Art & Mind




Throughout the 20th century, most art movements and trends were accompanied by manifestos or foundational texts. The unique aspect of Art Brut, named after French artist Jean Dubuffet, lies in its foundational source: a medical publication. In 1922, Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist, released a book titled «Bildnerei der Geisteskranken,» which compiled drawings crafted by patients in various psychiatric institutions across Europe. Dubuffet recognized the significance of this work in contemporary art, motivating him to establish the Compagnie de l’Art Brut with Surrealist artists in 1948. Prinzhorn’s publication ignited inspiration among the French avant-garde, particularly the Surrealists and Dadaists, who keenly observed the rising role of psychiatry in comprehending the human mind.

The romanticization of madness in aesthetic terms has a lengthy history. Even during Romanticism and following the Enlightenment’s scientific categorization of madness, it remained a wellspring of creative inspiration. However, it was in the 19th century, with the emergence of psychiatry and the proliferation of sanatoriums, that madness surpassed its role as a mere muse. For avant-garde artists, any shift in perception offered an avenue to escape the societal confines imposed by the bourgeoisie, their art patrons. Consequently, they not only highly regarded artists who had been institutionalized in psychiatric facilities, such as Leonora Carrington, but also sought freedom through the use of substances.

It’s precisely this notion of freedom that Prinzhorn’s book conveyed. The drawings within did not conform to prevailing trends or academic norms; they embodied pure expression to the Surrealists. Thus, the term «art brut» was coined, signifying raw, unrefined art. However, it’s vital to recognize that many of these drawings likely originated from individuals not necessarily classified as psychiatric patients at the time. If the 19th century, and by extension the early 20th century, were characterized by anything, it was the era of psychiatric asylums. These establishments were lucrative enterprises seen as a solution to various social issues, confining destitute family members, neurodivergent individuals, and even slaves.


Hans Prinzhorn

Psychiatrist and father of Art Brut. 


Nevertheless, an examination of these drawings reveals recurring elements. Many of them tend to fill the entire space and repeat specific elements, whether figures, words, or symbols. This connection aligns with traits found in various neurodivergences, such as echolalia, rumination, or stimming. Moreover, the interplay between written and visible elements is intriguing as it transforms writing into a visual medium (plastic writing). The artist Paul Klee wholeheartedly embraced this divergence, even inventing an alphabet inspired by Art Brut.

The impact of confinement during that era (XIX c.) should not be underestimated. Numerous institutionalized individuals turned to drawing and writing as their sole means of expression, with paper and pencil as their sole tools. At times, it was their sole means of communication, as a piece of paper can hold anything. During that period, drawings and graphic testimonies held a certain significance in diagnosing and treating psychiatric patients. Presently, while non-academic movements still value these documents, there’s consensus that they have limited validity in assessing a patient’s mental state (though they offer insights into specific brain functions). Modern imaging techniques, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shifted psychiatry from a moralistic understanding of madness to a materialistic perspective of the mind.

From a materialist standpoint, brain scans of neurodivergent individuals echo the drawings amassed by Prinzhorn. They continue their fascination with neurodivergent brains and heuristic mental processes. Today, the field of Neuroart brings together various imaging techniques and insights, presenting them within an artistic context, such as galleries or exhibitions, to explore a parallel narrative about creativity and the essence of the mind.

Within the framework of Neuroart, scientists like Diana Roettger and Matthew Rowe employ nuclear magnetic resonance to produce captivating images. Operating as the artistic duo DiMa, they craft 3D renderings based on MRI scans. Another technique they employ is Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), which estimates the location and orientation of neuronal fibers, represented as small cubes with color-coded orientations. The resulting images are abstract and evoke a sense of Cubist representation of the brain.

An invisible thread connects Art Brut to art fashioned by neuroscientists, a shared fascination with mental processes. Historically, individuals labeled as ‘mad’ were viewed as societal risks, yet simultaneously held a source of intrigue, much like primitivism. The perceived connection between madness, currently defined by clinical diagnoses in the DSM, and boundless creativity has long been pursued and yearned for. Previously, this was explored through analyzing their drawings, and birthing Art Brut; today, it’s through the observation of brain activity. All these productions, born outside the bounds of artistic circles, whether on the fringes or within scientific orthodoxy, are part of the broader movement known as Outsider Art. A century after the publication of ‘Bildnerei der Geisteskranken,’ researchers and subjects of study find themselves sharing the same artistic space, devoid of hierarchies.


C.L. D´Souza (2012). Art and Neuroscience: The Historical Emergence and Conceptual Context of Neuro-Art [Doctoral Thesis/Jacobs University]

Garcia G. (2018). Art Brut: la pulsión creativa al desnudo. San Soleil Ediciones

Click on the icon and discorver a magazine crafted entirely by autistic adults, showcasing illustrations and poems that could be categorized as outsider art.

The texts and this website have been developed by Erik Aostri. All rights reserved.