The exhibition „Art Brut. Works from the Infeld Collection” at Museum of Naïve and Marginal Art in Serbia will display about 100 works of Art Brut from this Viennese collection in the period from December 2023 to May 2024. The exhibition includes works of internationally known greats in 1950s, such as Scottie Wilson, Ilija Bosilj and Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, then the works of the artists from Gugging near Vienna, Oswald Tschirtner, August Walla, Johann Hauser, Heinrich Reisenbauer, Fritz Koller, and up to the Art Culturel of great Austrian painters such as Arnulf Reiner and Peter Pongratz, who sought and found inspiration in Art Brut.
This is the first representative exhibition of artworks from the Infeld Collection in Serbia.
„A day when I do not buy or do not want to buy a single painting is a wasted day for me. Thereby, I do not want to limit my passion to any methodology or any expert consultant. Sometimes I ask for advice the people who know a bit about something, but what I will buy is decided solely by my spontaneity and my personal sense“, wrote Peter Infeld (1942-2009). The Viennese string maker, tenor and patron began collecting works of art together with his mother Margareta Infeld (1904-1994) in the mid-1960s. After the death of Peter Infeld in 2009, his widow Zdenka Infeld, Croatian by birth, continued the collecting activity of this family.
The beginning of the Infeld Collection, which is one of the largest art collections in Austria today, included the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism close to Surrealism. After an exhibition in 1965, Peter Infeld felt the need to collect paintings and personally meet their authors: „I liked the meticulous way of painting, return to the techniques of the Old Masters, engagement in psychoanalysis. The confusion of different ideas, which were foreign to me, encouraged me to buy. From the very beginning, a cordial relationship with the painters developed, with people who unmistakably followed their own path… I wanted to provide welfare in terms of their quality. Wherever that painter goes, I will follow him.“
After a personal acquaintance with the painters of Viennese fantasy, a permanent, passionate engagement with their art and many decades of friendship with Ernst Fuchs, Anton Lehmden, Arik Brauer, Wolfgang Hutter, Rudolf Hausner followed. Regular visits to exhibitions and studios enabled the Viennese string makers to follow the creative path of these artists.
Peter Infeld, who was a successful businessman all over the world, did not collect Viennese fantasy painters only; all the time he discovered new artists. In this way, he managed to establish a collection of a wide spectrum. In addition to the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, the focus of the collection was naïve art, pop art, Buddhist meditation paintings from Tibet (the so-called tangka) and Art Brut.
Peter Infeld writes: „The wide spectrum of contemporary art was selected, however, based on the personal sensibility for the artist and his way of creating This concept of collecting results in a very personal affinity and emotional relationship to the work of art.“
The works of Art Brut artists from Gugging, near Vienna, with whom the Infeld family is connected by decades of friendship, are no exception. „Margareta and Peter Infeld tried to maintain personal contact with the artists and often visited them. Even by the great physical effort „the great old lady“ Infeld could not be discouraged from constant trips to Gugging for the selection of the works of local artists, which were determined by the proximity of their creators“, recalls Prof. Johann Feilacher, longtime director of the Gugging Art Brut Centre. For him, these „works are not only paintings created anytime and anywhere, but also witnesses of a personal relationship between the Infeld family and the artists. This relationship can be discovered in numerous works, which makes the Infeld Collection unique.
The development and reception of the art of marginalized people began in psychiatry. After Cesare Lombroso presented the works of the mentally ill in his book „Genius and Madness“ in 1864, there was a long pause. The next work on this topic was written in 1922 by Hans Prinzhorn in his work „Painting of the Mentally Ill“. The patients’ painting, drawing and writing were interpreted as therapy, but not as art. The Nazi dictatorship prevented any further development in that area.
It lasted until 1949. Then, Jean Dubuffet, an artist, collector and wine dealer, first mentioned the term „art brut“, which referred to self-taught artists, including those living in psychiatric clinics, thus describing all those whose works were created in a spontaneous and authentic way, without contact with cultural art. Dubuffet is credited with giving the term Art Brut a positive connotation, at the same time establishing a distance from common names from psychiatric diagnoses such as „art of the mentally ill“, „art of lunatics“ and „schizophrenic art“. The representatives of this art, spontaneously and without reflection, take themes, means for their realization and drawing manuscripts from their own inner world, not from the clichés of classical art or any currently relevant art movement.
Back in the 1960s, the Austrian psychiatrist Prof. Leo Navratil discovered the talent of several of his patients at the Gugging Provincial Psychiatric Clinic. He tried to analyse and interpret the drawings and encouraged their authors. Beginning in 1969, he maintained correspondence with Jean Dubuffet and sent him the works of his patients.
The ward where the artists lived was uncomfortably small. In order to create more space, Prof. Navratil placed them in his office where they could draw freely. Togetherness was established during the work. This is especially true for some of these artists, e.g., for Oswald Tschirtner. He needed the presence of a person of a certain sensibility so that he could concentrate better. Drawing and painting were a new possibility to express own ideas. And what they had to say was becoming
visible. The first exhibition of artists from Gugging took place in 1970 nearby Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, at the Galerie nächst St. Stephen.
The workplace, shared apartment and exhibition space were combined in 1981 with the opening of the House of Artists in Gugging. The colourful building is located on a hill on the edge of the Vienna Forest, about 20 km north of Vienna, and belongs to the Maria Gugging estate in the township of Klosterneuburg.
After the retirement of Prof. Leo Navratil, Prof. Johann Feilacher shifted the focus to art instead of pathology. At the centre were the personality of individuals and their talent. Exhibitions all over the world followed. In 2005 the Gallery of Artists from Gugging was opened, where their works were exhibited, and the money from the sales belonged to the artists. A year later, the Gugging Museum, a unique Art Brut centre in the world, began its work.
The artists from Gugging, Oswald Tschirtner, August Walla, Johann Hauser, Johann Garber, Heinrich Reisenbauer, Arnold Schmidt, Fritz Kohler, Franz Kernbeis, whose works are on display at this exhibition, are internationally known and recognized. In an emotional sense, their work emanates on the human dimension, without the influence of any other art and technical specialization. The quiet singularity of each individual as well as simplicity are important as the basis of artistic forms.
Loans from this collection are regularly part of the exhibitions at the Gugging Museum. Other focal points of the collection are also on display, showing a closeness to marginal art. An exhibition of borrowed pieces called „Yogini.!“, with about 100 Tibetan thangkas was held in 2012-2013. Tangka is an image on a canvas or silk scroll that is produced in a precisely prescribed manner; it has an important religious function and until recently it was completely unknown in Europe. In these works – the same as in the case of August Walla from Gugging for instance – the great importance of symbolism is recognized; however, it is not primarily a creative expression of the painter, but follows clearly defined iconographic patterns.
In 2021, the exhibition „Naiv.?“ at the Gugging Museum, with around 130 works of naïve art from the Infeld Collection, was a huge success. Peter Infeld early recognized the artistic importance of naïve artists. He bought his first paintings in the mid-1960s when he visited the village of Hlebine in Croatia to meet the naïve painters there.
As a collector, Peter Infeld understood the greatness and significance of those who had penetrated the deep darkness of their unconscious to reach the light. Art Brut and naïve art meant the immediacy and untouched beauty of nature to which the human soul also belongs. The opposite of the excessive presence of technicality nowadays is wonderfully illustrated by Oswald Tschirtner’s painted sheet entitled „Praying People“ (1987, ink pen drawing on cardboard). This work touches us with its simplicity and spirituality. Tschirtner was turned to himself; his Bible was the only connection with the outside world. His cephalopods, elongated human figures with all four limbs of the same length and without a body, showed a radical simplification. He reduced the form to a minimum, which contributed to the power of his expression. On a white background, with just a few strokes, Oswald Tschirtner lined up his cephalopods one behind the other, all looking in the
same direction. Above the figures, artistically produced without excitement but simultaneously with a lot of love is inscription „People Praying at Church“.
Contrary to Tschirtner is August Walla, a mystic among the Gugging artists and demiurge of his own mythological universe or invented gods. From his earliest youth Walla creatively changed his environment. He carried his painting equipment with him in a suitcase on wheels that he personalized with his handwriting and motifs: trees and benches, walkways, furniture, walls, buildings. His mother was his faithful companion. Since 1983, they both lived in the House of Artists in Gugging, where visitors could see his works at every step. The exhibited drawings in coloured pencils from the 1990s „Madrim, Son of God“, „Aloysia, Dead, Modest Mother“ and „Goddess Mary“ testify how versatile August Walla was, as a force of nature.
For decades Art Brut Centre Gugging has been considered a magical place where art is synonymous for humanity, sincerity and imagination. It was also a source of inspiration for the musically multitalented David Bowie, who visited the House of Artists during the work on his album „1. Outside“ (1995), thus transferring the atmosphere of the visit to the studio.
Scottish fashion designer Christopher Kane enriched his collections with Heinrich Reisenbauer motifs. Famous Austrian artists such as Arnulf Reiner and Peter Pongratz were regular visitors to Gugging.
Three works by one of the most famous Austrian artists, Arnulf Reiner are part of this exhibition. They were created within the framework of these visits, which began in the mid-1960s and took a special place. Through them, the artist established direct contact with Arnold Schmidt and Johann Hauser by painting over their works in 1994.
In these paintings, it is actually not possible to make a strict distinction between Art Brut and Art Culturel. It can be said that Gugging art springs from within to a greater extent, while artists who are considered Art Culturel are more susceptible to external influences.
Another example is the Austrian artist Franz Ringel. He was marked by the meeting with Jean Dubuffet in Paris in the early 1970s. A kind of friendship developed between the two, and Ringel was inspired by works from Dubuffet’s Art Brut collection.
When studying the works of the Austrian painter, scenographer and jazz drummer Peter Pongratz, the observer develops associations to Art Brut. In search of the origins of creativity beyond academic coercion and changing stylistic trends and the spirit of the times, Pongratz lived in Paris and Venice, travelled through Australia and tropical islands, where he was acquainted with the art of Oceania. „Art is the language of the soul“, said Pongratz, convinced that contemporary art undoubtedly had to retain its own expressive form, while the painter „should be able to use colours and forms to visualize his own, therefore authentic image of the world and himself, free from the outer influence.“
Works influenced by Art Brut symbolize much of what makes art fascinating. Namely, they show us that not only reality is important in life, but above all, courage and creativity. One such example is Franz Janz: waiter, horse breeder, self-taught painter, shareholder, student of Hermann Nitsch. One of Janz’s friends was the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also born in Graz. Peter Infeld supported and collected the works of Franz Janz: „He is unique. His painting is extremely close to me. I am inclined to the unspoken and inexplicable at first, to what a person brings his soul into.“
Art cannot provide answers to decisive vital issues. However, it can produce pictures, the images of something beyond human notions. In this way, it can encourage a more conscious life. The role of art, for instance music or literature is crucial for human existence, because it can help with creation of the worlds from imagination, worlds that contrast reality with something poetic, something that exceeds material existence, yet being as equally essential component of life as reality itself.
The variety of works from the Collection reflects the fact that Peter Infeld was farsighted, because he collected what touched him personally to the core. The rich Art Brut collection, in addition to works by artists from Gugging, also includes works by internationally known greats such as Ilija Bosilj, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, Scottie Wilson, Ida Buchmann, Bronislava Dubner. Although their artistic creation started relatively late, they managed to create a unique universe.
Ilija Bosilj started painting at the age of 62 at the encouragement of his son. As an extraordinary storyteller, he created a world filled with the most diverse creatures that are a mixture of man and animal, characters from fables and the Bible. His figures are often flat – with contoured silhouettes. Some figures are shown with two faces, which can be interpreted as a silent criticism of the duplicity and hypocrisy of his time. Ilija Bosilj often used gold pigments, similar to the works of the world-famous Austrian painting master Gustav Klimt. It is known that Bosilj spent part of the Second World War in Vienna. Two works by Ilija Bosilj can be seen at the exhibition: „Walker“ (oil on glass, 1963) and „Blue Sheep“ (oil on canvas, 1960).
The Russian female painter Bronislava Dubner started to actively deal with Art Brut as a pensioner, quickly developing an original artistic manuscript. In her critical and witty works, Dubner investigated what beauty was and what place beauty occupied. Her works are inhabited by mushroom heads, caterpillar ladies, fat women, thin women, always colourful from head to toe. The dazzling „Pani Bronja“, as she called herself, quickly gained the status of a legend – as a dancer, performance artist, actress and model. In 1988, Bronislava Dubner received the title „Alternative Miss World“.
The German eminent artist Friedrich Schroeder-Sonnenstern proclaimed himself „Three-time champion of all arts“. His oeuvre is an illustration of a personal philosophy whose main determinant is the antagonism between good and evil. He managed to rise above his own problems
and give his inner world a valid artistic form. After multiple hospitalizations, he disappeared early at the age of twenty, and found himself in Berlin, where he lived under a false name. As „Sun King Eliot the First“, Friedrich Schroeder-Sonnenstern became the leader of a sect that had several thousand followers. Since he distributed all his income to the poor, he became part of the history of Berlin in the 1920s as the „Prince of Buns“. His ambivalent personality, which ranged from a celebrated artist to a despised street madman, reflected the original art world. Not earlier than in his late fifties did he manage to put on paper everything he carried inside. In a short period of time, he developed his own distinctive style. Thus, strange human-like creatures, at the same time amusing and critical towards society were created on densely written sheets of paper. Friedrich Schroeder-Sonnenstern spoke for himself that he painted „the most beautiful, ugliest pictures in the world.“
Exhibition „Art Brut. Works from the Infeld Collection“ at Museum of Naïve and Marginal Art in Serbia shows a representative selection from this Collection. These works were collected by Margareta, Peter and Zdenka carefully, with a lot of love and patience. This exhibition respects the wish of the collectors to make these works available to the general public.
For this purpose, Peter Infeld built separate representative cultural centres in the town of Halbthurn in the federal province of Burgenland in Austria, as well as in the idyllic town of Dobrinj on Croatian island of Krk. Temporary exhibitions of works from this collection have been held there since 2000. Peter Infeld: „The goal of these exhibitions is to enable a wider audience to look into the souls of collectors and the craziness of collecting, but also to show them their beautiful sides… This can be achieved with relatively modest financial resources, the courage to bear risks in every respect and patience towards the people in my environment.“
After the death of Peter Infeld in 2009, his widow Zdenka Infeld continued the collecting activity according to his ideas, and she is also at the head of the Viennese family business founded in 1919, which is one of the three largest string manufacturers in the world. The approach remains democratic: collecting art and sharing it with the interested audience. The future is based on a solid tradition: more than 100 years of string production, 60 years of art collecting and more than 20 years of organizing exhibitions. In the meantime, more than 120 exhibitions were held in Halbturn and Dobrinje, accompanied by high-quality concerts and without admission fees. Works from the Infeld Collection are on loan in Austrian and European museums.
Yordanka Weiss, PhD, Vienna, October 2023
Sammlung Infeld 1, Editor Peter Infeld Privatstiftung, 2nd edition, 2000.
Sammlung Infeld 2, Editor Peter Infeld Privatstiftung, 2nd edition, 1999.
gugging inspired.! bowie bis roth, Nina Ansperger (edited), Residenz Verlag, 2023.
brut favorites.! feilacher’s choice, Editor Johann Feilacher; Residenz Verlag, 2022.
visualized dreams… buchmann/fischer/korec, Editor Johann Feilacher; Residenz Verlag, 2021.
Souvären Das Haus der Künstler in Gugging, Editor Johann Feilacher, Edition Braus im Wachter Verlag, 2004.
„Im Irrgarten der Bilder“, Gerhard Roth, Residenz Verlag, 2012.
„Zwischen Wahn und Wirklichkeit“, Alfred Bader und Leo Navratil, Verlag C. J. Bucher, 1976.