Is it a question of atmosphere?

On the first day of the European Outsider Art Association’s annual conference, we had a great talk from artist and photographer Ingeborg Luscher who, in 1972, wrote a book about Armand Schulthess; a Swiss artist who turned his house and land into a visionary environment.

Luscher met Schulthess eight years before she began writing the book after being told about a man who collected information and hung it in the trees surrounding his property. Luscher didn’t know his exact location, just that he lived in a valley – of which there were hundreds in the area! A known hermit, Luscher was lucky to find Schulthess’ dwelling in the first valley she explored. She followed the path to his house, where she found annotated metal shapes hanging in the trees. The shapes were full of information about life and relationships. Intrigued, she wanted to find out more.

Luscher kept returning to Schulthess’ house, taking more photographs and leaving literature, scientific magazines and bags of tin cans outside his front door. She would visit him every Wednesday, but he always disappeared whenever she called out to him.

Thomas Roeske and Ingeborg Luscher

Thomas Roske and Ingeborg Luscher

Many of Schulthess’ arrangements were vandalised, and he would endure local people throwing stones at his door. Thinking Luscher was up to no good, Schulthess would follow her as she explored the area surrounding his house. Eventually, he responded to her calling out to him; he hadn’t spoken to anyone in 14 years. She recalled a sort of ‘initiation’ process that she had to go through with Schulthess before he would accept her as someone who was doing no harm.

On his death, Schulthess’ whole house was destroyed to make way for a picturesque Swiss holiday cottage. A few books along with some of his arrangements survived, but most of his work was set on fire over a period of three days.

Since Luscher discovered Schulthess, she has been present at several exhibitions of his work. Each time, the curator has treated the arrangements differently, and it was insightful to hear Luscher’s thoughts on the different presentation, as someone who knew the artist so well.

The exhibitions she discussed where polar opposites in terms of curatorial strategy. One, at the Mai Museo from 2013 – 2014, was a contemporary white cube display, with similar shapes were grouped together. The second an exhibition she herself helped to curate, where she felt she embodied the atmosphere and personality of Schulthess’ life. Luscher pointed out that it is important to think about and know the atmosphere and personality of the artist and aim to encapsulate this within any given exhibition.


The exhibition based on the white cube formula saw works hung in more of in inventory style as opposed to an art exhibition. Luscher noticed that the curator had not really reconstructed the scene as Schulthess’ house, or embodied the personality of the artist himself. All that was there as a reference to this were wooden beams, perhaps as a nod towards the forest dwelling of the artist. Countering this, in her role as co-curator, Luscher included pages from her book in the display to give the show a plentiful atmosphere, as there were not enough surviving works by the artist to fill the space. This was her way of re-introducing the atmosphere that she felt was lacking in the previous exhibition.

It was interesting to note this idea of personality and atmosphere. Which should we be aiming for – a contemporary-inspired white cube space or a more intimate, rounded representation of the artist through the work?

Interestingly, Luscher later married Harold Szeeman, a notable curator and art historian who would combine Outsider Art with the work of contemporary artists, grouping the pieces based on the artists’ intentions rather than any other defining factor. He generally focused on the content of the work, thinking that colour similarities, or stylistic similarities were too superficial. He looked for a certain existential ‘pull’ from the works he was curating.

“I don’t want to show them as cases in medicine… I want to show them as personalities and as individuals.” – Harold Szeeman.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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  1. Julia Oak

    Where possible, talk to the artist. When an exhibition is after the artists life, then think about them; did they frequent or apsire to a white cube environment? Have they left behind ‘nice’ little labels, lazer printed on white foam board floating from the surface of the wall. What environment was the artist most happy and at peace working in?
    I sense there is an element of the ‘anthropologist’ about Luscher’s approach to learning about Schulthess.
    Is the exhibition about her ‘finds’, her achievemnet of finding them? Or about Schulthess himself.
    I sense there is a need for curators to recieve public acclaim, wanting more than there few minutes of fame.
    I sense that many of those who ‘discover’ outsider artists want to be famous for doing so.
    Surely it must be about facilitating a visual voice for the outsider artist not a journey into fame for the facilitator.

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