San­ford Schwartz

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Eu­gen Gabritschevsky: 1893–1979 an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Amer­i­can Folk Art Mu­seum,

New York City

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by An­toine de Gal­bert, Noëlig Le Roux,

Sarah Lom­bardi, and Valérie Rousseau

Eu­gen Gabritschevsky: 1893–1979 an ex­hi­bi­tion at La Mai­son Rouge, Paris, July 8–Septem­ber 18, 2016; Col­lec­tion de l’Art Brut, Lau­sanne, Novem­ber 11, 2016–Fe­bru­ary 19, 2017; and the Amer­i­can Folk Art Mu­seum, New York City,

March 13–Au­gust 13, 2017.

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by An­toine de Gal­bert,

Noëlig Le Roux, Sarah Lom­bardi, and Valérie Rousseau.

Snoeck, 192 pp., $35.00

It is pos­si­ble that the peo­ple who run the Amer­i­can Folk Art Mu­seum have won­dered in re­cent years about the name of their in­sti­tu­tion. Works by Amer­i­can folk artists make up the ma­jor­ity of its ex­hi­bi­tions, it is true. In the last decade or more, how­ever, the mu­seum has be­come an in­valu­able part of New York’s cul­tural life be­cause it has pro­duced a lit­tle stream of full-fledged in­tro­duc­tions to fig­ures who are much the op­po­site of folk artists and fre­quently are not Amer­i­can. The term “folk art” im­plies an art for a wide, pop­u­lar, and per­haps not overly dis­crim­i­nat­ing au­di­ence—in­ge­nious and lovely as folk-art cre­ations can be. But the day has passed when this kind of work, which was at its most vi­brant in the early decades of the nine­teenth cen­tury, was crowded with fig­ures wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.

In this gap­ing sit­u­a­tion the mu­seum has in­for­mally rein­vented it­self with oc­ca­sional ex­plo­rations of what have been called out­sider artists. They are some­times con­fused with folk artists in that their work also has lit­tle or no con­nec­tion with pro­fes­sional art-mak­ing. Yet in their cre­ations (and their per­sons) they present the un­der­side of the de­motic, folk ethos. In no way a move­ment, they give us in­stead highly idio­syn­cratic, of­ten con­found­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. Folk artists in their work tend not to in­vite us into their pri­vate lives. We al­most as­sume that they do not have pri­vate lives. Out­sider art, which is fre­quently made by peo­ple who have spent their days as iso­lates, or have suf­fered men­tal or phys­i­cal im­pair­ment and need to be cared for in as­sisted con­di­tions, can seem like noth­ing but an im­mer­sion in the pri­vate.

The Folk Art Mu­seum has given us de­fin­i­tive shows of such mas­ters of the pri­vate as Martín Ramírez, Henry Darger, and Adolf Wölfli.* Two years ago, to take an­other sig­nif­i­cant ex­am­ple, there was an over­due ex­am­i­na­tion of Jean Dubuf­fet’s pi­o­neer­ing project, be­gun in the 1940s, of col­lect­ing the work of these artists, which he called “art brut.” And re­cently the mu­seum again ex­panded our sense of out­sider art—a term that the cu­ra­tors there seem to use spar­ingly, pre­fer­ring “self­taught art and art brut”—with sep­a­rate but con­cur­rent shows of Eu­gen Gabritschevsky (1893–1979) and Carlo Zinelli (1916–1974). These were first-ever ret­ro­spec­tives in the States for these artists, though Zinelli, who spent a fair amount of his adult life in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal in Verona, may be an al­most-fa­mil­iar fig­ure for some New York gallery-goers. His good-size works on pa­per, which show sil­hou­ette-flat fig­ures, ab­stract shapes, and pas­sages of writ­ing lined up in loose for­ma­tions—and which please us in the seem­ingly spon­ta­neous yet rhyth­mic ways they are parked here and there—of­ten seem to be on hand at art fairs. One re­mem­bers reg­u­larly find­ing them at the no longer ex­tant Phyl­lis Kind Gallery, for years the place to go, in New York, to see such work.

Eu­gen Gabritschevsky, how­ever, has been a far less vis­i­ble fig­ure. It is likely that even Amer­i­cans who have come to re­al­ize in the past few decades how pow­er­ful the very dif­fer­ent epi­cal vi­sions of Ramírez, Wölfli, and Darger can be are un­fa­mil­iar with his pic­tures. And of the two ex­hi­bi­tions it was that of the Rus­sian-born Gabritschevsky, who suf­fered a men­tal break­down when he was in his late thir­ties and lived for most of the re­main­ing decades of his life in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, that pro­vided the more mys­te­ri­ous and ab­sorb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. This is partly due, of course, to what for most of us is the total nov­elty of his work.

But it re­ally de­rives from the marvelous, and elu­sive, vis­ual po­etry he of­ten at­tained. Un­com­monly var­ied in na­ture, his pic­tures are pri­mar­ily works on pa­per, done largely in gouache, a medium like wa­ter­color (which he some­times added in) but with more body and less translu­cence. (In ef­fect, we look at small paint­ings sur­rounded by mats and be­hind glass.) These works range from dream­like por­trait heads to total ab­strac­tions, some show­ing merely the swish of a brush, oth­ers giv­ing us gal­ax­ies of in­ter­con­nect­ing lit­tle el­e­ments.

There are as well pic­tures where sem­blances of faces and bod­ies ap­pear in what might be windy and stormy, or some­times cloudy and stilled, at­mo­spheric con­di­tions. Other pic­tures are of stage­set-like city and fac­tory views, and we find scenes of the­aters, and

com­po­si­tions that re­sem­ble ta­pes­tries, jammed with molecule-small fig­ures. Close look­ing at his var­i­ous tableaux re­veals that curv­ing lines of dots might be rows of the tini­est peo­ple—on the march some­where.

If we didn’t know much about Gabritschevsky the per­son, and lim­ited our­selves to the re­pro­duc­tions of his work in the show’s valu­able and hand­some ac­com­pa­ny­ing cat­a­log—it presents many more pic­tures than were in the mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion—we might not at first as­sume that their author was a schiz­o­phrenic pa­tient liv­ing in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal. We might, rather, won­der whether we were en­coun­ter­ing a newly dis­cov­ered mod­ern mas­ter, a kind of Paul Klee, say, whose each small-size pic­ture feels like its own self­con­tained world. He is an artist who, like Klee and oth­ers, seems to pro­ceed less from hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar im­age in mind at the start than from let­ting im­ages be sug­gested to him from the runny and brusque, or the pasty and por­ous, way he in­tro­duced his medium onto the given sheet of pa­per to be­gin with.

We know that Gabritschevsky some­times did work in this man­ner, and his method has ap­pro­pri­ately been com­pared in the cat­a­log to the roughly sim­i­lar ways that Vic­tor Hugo, start­ing off with spills of dark brown ink, and Max Ernst, be­gin­ning with rub­bings made on wood boards, de­vel­oped some of their draw­ings. But Gabritschevsky leaves us even more with a new­found in­ter­est in gouache it­self. We tend to think of it as a util­i­tar­ian medium, a fast-dry­ing tool, not tem­per­a­men­tal like wa­ter­color, that is suit­able for mak­ing posters or per­haps mock-ups for paint­ings. Gabritschevsky shows that it can be streaky and florid in one in­stance, or ploppy and in­de­ci­sive in the next—or waxy, and then some­how carved into. His skill with gouache is one of the rev­e­la­tions of his work.

Should Gabritschevsky be called an out­sider artist? The ques­tion hov­ers over his pic­tures, adding yet an­other level of mys­tery to them. In a num­ber of ob­vi­ous senses, he was cer­tainly the op­po­site of the fig­ures we gen­er­ally think of as out­siders. Their bod­ies of work, if one can gen­er­al­ize, tend to em­pha­size (in quite dif­fer­ent styles) lines, pat­terns, and struc­tures. Gabritschevsky’s scenes in com­par­i­son are prac­ti­cally amor­phous. He was also very dif­fer­ent from many out­siders as a per­son. Such fig­ures tend not to have an in­ter­est in art in it­self and to make pic­tures and ob­jects for the first time only af­ter they are stricken. (Their work seems to have the qual­ity of a sud­denly found lan­guage.) Most tend to come, more­over, from mi­lieus where art is hardly thought about. Wölfli and Ramírez were la­bor­ers. Darger sup­ported him­self as, among other things, a jan­i­tor, and the highly re­garded James Cas­tle, who was born

deaf and mute, lived pri­mar­ily on his fam­ily’s Idaho farm.

Gabritschevsky, though, was a per­son of con­sid­er­able learn­ing, and he came from a back­ground of some wealth and stature. At the home of his mother’s rel­a­tives, where much of his child­hood was spent, Leo Tol­stoy was a visi­tor. Eu­gen’s fa­ther was a renowned bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist. When he died at a rel­a­tively young age from an in­fec­tion con­nected to his work, Eu­gen’s mother as­sid­u­ously took over the ed­u­ca­tion of her five chil­dren. There were tu­tors, many esteemed in their own right, for every sub­ject, and Eu­gen and his broth­ers and sis­ters all even­tu­ally mas­tered nu­mer­ous lan­guages. Eu­gen as a mat­ter of course had draw­ing (and danc­ing) lessons as a boy; he drew con­sis­tently and learned to paint and sculpt. He at­tended ex­hi­bi­tions in Moscow in the years be­fore World War I of the most pro­gres­sive new Rus­sian art and stage design.

Eu­gen’s chief in­ter­est was the nat­u­ral world, which he seems to have seen in terms that were equally sci­en­tific and imag­i­na­tive. From child­hood, he per­son­i­fied birds, flies, and in­sects, and his brother Ge­orges wrote that he so blended fan­ci­ful de­tails with pre­cise fac­tual ones that it was hard to know what was real. Eu­gen be­came a bi­ol­o­gist, with a par­tic­u­lar con­cern for mor­phol­ogy and hered­ity. An ac­com­plished re­searcher, he was able, in 1925, to do post­doc­toral work in ge­net­ics—then a new field—work­ing with Thomas Hunt Mor­gan at Columbia. (Mor­gan would later win a No­bel Prize for his work in hered­ity.) Af­ter his stay in New York and then at the Woods Hole labs (and a west­ern va­ca­tion that in­cluded a visit to Yel­low­stone), Eu­gen moved on to the Pas­teur In­sti­tute in Paris for fur­ther work.

His pa­pers and find­ings were ad­mired by his col­leagues, and he was al­ready, in his field, a fig­ure of real dis­tinc­tion when in the late 1920s his grip on re­al­ity be­gan to dis­in­te­grate. It pre­cip­i­tated a time, his brother wrote, of “vi­o­lence that is fa­mil­iar to all doc­tors and that is im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe.” By 1931, now en­tirely un­able to han­dle his per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives, he was ad­mit­ted to the Eglf­ing-Haar Psy­chi­atric Hos­pi­tal out­side Mu­nich. He re­mained there—apart from the years of World War II, when he seems to have been taken to the homes of dif­fer­ent peo­ple—un­til he died, in 1979. A num­ber of Gabritschevsky’s draw­ings done be­fore his break­down have been pre­served, and they show him to have been a con­ven­tional re­al­ist artist of the era, al­beit one with a taste for large, rounded forms. He worked pri­mar­ily in char­coal and, clearly sen­si­tive to the prop­er­ties of the ma­te­ri­als he used, he saw the medium as lend­ing it­self to presenting black­ness, or dark­ness. Ar­eas where there was no char­coal on the sheet be­came, as he drew, ves­tiges of light.

The char­coals are from his time in the States, and one al­lur­ing piece from 1926—most of his pic­tures are un­ti­tled but many are dated—shows Thomas Mor­gan and an­other re­searcher at a Columbia lab, work­ing at night. Their test tubes and mi­cro­scopes are be­fore them, and the room’s per­va­sive dark­ness plays against the beck­on­ing lights from the sci­en­tists’ desk ar­eas and from build­ing and street lights out­side, seen through the win­dow. (Al­though the cir­cum­stances are quite dif­fer­ent, the im­age re­minded me of the night­time scene in Cit­i­zen Kane when the re­porter comes to in­ter­view Bern­stein in his of­fice while, out­side the win­dows, the city seems to glow.) Gabritschevsky’s lit­er­ally dark, and early, char­coal pieces tend to be more threat­en­ing and over­cast in spirit than the Columbia lab pic­ture, how­ever, and it is fas­ci­nat­ing to turn from these char­coals to the of­ten fan­tas­ti­cal works in gouache that he did af­ter his break­down. They sug­gest that when he was a func­tion­ing per­son in so­ci­ety (who also hap­pened to be a widely re­spected sci­en­tist), Gabritschevsky saw the world as an omi­nous place—a spirit that is only oc­ca­sion­ally felt in the pic­tures, with their fan­ci­ful, and won­der­ful, col­ors, that he made af­ter he be­came ill. We might say that, ex­cru­ci­at­ing as the throes of his cri­sis were, it lib­er­ated him from per­va­sive dread. It is hard, of course, to pin down the con­tent of the lit­tle paint­ings that he did at the hos­pi­tal. An­nie Le Brun and Valérie Rousseau, in sep­a­rate strong es­says in the cat­a­log, see Gabritschevsky’s con­cerns as a bi­ol­o­gist per­me­at­ing his pic­tures. Le Brun writes about the artist, whose scenes of­ten show forms and sub­stances in flux, that “we can­not for­get that he was a ge­neti­cist who was fas­ci­nated by the trans­mis­sion and pos­si­ble trans­for­ma­tions of form.” His im­ages of “strings of bead-like forms stretch­ing from hori­zon to hori­zon,” she says, “may be taken for a barely trans­posed rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the ar­range­ment of genes.” And Rousseau evokes the sense of con­stant bub­bling ac­tiv­ity in these pic­tures, with their in­stances of near molec­u­lar minia­tur­ism, when she refers to “that bac­te­rial colony in which the whole body of Gabritschevsky’s work is steeped.”

Le Brun and Rousseau’s ap­proaches will surely be guide­lines as Gabritschevsky be­comes bet­ter known. (It will also be help­ful to learn more about the vast num­ber of let­ters and es­says that we hear he wrote—in what years?—in the hos­pi­tal.) Yet for this non­sci­en­tist, the “nat­u­ral uni­verse,” as Rousseau puts it, doesn’t ac­count for the sense of vi­o­lence, and of long­ing and hid­den­ness, and the hu­mor, that are also felt in his pic­tures. The many in­stances in his scenes where, for in­stance, as­pects of women’s nude bod­ies ap­pear make it seem as if we were en­coun­ter­ing a mind that was be­ing vis­ited not only by his vi­sions and mem­o­ries as a nat­u­ral­ist but Un­ti­tled, by his predica­ment as a per­son. One feels this even more in some of the few im­ages of faces in the present se­lec­tion. They are Gabritschevsky’s most af­fect­ing works.

In a buoy­ant pic­ture from 1942, say, show­ing a bub­bling forth of at­mo­spheric forces, a blob at the bot­tom of the delectably red-orange scene is ner­vously and ap­peal­ingly watch­ful while other shapes, equipped with un­friendly eyes that re­sem­ble pome­gran­ate seeds, float along in the cur­rents. Then in an ex­tra­or­di­nary work from 1947, we are con­fronted by a head that has been stretched out, as we might see our­selves in a fun­house mir­ror, with an eye­ball at ei­ther side and a wispy bowtie un­derneath. Tak­ing up al­most the en­tire sheet of pa­per, the bloated, pink­ish head, with one eye sug­gest­ing a wounded soul and the other an an­gry one, could be the of­fi­cial face of any­one suf­fer­ing men­tal tur­moil (or of any of us when we sense that we have be­come all head and yet won­der if any­thing is in it).

And in, lastly, a strik­ing scene dated circa 1947, we see a huge headed, pup­pet­like man, each of his large eyes a black abyss, in a rail­way or sub­way sta­tion. Every space around him in­ge­niously, and in­ac­ces­si­bly, con­tains un­clothed women. Did Gabritschevsky make other pic­tures that, like these, por­tray states of im­pris­on­ment and yet give us joy as works of art? There is a good chance that he did. The two-hun­dred-odd pic­tures in the present cat­a­log are but a por­tion of the roughly three thou­sand works on pa­per that he left. We have Jean Dubuf­fet to thank for set­ting in mo­tion the process whereby those works were pre­served. Gabritschevsky made them, it ap­pears, over the first three decades of his stay at Eglf­ing-Haar. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, whether due, it is thought, to new med­i­ca­tions, or be­cause, as a vis­ual artist, he said what he had in him to say, he made hardly any new pic­tures.

He had long since lost his abil­ity to be a sci­en­tist, and he now lost his de­sire to make art. Yet his losses seem not to have weighed on him. His doc­tors, we read, were amazed by his for­ti­tude. Af­ter all his years of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, he should have be­come, one of them wrote, a “silent shadow, an ema­ci­ated body with noth­ing hu­man left.” But he didn’t give in to “de­spon­dency,” and “he looks bet­ter than many other men of his age”; and an­other doc­tor be­lieved that Gabritschevsky ul­ti­mately came to see him­self with “a deep wis­dom full of res­ig­na­tion.” He was now, one might say, in the third act of his life, and he was again prov­ing him­self to be, as Le Brun writes, “al­ways ex­cep­tional.”

Eu­gen Gabritschevsky: Un­ti­tled, gouache on pa­per, 8 1/4 x 11 5/8 inches, 1942

Eu­gen Gabritschevsky: Un­ti­tled, gouache and pen­cil on pa­per, 8 11/16 x 5 1/8 inches, circa 1947

Eu­gen Gabritschevsky: gouache and wa­ter­color on pa­per, 11 5/8 x 15 3/4 inches, 1957

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