Russian, 20th century.
Born 1893, Moscow, Russia; died 1971, Munich, Germany.
Eugène Gabritchevsky has received less attention than have many other classic outsiders whose work comprised the foundational lineup of Jean Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut. His haunting, fantastical oeuvre of chance-induced drawings and paintings was a catalyst for Dubuffet’s efforts to expand and maintain the integrity of the Collection during the decade following its inaugural, manifesto-driven Paris exhibition in 1949.
In 1950, Dubuffet was introduced to the work of this Russian expat hospitalized in a psychiatric in Haar (near Munich) thanks to the advocacy of the artist’s psychiatrist. By this time, Gabritchevsky had been drawing and painting prolifically for over twenty years, thanks to the encouragement of his doctor and his brother. Gabritchevsky’s case and artwork had already drawn significant attention in psychiatric circles, due in part to the fact that he had achieved some success as a research biologist before the onset of his illness. His work was presented at the exhibition held at Sainte Anne Hospital, in conjunction the first World Congress of Psychiatry, the same year.
Gabritchevsky’s story is as compelling as his work. Born in Moscow to a respected family, Gabritchevsky’s research in entomology, heredity, and genetic mutation took him to New York in 1924 to study at Columbia, to Paris 1926 where he worked at the Pasteur Institute, and to Germany, where he was committed in 1929. This litanany is more than simply a prelude to a consideration of the artist’s work, and it would be a mistake to consider Gabritchevsky’s scientific research as radically separate from his subsequent artwork. Both were part of a unified inquiry into creation, evolution, and existence itself. To this end, he employed chance-based constructive practices to forge a hybrid visual language that mixed scientific notation with figurative, abstract, and non-objective form.
Before being committed to the asylum, Gabritchevsky had dabbled in painting as a leisure activity. Once inside and given access to art supplies, he began to experiment with unorthodox techniques such as frottage (rubbing a base field of paint to achieve texture) and decalcomania (covering and imprinting a base layer of paint with materials and objects). His earliest work evokes biological imagery, such as the patterns found in coral. Gradually his work mutated in a variety of directions: fantastical zoological bestiaries of carefully drawn creatures, uncanny Rorshak-like figures captured by imprinting accidental shapes through paper-folding, and eventually increasingly ghostly visages conjured from a base layer of formless hand/brushstrokes by means of carefully placed dots for eyes.
Gabritchevsky painted on a variety of surfaces such as calendars, hospital forms, responding to the formal constraints presented to him in every case. His consistent engagement with chance makes it impossible to limit his work to a single style or sensibility, and this sets him apart from many other classic outsiders. His inquiry led him to explore the female form, insects, fruit, dinosaurs, and inhabitants of the spirit world with such a wide range of materials and techniques that it’s often difficult to instantly recognize hius hand. The final macabre works in which ghostly faces emerge from nebulous watercolor fields have often been dismissed as pathological, but it is important to honor their place in his oeuvre.
Gabritchevsky has often been compared to his Surrealist contemporaries—especially Max Ernst—known for employing similar techniques. It’s important to set the record straight here: the Surrealist project was from its inception inspired by the work of asylum inmates, and by Spiritualist mediums. Theirs was a collective investigation the Freudian unconscious and a calculated response to historical and contemporary art styles. Gabritchevsky worked in radical isolation from any art world, and his inquiry extended well beyond specifics of theory or style to the larger task of shaping a radically new language capable of measuring evolution. Surely it is possible to recognize him as a contemporary to the Surrealists, without grafting him onto a movement of which he had no knowledge.
Gabritchevsky’s oeuvre needs no historical validation to separate it from the shadow of pathology. Its arc, which starts with familiar scientific method and notation, and moves for three decades through a free play of chance-driven form into a final unraveling of category and reason, can arguably be illuminated by Michel Foucault’s distinction between madness and unreason. By ascribing the oeuvre of Gabritchevky to madness, we lose sight of its integrity and its potential challenge to reason. Foucault’s claim “where there is an oeuvre there is no madness,” made with outsider poets in mind, could well be extended to Gabritchevsky and to other outsiders we continue to fondly dismiss as crazy.
- Jenifer P. Borum
2017, Eugen Gabritschevsky: Theater of the Imperceptible, American Folk Art Museum, New York
2016, Eugéne Gabritschevsky, La Maison Rouge, Paris, Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne, American Folk Art Museum, New York
2001, ABCD: A Collection of Art Brut, American Folk Art Museum, New York
1995, Passions privées, Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
1950, Sainte Anne Hospital, in conjunction the first World Congress of Psychiatry
Collection abcd, Montreuil
Collection de L’Art Brut, Lausanne
Centre George Pompidou, Paris
Debraine, Luc, Genevieve Roulin, & Michel Thevoz, L’Art Brut, fascicule 16, Vol. 24, Lausanne, 1990.
Thevoz, Michel, L’Art Brut, Éditions Skira, 1975.
Flamand, Charles, & Georges Limbour, “Eugène Gabritchevsky’s Inner Vison,” Éditions Bayer, 1965.