Interest in the art of insane asylum inmates had begun to grow in the 1920s. In 1921 Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his book Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) on Adolf Wölfli, a psychotic mental patient in his care. Wölfli had spontaneously taken up drawing, and this activity seemed to calm him. His most outstanding work is an illustrated epic of 45 volumes in which he narrates his own imaginary life story. With 25,000 pages, 1,600 illustrations, and 1,500 collages, it is a monumental work. He also produced a large number of smaller works, some of which were sold or given as gifts. His work is on display at the Adolf Wölfli Foundation in the Museum of Fine Art, Bern. A defining moment was the publication of Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the mentally ill) in 1922, by Dr Hans Prinzhorn.

People with some artistic training and well-established artists are not immune from mental illness and may also be institutionalized. For example, William Kurelek, later awarded the Order of Canada for his artistic life work, as a young man was admitted to the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital where he was treated for schizophrenia. In hospital he painted, producing “The Maze”, a dark depiction of his tortured youth. This 1953 work was used as the cover of the 1981 Van Halen rock album Fair Warning. His experience in the hospital was documented in the LIFE Science Library book The Mind, published in 1965.

The work of Dr Morganthaler documented his patient Adolf Wolfli, a genius who produced countless thousands of works from a small cell in his Swiss asylum. Dr Hans Prinzhorn collected thousands of works by psychiatric patients and his book “Bildernerei der Geisteskranken” (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), published in 1922 became an influential work amongst Surrealist and other artists of the time.

One artist who was particularly affected by the works Prinzhorn presented was Jean Dubuffet. Together with others, including Andre Breton, he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948 and strove to seek out and collect works of extreme individuality and inventiveness by creators who were not only untrained artists but often had little concept of an art gallery or even any other forms of art other than their own.

Dubuffet’s concept of Art Brut, or Raw Art, was of works that were in their “raw” state, uncooked by cultural and artistic influences. He built up a vast collection of thousands of works, works which bore no relation to developments in contemporary art and yet were the innovative and powerful expressions of a wide range individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

Dubuffet’s great collection was eventually granted a permanent home by the city of Lausanne and the Collection de l’Art Brut is now one of the most powerful and overwhelming art museums to be found anywhere in the world.

A parallel development to the awareness of paintings, drawings and sculptures which fell into the sphere of Art Brut, was the discovery of environmental creations by a similar range of people. One of the most famous of these, the Palais Ideal, built by the postman Cheval, received much attention from the Surrealists who admired his ability to realise his dream in this incredible structure, the product of thirty years of devoted toil.

In Los Angeles, the extraordinary Watts Towers, the product of a similar commitment by an Italian immigrant worker, Simon Rodia, became the first step in the realisation of a vast number of environments to be found right across North America.

Today the increased awareness of all these forms of expression has led to a network of small organizations in both Europe and the United States devoted to the preservation of such works and the support of their creators. Similar collections to the one in Lausanne have been established in many countries and exhibitions of different aspects of the phenomena are a regular occurrence. The diverse influence of all these forms is now apparent in the work of an increasing number of “trained ” artists who have turned their back on changing trends and fashions to try and form a truly singular reality for themselves.