A creative life that blossomed in the asylum

After going from Switzerland to the periphery of the German court, Aloise Corbaz's artist talent was discovered in a sanitarium

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

To view the pictures of Aloise Corbaz is to enter a fantastic, colorful world of a beautiful young woman with her handsome suitor, filled with carriages and crowns, roses and nights at the opera. The belle is Aloise herself, or, perhaps more precisely, Aloise’s ideal self, center stage in a theatrical production far from her routine existence in a Swiss home for the mentally ill.

A new exhibition of more than 80 pictures by this remarkable artist is on show at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (aka Watarium), in a new exhibition simply titled “Aloise,” which is being held in Japan only. One of many striking features of her work is its vibrant coloring. Leaving the black and brown pencils virtually untouched in their box, Aloise structured her pictures around flaming reds and soft pinks, supported by hues of yellow, orange, green and blue.

Since her death in 1964, Aloise has become one of the most celebrated artists in the field of Art Brut, a term coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), who found in the untutored and unrefined artistic output of the mentally ill an immediacy and power he thought lacking in academic art. Dubuffet collected Aloise’s works, visiting her from time to time and encouraging her creativity.

Aloise was born in 1886 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her mother died when she was 11 years old, leaving Aloise in the care of her eldest sister, whose tyrannical control left an indelible mark on Aloise’s psyche and on the family. This sister, discovering Aloise’s love for a priest who lived nearby, put an early and cruel end to the affair by sending her off to work as a governess in Germany in 1911, when Aloise was about 25. At first, Aloise worked for a family in Leipzig and then for a chaplain in the service of Emperor Wilhelm II in Potsdam. How involved Aloise was in court life is unclear, but coaches, thrones and jewels were recurring motifs in her vibrant pictures.

In 1913 Aloise returned to Switzerland, but her mental health soon deteriorated. She spent the rest of her life in institutions, at first with no opportunities for her creative inclinations, but from 1920 she started secretly drawing on scraps of paper with toothpaste and juice squeezed from leaves. When her activities were discovered, they were encouraged and, given colored pencils, she would draw on larger pieces of paper or in notebooks, often ripping out the pages and sewing them together into large sheets or scrolls. With similar resourcefulness, Aloise frequently used both sides of the paper she worked on and when no clean sheets of paper were available, used newspaper or pages ripped from magazines or books, including one on display in the exhibition drawn over a page from an art book on Japonisme.

Unlike the majority of Art Brut artists, whose knowledge of Western cultural history is minimal or non-existent, Aloise was well educated and incorporated elements of the cultured outside world into her art. She was well-versed in three languages, as well as with the stories of her beloved operas and was familiar with science, religious art and history; Napoleon, Mary Stuart and Winston Churchill are but a few of the famous personages who populate her pictures.

But more than anyone else there is always a representation of Aloise herself in her paintings, in one with her breasts a bloom of roses — symbolic, perhaps, of a sexuality desiring to be plucked — and another, also done in red, oddly appearing in the guise of Father Christmas. And, no matter the picture, the same blank, blue eyes punctuate each and every face.

For Aloise it seems that her art was not so much a form of self-expression as a form of self reinvention, a place where she could reorder the world, and her life story, in a more appealing way.

“Aloise’s art,” says Akiko Mori of the Watarium, “offers the possibility of rebirth. There is a tremendous feeling of freedom in her world.”

Hence, no doubt, the recurrence of symbolic images of such as the egg and the butterfly in the highly consistent world she produced. This perhaps accounts for the emerging interest in Aloise and Art Brut in general in Japan — following the successful Henry Darger exhibition last year at the Hara Museum — at a time of financial and cultural malaise that is probably leading more and more people to question who they really are.

No one knows how many pictures Aloise produced in total (one estimate is about a 1,000) as she would give them away or just leave them on the table when finished; for her it was the creative act, not the finished product, that was important. Many of her pictures were saved by her doctor and closest companion Jacqueline Porret-Forel. Now in her 90s, Porret-Forel planned the current exhibition, the most thorough yet, though not the first in Japan.

It is sadly significant that when the authorities saw the financial possibilities in her work and encouraged her to organize and title her pictures, Aloise’s motivation left her, and she died within a matter of months. Thankfully we have this exhibition to keep her alive.

“Aloise” is showing till August 18 at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Wed. till 9 p.m.; closed Mon.). For more information, call (03) 3402-3001 or visit www.watarium.co.jp