Arcane art traditions

“Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet” (American Folk Art Museum) by Valerie Rousseau is the catalog of a show organized by the museum in collaboration with the Collection de l’Art Brut Lausanne, which closed earlier this year.

Art brut is a term coined by the artist, Dubuffet, to describe artworks that are “raw” or “naïve,” existing outside usual art historical definitions of fine art.

The show documents an important art historical occurrence—between 1952 and 1962 more than 1,200 pieces from Dubuffet’s personal collection were displayed in the private residence of artist and collector, Alfonso Ossorio.

These viewings planted new seeds of understanding, the beginnings of what would become known as folk or outsider art.

The works of the artists included are remarkable, rising from deeply personal sources far from the usual mainstream ideas of art. The 200+ pieces in the exhibition range from anonymous works and pieces by children to some of the now well-known outsider artists such as Adolf Wolfli and Madge Gill.

It’s an important document of an important collection of works, one that would have a profound and ongoing effect on the works of contemporary artists

Then we have “The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death and the Ecstatic” (Morbid Anatomy Museum/Distributed Art Publishers) by Joanna Ebenstein, an uncommon book about a little known tradition.

Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum is an institution dedicated to exploring the “intersections of death, beauty and that which falls between them.” The museum celebrates and exhibits artifacts, ideas and histories that fall between the cracks of science and art, high and low cultures—from mouse taxidermy to bejeweled skeletons and anatomical models.

This profusely illustrated volume presents a host of amazingly crafted female wax models that were created as teaching tools to demonstrate human anatomy in both museums and fairgrounds in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The eerily beautiful sculptures are both totally surreal and frighteningly real. The text and commentaries, trace the history and evolution of these sculptural endeavors from Renaissance death masks and votive offerings, reliquaries and German “ethnographic” busts to fetishistic artistic muse and beyond.

It’s an amazing and compelling look at some obscure customs, rituals and practices.

Kirk Robertson covers the arts and may be reached at


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