Nov 9 2011: Images from Antiques Collecting Magazine and Louis Wain Exhibition Catalogue (1983)

We tend to think of Outsider Art as a recent pheomenon, which I suppose it is, when defined in those terms. But there’s always been a fascination with those figures like Richard Dadd (or in more mainstream art-historical terms, Vincent Van Gogh and William Blake) whose personal defiance of convention comes to inform the works of art they create. In the latter half of the twentieth century, this tendency, under the heading Art Brut, began to encompass a more active appreciation of works made by the insane, children, the untutored and others outside the norms of Western art, in a search for a kind of primitive authenticity that had earlier seen artists appropriating the stylistic features of African masks, Iberian statuary and Mexican votive paintings, to name only a few.  Quite where all this leaves someone like Louis Wain (1860 – 1939) isn’t clear, since he was already a somewhat eccentric but successful artist – renowned for his paintings of cats, naturally – before he was committed to instututions later in his life.

Looking at the images from this booklet promoting a 1983 exhibition of Wain’s work, presented by Chris Beetles Limited (an English Watercolour gallery in London) as a supplement to an issue of Antiques Collecting magazine, Wain’s range is shown to be pretty broad: from ‘big-eye’ cute kittens and amusing cartoons to unsettling or garish images with a similar feel to the work of Henry Darger. It’s hard not to suspect that had Wain painted something other than cats, his popularity outside the specialist art world would be much reduced, and his reputation in it more secure. As it is, he’s an extraordinary and very strange artist whose obsessions happen to mesh with a wide public taste. He’s easily recuperated for sentiment – a kind of latter-day Landseer incarcerated at Bethlem Hospital or a precursor of Martin Leman – but also anticipates pop, synthetic abstraction and psychedelia in ways that can be as profoundly uncanny as they are superficially easy on the eye.

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