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Creative Power on the Margins of Society


It was during my conversations with Hannah Rieger in November last year that I learnt of her passion for art brut – a field of art of which up to then I had only the vaguest knowledge. Yet given the particular theme of the present we_magazine, drawing in these social marginalized, so-called “crazy” artists and considering their views on art, and in particular the way they relate to the WE, seemed a pretty obvious move.

Obviously in terms of their subject matter art brut and OUBEYs art are worlds apart. Yet even so, perhaps there is a similarity in terms of the uncompromisingly radical freedom of which OUBEY availed himself in establishing his own vantage point among the interfaces of a huge range of different disciplines from which to illuminate the key questions of his thinking and creativity – at a great remove from mainstream art and science.

“Outsiders are people who SHIFT the borderlines, thus creating new spaces. Such spaces are conducive to very special developments. And a position on the borderline affords you the opportunity to take a privileged view of the center.”

What has the above mentioned statement to do with your own collection of art brut, Mrs. Rieger?

HANNAH RIEGER: Yes, most definitely there is a connection! My own collection is a collection of outsider art. Collecting art brut has been a passion of mine for the past 25 years. My collection now consists of some 300 works by over 40 art brut artists. Roughly two thirds of the works come from the Haus der Künstler in Gugging. I’ve been fascinated by art brut ever since I first saw the exhibition by Johann Hauser and Oswald Tschirtner, two of the most famous artists from the Gugging group, in the Museum of 20th Century Art in Vienna back in 1980. Though I must say that it took me a couple more years before I actually bought my first pictures.

The way I see it, art brut or outsider art is a unique way of connecting social and cultural responsibility. Obviously, art brut artists are influenced by the social and cultural currents in which they live. It’s all about creative power on the margins of society which at the present point in time – and this is a very curious phenomenon – is increasingly coming to the forefront of public attention. Art brut is innovative, it’s now on the crest of a wave and is becoming increasingly trendy. I think mainly because it resonates so well with the Zeitgeist’s hankering after originality and authenticity.

Has your collecting changed your understanding of WE in any way?

HANNAH RIEGER: Yes, it has and it’s still doing so.

Could you say how?

HANNAH RIEGER: Art brut is reaching and touching ever greater circles of people. And I firmly believe that I can make a difference in the particular world I move in, and play a part in helping to give art brut greater visibility. As you know – as we know and everyone knows: things only exist to the extent that they can be perceived. And this is especially true when it comes to art brut. People report about collections, exhibitions, publications and awards.

Specifically, what I’m now doing is putting much more effort into opening up my collection to the public. I’ve already introduced various people in my own circles to art brut through exhibitions, art brut trips, visits to museums and galleries, and networking. Working on the lines of “how we discover our lives through our passions”, I’ve also made art part of my professional activities. For instance at GLOBArt I’m now holding a workshop on Art Brut – a Model for Social Change?

What other examples can you give of the increasing trendiness of art brut?

HANNAH RIEGER: A short time ago probably the world’s biggest collector of art brut, James Brett, set up a museum, the Museum of Everything: “a non-museum for non-art”. Basically this means that museums no longer have any one fixed location and that exhibitions are only now organized to cover “non-art”, in other words art brut, outsider art, or self taught art. Last year for instance he organized the Exhibition #4 in the hallowed halls of Selfridges department store in London’s Oxford Street. His exhibition comprised of some 400 works by over 50 artists from across the world and was visited by over 100,000 people in just a few short weeks. For Selfridges it was the biggest venture into the world of art the company had ever embarked on. Never before had an exhibition been given so much floor space in a department store or a company. So with interdisciplinary alliances like the one with the department store, art brut and enterprises can strike out together on some pretty wonderful paths to reach out to much bigger groups of people in a short space of time. The future belongs to those companies who have the courage to take and actually put creative social and cultural ideas into action.

Another interesting trend is the way art brut is becoming part of the art of the 20th and 21st century. The LaM Museum in Lille is a good illustration of this. The main part of the museum’s art brut section is made up of the L’ Aracine collection (Michel Nedjar, Madeleine Lommel, Claire Teller) with some 3,500 works by roughly 170 artists. Manuelle Gautrand, the architect of this new part of the museum, talks about “Bringing outsider art onto the inside”.

How can you make art accessible to a broad public? And do you really need to do so?

HANNAH RIEGER: Yes, I think it’s really necessary. To quote the German neurobiologist Gerald Hüther – if art can create spaces where emotionally significant experiences can be made, then what we need is a culture of sustainability in the art business. In my view, commercial enterprises are a very important target group for the general public.

Selfridges is a case in point because it shows that art brut can act as a catalyst for innovation in the company. And another example comes to mind: I was recently in Istanbul and had the chance to visit the marvelous art collection at Borusan Holding, a successful industrial conglomerate. They’ve adopted a really fascinating concept: the art collection is housed in the company headquarters which open up as a public museum every weekend.

The Essl Museum in Austria is also adopting a similar model. It was originally founded as a private museum to house the collection of the bauMax family business who made their money in a chain of DIY outlets. But it’s now working once more to create a much stronger rapport between the art collection and the people in company headquarters. The old idea of the role of the museum was to build it up so it could rival other famous state-run museums in Austria.

What does art mean to you?

HANNAH RIEGER: For me art is communication in the here and now and for generations to come.

But more importantly, there’s also my understanding of art brut. It’s based on the notion of the French artist and wine dealer Jean Dubuffet who first coined the term art brut and meant by it an original, raw, rough and ready kind of art based on a highly idiosyncratic and unconventional approach. He derived the term ‘brut’ from ‘brut champagne’! Creators of art brut have no formal artistic training. Contemporary trends in the art world mean nothing to them. You can often find them in a psychiatric context, in connection with people with handicaps or among social outsiders. So art brut is made by people with a special way of accessing reality. Art brut has also recently developed into an internationally recognized branch of art. Yet the French term art brut never really caught on in the English-speaking world. The art critic Roger Cardinal coined the alternative term outsider art.

Is the WE really an essential part of art – or can art safely do without it?

HANNAH RIEGER: Yes, the WE is part and parcel of what I understand art to be. As I said, my understanding of art is that art is communication in the here and now and for generations to come. In his book Schizophrenia and Language, Leo Navratil the founder of the Gugging Center makes a point that illustrates what I mean. He says: “Because art is a message from one person to another, and it is without sense and without value when it isn’t under- stood as a medium between the creator and the recipient.”

In what kind of ways would you like to see art develop?

HANNAH RIEGER: I’d like to see it develop in three ways:

1. To become a natural and indispensable part of people’s lives. Both their private and professional lives. This takes us back to the WE. And also takes us away from elitist thinking.

2. To see the art world become less obsessed with money. Since I became interested in art, I’ve found that in the art world I’m practically dealing with more financial issues than I used to in my previous work for a banking group.

3. I’d also like to see art open up and make connections with other worlds. And to see it making more connections with art brut.

Do you see any parallels between the Mindkiss Project and the way you’ve built your own collection?

HANNAH RIEGER: OUBEY was an architect by training and a self-taught artist. So there’s obviously some close connections to my own collection – but with one very important difference! Both intellectually and in interdisciplinary terms, OUBEY mounted a critique of the dominant art world. And this is something which simply never happens in art brut. Art brut requires a definite distance to the milieu of culturally organized art. I’m very much looking forward to seeing his art in the original and will soon be going to Karlsruhe.

How can the WE serve to strengthen art?

HANNAH RIEGER: I think it can strengthen art in two main ways:

1. The fact that we bear responsibility for one another and are all interconnected is something that art can make visible and tangible once more, something that art can reaffirm. What we need is the interest and the awareness and the questioning of the value and role of the visual arts through to Joseph Beuys’ “Everyone is an artist”. Art – art brut – could become a much more natural part of our lives, much more “normal” ...

2. I’ve given my own definition of art as communication in the here and now and for generations to come. What do I mean by this? I mean that visual art allows us to experience our present whilst also creating a bridge to the future. The future isn’t predetermined; it’s brought into the world by the way we all interact today. Who and what do we want to be; who and what do we want to become? It’s through the continuity of the impact it has on both present and future that art makes people truly human.

Interview by Ulrike Reinhard, German video recording below.

HANNAH RIEGER was born in 1957 in Vienna to which her parents had returned after 20 years emigration in England. She is an economist (University of Vienna, post graduate studies at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna) who works as a consultant for professional development and also supports various non-profit projects on the interface between enterprises, sustainable development and art. From 1983 to 2010 she was employed in a variety of functions with the Investkredit/Volksbank Group where her last position was as Director of Corporate Communications. Hannah Rieger is a writer and editor of reference books (The Handbook of EU-Conforming Subsidies, The Family Business Handbook). In 2008 she was appointed as a Member of the Universty Council at the University of Applied Arts (Angewandte) in Vienna and since the 1980s has been an enthusiastic collector of art brut.

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