I’ve always liked the American Folk Art Museum, as I’m constantly discovering new things when I go there, and their exhibits often make me look at art in a different way, or get me to look again at art that is not always easy to grasp. They’ve just installed a new exhibit focusing on two self-taught artists who are not that well-known here: Carlo Zinelli and Eugen Garbritschevsky. While both these artists, who are of similar generations, produced the vast majority of their works while living in psychiatric facilities, and were promoted by Jean Dubuffet, there’s not much else that binds them in either their biographies or their work. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see them together. We’re also lucky to have their paintings – In general hospitals did not keep their patients’ work (especially that done by women).
Carlo Zinelli’s (1916-1974) story is one of loss. Born in San Giovanni Lupatto, Italy, he was the youngest of 7 children. His mother died when he was two; at the age of 9, he was sent to live on a farm. There he not only learned to care for the animals, but also to dance and sing with his fellow workers. This love of rhythm, repetition and movement stayed with him, and permeates his art, as do images of dogs, birds, goats, cows and other farm animals. At 18, Zinelli was drafted into the military, serving as a member of the Alpini. He later was a stretcher-bearer in the Spanish Civil War; after two months, he returned to Italy, shell-shocked. At the age of 31, he was committed to the San Giacomo psychiatric hospital in Verona, where he participated in an art workshop funded by Scottish sculptor Michael Noble. It’s clear that Zinelli’s life influenced his work, and you’ll find yourself reflecting on his biography as you go through the show.
The exhibit is divided into four parts, which roughly correspond to the changes in Zinelli’s style. He used the materials the hospital supplied, which is why he worked almost exclusively in gouache on paper, and his works are all of “standard” paper sizes. In all of his phases, Zinelli used strong colors, block figures, animals, and sweeping sense of movement underlies it all. His pictures are untitled. Many of them are double sided, and are hung from the ceiling so that you can see both sides!
Phase 1 (1957-60) for me has a very naif feeling, with its use of bright reds, pinks, yellow and greens, and the way the people, dogs, trees and buildings are all jumbled together. Here we get a glimpse of motifs that recur throughout Zinelli’s oeuvre: lots of animals – especially birds and dogs – as well as people – all facing the same way. Sometimes a hand or a bird will dominate the center of the painting.
There’s also a strong rhythmic movement, not surprising given that he liked to dance. The “little priest” figures are also introduced, and they will become increasingly prominent in his work.
In Phase Two (1960-65) Zinelli starts to paint his backgrounds. The images get bigger and thicker, and while some of the colors are a bit murkier, the reds become really bright. This is also the phase where he places people, animals and objects in group of 4 (his “quaternity.”) You’ll also notice that many of the people, animals and objects now have perforations in their bodies. However, you can see the background of the painting through these holes. The imagery is often evocative of war: boats, wheeled transportation and planes start to appear, as do people with crosses. Birds also feature prominently in this phase (the above picture made me think of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, The Birds)
You’ll also find this example of the collage work Zinelli did briefly around 1962 (a heavy smoker, those are the bottoms of cigarette packages he’s attached to the painting), that still has the groupings of 4, the wheeled transport, and everyone facing left (although I’m not sure about that smudgy figure in the lower left).
The work in Phase 3 (1965-67) is primarily black and white, with occasional flashes of color, especially red. During this period Zinelli incorporates words, letters and numbers into his work, more as graphic elements, since they seemingly have no meaning or coherence, and they make you wonder what he was trying to communicate.
The figures are larger, often a man wearing an Alpini helmet (self portrait?) or a man with wings, their bodies often perforated with holes, crosses and now four-pointed stars.
In this part of the exhibit you can listen to a recording made by Zinelli while reading the English translation on a video monitor, which gives you a fuller feeling for his inability to process language using standard grammar and vocabulary.
Phase 4 (1968-1974) begins the year the hospital moved from Verona, which had a marked effect on Zinelli’s style. In many ways his output is now very close to his early work, in that there are smaller images with repeated elements, all on the paper in a chaotic fashion. Some of the images of men and women are combined into one being, and sometimes the people and animals will have other beings inside them. In this phase Zinelli does more sketching with colored pencils.
He still uses writing as a graphic element, but now it is reduced to almost dots.
In addition to Zinelli’s art, you’ll also find photos taken by the photojournalist John Philips (Life magazine) in 1959 at the hospital in Verona where Zinelli was confined. Phillips was given free rein, and shot the patients as they went about their everyday lives. There are also a number of photographs he took of the patients who participated in the art studio. Philips respected the dignity of his subjects; far from being voyeuristic, his photos rather give us a deeper understanding of the environment in which Zinelli produced his art.
Eugen Gabritschevsky’s life took a different trajectory. Hailing from a very wealthy family in Moscow, as a child he exhibited a precocious interest in insects and mutations, as well as a love of drawing. After his studies at the University of Moscow, in 1925 Gabritschevsky continued his research at Columbia University, focusing on color changes and the transformation of forms in insects. He then moved to Paris, where his career flourished. However, he had a mental breakdown in 1931 and was admitted to Eglfing-Haar Psychiatric facility in Germany, where he remained for five decades, during which he created over 3,000 gouaches, drawings and watercolors on paper, x-rays, administrative papers – anything he could find. In addition to painting with brushes, he also employed sponges, as well as scratching and rubbing techniques, and worked with folded paper.
Gabritschevky’s early work is easy to appreciate, and the show has some fine examples of charcoals he created in the late 1920’s, like the one above. The pictures from that era have a strong architectural component, which carries on through much of his later work.
Even though his interest was primarily directed to insects, it’s clear from this piece that Gabritschevsky had keen observational powers when it came to other species, capturing their personalities.
There’s also a certain whimsy in his work, and the feeling that he’s letting you in on a secret.
Gabritschevsky’s art goes in many directions – he was always experimenting, so it’s hard to pin him down stylistically.
Against one wall is a lovely series of birds which he created using gouache on tracing paper.
The scientific and fantastic often combine, as in this evolution of microorganisms depicted like men.
I confess I struggled with Gabritschevsky’s later work, especially paintings with spectral figures who seemed to resemble some cellular disorder. But he often takes pains to stage them, sometimes in dreamlike opera settings, like the one above.
I like his use of color, and his sense of composition. You often have the feeling that you’re looking at organisms as they swirl under a microscope or in a petri dish, in their own private carnival. Sometimes you have the sensation of chaos trying to cohere into some kind of order…
It seems as if Gabritschevsky’s scientific training influenced everything he did – the above painting seems to be looking at the judgement day on a cellular level…
I found that I needed to spend a fair amount of time with both these artists, as it wasn’t immediately clear to me what they’re trying to say. So I took a tour with Valery Rousseau, the show’s curator, which I found very helpful in understanding the work of these two artists. I can also recommend taking a free drop-in tours led by museum guides, which are held on Thursdays, from 1:00 to 2:00. There’s also one on Saturday, April 29th
On April 25th, the Museum will be hosting Dialogue + Studio: Science Illustration, a workshop led by professional illustrator Patricia Wynne, in which participants will learn the fundamentals of science illustration and how to draw from bones.
The American Folk Art Museum is located at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue. I recommend you see the show before it closes on August 20th. In addition to great exhibits, the Museum is free!