seen as something of an oddball. His speech tended to be disjointed and often zipping off on strange tangents. A drink he rather enjoyed was Bovril and soda. He developed strange beliefs about the properties of electricity and its effects on people. Worse, as time went on, he became increasingly delusional and violent towards his sisters (with whom he lived following Emily’s death) and in 1924 was institutionalised at the Springfield Hospital in Tooting.
The initial diagnosis was that he was a “neuropath,” although he was later rediagnosed as having schizophrenia. A theory gaining increasing popularity is that he actually had Asberger’s Syndrome, which at the time wasn’t understood. This would certainly fit with his erratic behaviour, as well as his obsessive cat-painting. A popular but stupid theory has it that the progression of Wain’s mental illness can be traced in the abstraction of his work. That is to say, the abstract cats illustrate the way he actually saw the world at that point. As theories go, this is up there with “Hey, The Magic Roundabout is a bit weird, they must have been on drugs, amirite?” Detractors of the theory, including Yr. Humble Chronicler, make the following points.
- Much of his work is undated, so we have no way of knowing how ill he was when he produced his unpublished work.
- His father was a textile salesman. Wain’s “pattern cats” are more likely to have been influenced by fabric patterns than a disjointed mind.
- He produced a number of pictures during his time in hospital which aren’t abstract.
- If he was so nutty that he saw cats as colourful geometric patterns, how come he could still sign his name, smartarse?
- Schizophrenics don’t see the world like that, you fail psychology forever.
Fortunately for Wain, while he may no longer have been popular commercially, the public retained a great deal of affection for him. In 1925, when he was found on the pauper ward at Springfield, an appeal was launched to assist him with such names attached as H. G. Wells and Stanley Baldwin, the then Prime Minister. He was moved to the rather more pleasant Bethlem Royal Hospital in Lambeth (now the Imperial War Museum) and then to the more countrified Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. He died in 1939.
He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, and his grave is, it must be said, in a somewhat dilapidated condition.
http://www.museumofeverything.com/ – The Museum of Everything
http://www.yat.org.uk/productions/index.php3?sid=93 – This is what happened when I played Louis Wain.
http://www.lilitu.com/catland/gallery.shtml – A Wain gallery.
http://www.chrisbeetles.com/gallery/artist.php?art=3077 – Another Wain gallery
http://www.cerebromente.org.br/gallery/gall_leonardo/fig1-a.htm – The theory about Wain’s progressive abstraction.