Posts Tagged ‘Martin Ramirez’

I’ve written here before about some of my favorite Outsider artists, those untrained artists who follow their obsessive need for expression even as they suffer hardships such as illness, extreme poverty and mental disabilities.  People like Martin Ramirez, the Mexican-born artist who was committed to an asylum in his thirties and spent the rest of his life, 30+ years, locked away as he created an amazing intricately designed world in his art. 

There was another artist years before Ramirez whose road was very similar and who work was as deeply designed and engaging.  It was the Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli who was born in 1864 and died in 1930, about the time Ramirez was committed.  Wolfli was considered one of the first acknowledged Art Brut artists, as Outsiders are called in Europe and, like Ramirez, he had a difficult life that ended with him living the greater part of his life locked away.

Wolfli, an orphan at the age of 10, was physically and sexually, abused throughout his childhood.  He suffered from severe mental illness which manifested itself in vilent outbursts and hallucinations.  It was this and a series of child molestation charges that led to his committal in 1895.  He was about 31 years old.  He never left. 

He began to draw at some point during his life in custody, it soon becoming a true obsession as his inticate drawings covered every scrap of paper he could lay his hands on.  Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at the psychiatric hospital who documented Wolfli case in a book, wrote this about the extent of Wolfli’s obsession:  Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimetres long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.

Wolfli’s work incorporated musical notations that were woven into the designs, an odd looking notation that seemed purely ornamental but was later proven to be an actual  idiosyncratic notation sysytem that could indeed be played.  Wolfli would sometimes play the music on a paper trumpet he had crafted. 

Wolfli produced a prodigious body of work in his years in the asylum, including a semi-autobiographical epic that was a massive 45 volumes in size.  It consisted of over 25000 pages and 1600 illustrations.  His work has been largely kept together as a collection which is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland.  There is also the Adolf Wolfli Foundation which was formed in 1975 to bring his work to the attention of the public through education on and exhibitions of his works.

Like many of these artists about which I write, Wolfli’s work is new to me.  But it is so immediately grabbing in its design and its harmony of color and form that I am enthralled by it.  When I clicked on the Google images page for his work, there was such a gorgeous continuity that ran through every image on the page that I found it hard to choose which image to explore first.  Such beauty revealed in the dark recesses of a life spent locked away.

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Among  the many great and sad stories in folk art is that of Martin Ramirez, a man born in Mexico in 1895 who came to the United States as a young man to work on the railroads.  The work proved too demanding for the small man and he soon was in despair, losing the ability to speak at that time as well.  He was diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic in 1930 and lived the rest of his life in mental health institutions until his death in 1963. 

Years into his institutional life, Ramirez started creating drawings and collages from the everyday objects around him.  This is how his work is described on the Foundation for Self-Taught Artists website:

Exhibiting a kind of iconographic vocabulary, Ramírez’s lovely drawings limn deep, vertiginous spaces through rhythmic repetition, disorienting perspectival shifts, and stagy composition. A mythic presence suffuses the animal, human, landscape, and abstract aspects of the work, all hemmed in by vibratory channels and warrens. A master of line and compositional control, Ramírez used graphite, melted crayons, and found pigments on paper fragments glued together with saliva and oatmeal. He also included collaged elements drawn from magazines and books. Recurring motifs in the work include mounted and armed jinetes (horsemen)—Ramírez was fond of horses and an equestrian back in Mexico—Madonnas, trains and tunnels, cars, and landscapes. Vernacular Mexican and American cultural themes and visual tropes, both nostalgic and resolutely modern, combine in a body of sensuous, dream-like images.

Martin Ramirez and Tarmo Pasto

In the 1950’s, Ramirez’s work was discovered by visiting art psychologist Tarmo Pasto who asked that he be allowed to keep any drawing that Ramirez produced.  Apparently, many pieces had been discarded over time in order to keep the ward clean.  Pasto championed Ramirez’ work and made it possible for the world outside those sanitarium walls to see the creations of this man whose mind seemed to transcend his captive life.  In the years since his death, the works of Ramirez have become some of the most prized in all of folk art and have been the subject of several  exhibitions in major museums.

I have never seen these works in person but am struck, even seeing mere images of them, by the almost trance-like rhythm of the patterns and imagery in them.  There is a beautiful grace in them that is only enhanced in knowing the story of this man’s struggle through his life.  It’s as though Ramirez was creating in his work, portals of release for a captive soul, a new world in which his inner mind finally jibed with the outer world.  That is how I choose to view it  in that I find the work filled with an almost idyllic harmony. 

 Postcards from a better place?  Perhaps.  Whatever the case, it is a gift to us from a world we may never know.


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