Laurent Danchin: My journey in the realm of outsider art
1/ My passion for the visual arts, be they the creation of formally trained or self-taught artists, did not start with Art Brut or Jean Dubuffet, whom I met rather late (my book Dubuffet, peintre-philosophe, was only published in 1988 ). It started with classical and modern art, which I had frequented throughout my childhood, as I grew up in a very cultured family, passionate about painting and with which I would often visit churches and museums.
2/ In my young age, I did a lot of drawing and painting myself, from when I was about ten to when I was eighteen years old. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a writer and an amateur painter. It was he who offered me, for my tenth birthday, a kit of supplies for oil painting, complete with an easel and a palette. I spent my teen years painting reproductions of the masters whom I loved, for my family’s friends, sometimes on order (for instance, I copied Vermeer’s Little Street from a postcard). I was one of a kind in a family of scientists and they would think of me as the family’s artist. The family clown also, the one who made everyone laugh, but who was rarely taken seriously. However, my father had a great uncle, Leon Danchin, who was a failry well-known draughtsman and painter of animals, up in the Nord region. He still is well known to hunters for his litographies of dogs on the scent. We share the same initials, L.D., but the family never made a fuss about Leon Danchin, he was seen as some family curiosity, nothing more.
3/ My actual entrance into the world of outsider art happened in November 1975, when I discovered Chomo’s Village of Prleludian Art, in Achères-la-Fôret; I was taken there by my friend, the draughtsman Jean de Maximy (father of Antoine de Maximy, the creator of the television programme Ce soir j’irai dormir chez vous). Jean lived in Samois-sur-Seine, where Django Reinart is buried, and I lived very close by, in Fontaine-le Port, a pretty little village on the Seine, withiin striking distance of Valvins and Samoreau, where Stéphane Mallarmé is buried. The next village was Héricy, where Gaston Ferdière, Artaud’s psychiatrist, had retired. He was an avid collector of folk art and of all kinds of curiosities. Later on, I published his archives and he became an intimate friend of mine.
Back in the day, Ferdière was the partner of the painter Jane Graverol, the muse of Belgian surrealism. My then wife Maïthé was herself a painter and interior designer. Chomo’s kingdom was a half an hour’s drive away from our home, but we would have never applied the term art singulier to it, as it didn’t exist yet . We would say art marginal and underground culture to designate everything that was outside of the establishment and the mainstream. We were living on the hippie slope of the counter-cultural movement, the artists’ slope. The other one was the revolutionary leftism expressed in France in the form of the Proletarian Left’s Maoism and all of all the Trotskian sects, that is to say anti-Stalinist dissident communists. Within this search for new ways of living on a day-to-day basis, heavily marked by folk music, rock’n roll and Californian culture, Chomo’s village appeared as a sort of sketch of an ideal community or an attempt at a parallel way of living that the Japanese came to film, on All Saints Day, 1982 .
But Chomo had been a brilliant student of the Paris School of Fine Arts in the 1920s-1930s. He was a trained artist who could draw very well and who would have been an excellent animal sculptor in an earlier era. As for his training as a painter, it was that of modern art (from Art Nouveau to cubism and post-impressionism) and his captivity drawings, which were shown for the first time at the Tours Castle (in an exhibition titled Faites un rêve avec Chomo!, from December 4, 2015 to February 14, 2016) are quite evocative of a certain comic book. It was therefore quite an error to superficially assimilate him to Art Brut, on account of his extreme way of living and his non-conforming side, on the one hand, and also because he used recycled materials that he recovered in landfills, which is to say typically Art Brut materials, on the other hand. It’s the same kind of jumbling up that led some to classify as raw artists or artistes singuliers all kinds of creators, who did by no means belong to the same family or sensitivity, but who had as single common denominator the fact of not fitting the hegemonic ideology of Contemporary Art.
Thus, the art of Chomo, much like that of a great many artists who remained pure draughtsmen, sculptors, engravers or painters, is the very contrary of Art Brut and has nothing to do with it. While not being Academic art, it is highly learned – one may be a savant without being an academic and an academic without being savant, and it was precisely this art, issued from Modern Art and which had been the primary formation of all the artists who had graduated Fine Arts schools prior to May 68, that was brutally marginalised and left on the side of the road, to not say that it was staight out thrown in the gutter, during the great shift of contemporary art over the 1970-1980 decade. When modern art, up to that point centred mainly in Paris and Europe, became international , crossed over to the American market, to marketing, to communication strategies, to new urban media (ex. Andy Warhol), but, more importantly, it shifted from the traditional literary approach of art (until then the great art critics were poets and writers), to a University approach, which is to say a theoretical analytical approach, one thathad the pretense of being scietific (the „concept”), greatly copying the industrial world, the world of engineering, of design and advertising, forgetting in the process or willingly discarding, out if some bias or another, the old pre-68 know-how (sculpting. Drawing, painting etc.). In this respect, Chomo was just one of so many genuine artists who were humiliated and kicked to the curb by the movement of history itself, for having remained faithful to their true original vocation, to their nature and their gifts. It is in this respect that his story is truly exemplary and it is undoubtedly one of the reasons why I have remained so fond of him to this day.
For my part, I had just seen, in November 1975, at the Museum of Decorative Arts of Paris (run at that time by the brilliant François Mathey), the famous exhibition curated by Jean Dethier, Architectures marginales aux USA, which had just caused a major diplomatic incident between France and the United States and I realise in hindsight that it was especially these architectures and the sculpture gardens , which were later on called outsider environments, which captivated my fancy and my passion for them never left me since.
4/ Then, it was the exhibition titled Les Singuliers de l’art, hosted by the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris (and organised by Suzanne Pagé’s ARC in January-April 1978) that was for me and for many of my generation that revelation of the world of self-taught artists and it was the same exhibition that launched, by the mediation of the press, the term art singulier in France.
But we remained outside the perimeter of Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut, seeing that it was mostly the collection of Alain Bourbonnais (nowadays at the Fabuloserie) that constituted the core of this exhibition, along with some moderately-interesting installations by the “habitants-paysagistes” of Bernanrd Lassus, and the films done by Claude and Clovis Prévost (to which I indirectly contributed by writing a text on Chomo). And it was as a result of this exhibition, that crashed into the artistic world like an UFO, that the French formed the habit of deeming art singulier all the forms derived from raw art that would have never been homologated by Dubuffet himself (who, as people tend to forget only too often, continued to wield, until his death in 1985, a considerable power of intimidation). However, the term outsider art had already been coined in 1972 (as the English title of the book that Roger Cardinal had written on Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut , a book which had made an enormous impression on the English world of fine arts, as I can still vividly recall).
5/ As far as I am concerned, it was only in 1986 that I became truly interested in Jean Dubuffet, as I had a friend, Gabrielle Rolin, who worked for the publishing house Les Éditions de la Manufacture and who asked me one evening over dinner to write his biography. And I accepted because it was an opportunity for me to explore the universe of an artist whom I only knew indirectly. And that is how I moved, in a sort of regression, from outsider art to Art Brut. Following that, I realised for the television channel France Culture a series of „historic” instalments titled Art Brut & Compagnie which were aired during the Chemins de la Connaissance programme of Claude Mettra. During these instalments, I presented the Art Brut Collection of Lausanne, together with Michel Thévoz, the Fabuloserie of Alain Bourbonnais, the Aracine of Madeleine Lommel and Michel Nedjar and the project of the painter Jean Revol to create a museum of the art „of the origins”, which was never seen through. Revol was an animator of artistic workshops dedicated to people with autism, in southern France. This television programme was the first in France to give a global visibility to thise domain and, among other things, it made the Aracine known to the public, for which Madeleine Lommel was very grateful to me.
Meanwhile, thanks to Jean-Paul Vidal, the most atypical of photographers and definitely the most knowledgeable on all things outsider art, whom I had met at Chomo’s, and with the help of my friend Jean-Paul Favand, the creator of the Musée de l’art forain of the Pavillons de Bercy, I had saved from being burnt the entire ceation of a genious naïve painter from Pithiviers, the gardener Germain Tessier, that I had the opportunity to present to the public during Hervé di Rosa’s MIAM in the town of Sète .
I always loved genuine naïve artists, or, as I call them, the „raw naïves” and I always fought against the absurd, often-times artificial, barrier that some try to place between two sides of contemporary folk art, which are in fact complementary instead of opposed, as the sacred is to the profane and figurative and narrative art is to abstract or informel art.
It was around this time that I started to take an active interest in Art Brut, outsider art and outsider environments: by heading a campaign to save the Carousel of Petit Pierre, which was eventually donated to the Fabuloserie (1984-1988), by writing a special TV programme for Pierre de Lagarde’s show Chefs d’oeuvre en péril, which was usually dedicated to the safeguard of old churches and castles and by becoming, in late 1989, the French correspondent of the magazine Raw Vision, which remains to this day the international magazine for Art Brut, outsider art and selftaught art or for what the anglo-saxons readily call visionary art, an expression which is very little used in France, save for the writer Michel Random and to which the notion of psychic art is prefered, although its meaning is far from synonymous.
It was Madeleine Lommel and Michel Nedjar who introduced me to Roger Cardinal and he, in his turn, introduced me to John Maizels, the creator of Raw Vision and soon thereafter my friend, simply because I spoke English better most of the people from the small milieu of raw art. At that time, John only swore by Nek Chand, the genious who created the Rock Garden of Chandigarh and he had made Chand the emblem of the magazine, since its very first issue. It was in John’s home in London and then again in Paris that I met the excentic photographer Seymour Rosen (1935-2006), who had been one of the first defenders, in 1958, of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. I then published in Artension ! , in August 1988, an interview of Rosen accompanied by an article which presented for the first time in France and undoubtedly in all of Europe, the American outsider environments.
This Anglo-American exposure was decisive for me and it changed my outlook on the world of raw art, outsider art and folk art, by helping me break out for ever of the narrow suffocating circle of the purely French fans of the field. And in the process it left with just enough time on my hands to embark on an intermitent crusade against the other great French evil, which Pierre Souchaud was already fending off indefatiguably :the collusion between the official services of the „Cultural State” and Contemporary Art (the CA of Christine Sourgins), the official hegemony of which has been experienced, for the past thirty or fourty yeras, as a scourge and a form of opression by every creator that I know.
6/ At this point I was starting to dream of a place, not for a new general exhibition of outsider art, but for a film festival showing all the extraordinary creators that fascinated me and, through the mediation of my friend Vincent Grousson, who was a pre-press operator at Telerama, I made acquaintance of the manager, Pierre Bérard, who I knew was a collector of ex-votos and a lover of folk art, and he offered a collaboration to me. I was then contacted by Martine Lusardy, the new manager of the Halle Saint Pierre, thanks to Pascal Hecker and Laurence Maidenbum, the librarians of the Halle, who knew me well. Together with Véronique Antoine-Andersen, whom Lusardy had just hired, we put up the show Art Brut et Compagnie – La Face cachée de l’art contemporain, the title of which was taken from my 1986 TV programme on France Culture. It was a federatig exhibition, one that reunited for the first time all the francophone collections of raw or outsider art, and tthe genious of which did not reside in its conception, which was quite elementary, but in the troves of diplomacy that were necessary in order to get all the protagonists, many of whom were at war against each other because of old ego and territory issues, to agree to come together. And that was how my long-lasting collaboration with the Halle Saint Pierre started, always as an independent curator who accompanied the Halle every step of the way to this day.
As for the film festival dedicated to outsider artists, I never had the chance of seeing it through, save for a very contracted version of it, which I organised in the Auditorium of the Halle Saint Pierre, in 1996 . However, the idea was recovered a few years later by my friend Pierre-Jean Würtz, who created the Hors Champs Festival, now at its 18th edition, within the MAMAC of Nice.
7/ In September 2006 I eventually retired from the Education system, for everything that I recount above was done in the spare moments afforded me by my activity as a Language and Literature teacher in a bad-neighbourhood highschool, where I believe I also left my mark. I never stopped working since. I then went on to author a book for the small-format Découvertes collection at Gallimardes. It was the issue No. 500, titled Art Brut – L’Instinct créateur, a bestseller in its category. This small „Gallimardian compilation”, as it was aimiably dubbed by one of my most obtuse adversaries, is without a doubt the writing that took the most work in all my life. Sick and tired of the millieu of raw art, which began to be the prey of gallerists, collectors and small-time academics who needed a way to move forward their career, and equally fed-up with the notion of art singulier that ended up justifying everything and signifying nothing at all, I went back, little by little, to my first love, trained art and culture, and, together with my old friend JeanLuc Giraud, a vituoso draughtsman and also a pioneer of digital imagery in France, I founded the website www.mycellium-fr.com in 2010, as a network of friends and creators of visual art, to which Jean-Luc and I dedicated so many hours, by pure pleasure and with no compensation at all.
As I now had more time or, better said, I was less often interrupted, I started to feel the need to „put my affairs in order”, just in case... and so I put together three more volumes, reuniting all of the short texts that I had published here and there, on various topics, over the years: a collection of my „political” texts against official art and the stranglehold of the French authorities on culture , the summary of a conference I had held at the Halle Saint Pierre, titled Éloge au dessin and dedicated to my friends Jean-Luc Giraud, Davor Vrankic and Benoit Chieux, a virtuoso of animated cartoons , and, most notably, a pretty long book containing the 109 essays, articles and catalogue or exhibition prefaces that I had published, in French or in English since 1978 . And in the meantime I kept doing numerous conferences where I was invited to do so . Clearly, a full life during which I never got bored...
Today, after having suffered a rather serious „health issue”, I finish my mission by going back to Chomo, whose heritage we are safeguarding and passing on to the next generations and the unexpected trials that I am faced with seem to open new prospectives before me, prospectives of work and friendly collaboration that I never before could have imagined, in a rather surreal and paradoxical manner, in a series of „objective coincidences” that I simply take stock of without trying to explain.
© Laurent Danchin