Madness — and the spectre of the asylum — has haunted many an artist through the centuries. After the First World War, work created in the mental institutions of Switzerland and Italy acquired a specific name: ‘asylum art’. ‘Aloïse Corbaz was one of the early important artists in this category,’ says Cara Zimmerman, specialist in American Folk Art and Outsider Art at Christie’s in New York.
Born in 1886 to a middle-class Swiss family, Corbaz became a governess in the entourage of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, to whom she developed an intense — and entirely imaginary — romantic attachment. In Aristoloches, a fantastical, double-sided drawing probably created between 1925 and 1933, Corbaz takes the Kaiser as her subject. This drawing, explains Zimmerman, reflects ‘an incredibly well-educated woman who has lost touch with reality’.
In 1918 Corbaz was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was institutionalized for the remainder of her life, living in an asylum in Gimel, mid-way between Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland. Encouraged by psychiatrists who believed in the restorative possibilities of art, she executed lavishly coloured works on paper.
‘Few female self-taught artists have achieved the level of fame or accomplishment that Corbaz has,’ says Zimmerman. In part this is because many women who lacked artistic training often turned to quilting or other practices that were more accepted for women at the time. ‘Corbaz instead found her outlet in creating these fantasy worlds,’ says the specialist. ‘I would say she’s one of the top female artists in the field of outsider art.’
Influenced by her former position at court, Corbaz’s works often depicted high-society dalliances. ‘As a governess in the Kaiser’s court, she understood that world, although she was never truly in it,' the specialist says. 'She took what she knew and pushed it to this other wild realm.’
Zimmerman points out the large, opaque eyes of Corbaz’s figures, which is a recurring motif in her work. ‘None of her subjects have eyeballs; you can’t see what they’re looking at. When Corbaz was asked about this, she said that her subjects were embarrassed to be caught in their romantic embraces,' the specialist explains. 'So beneath the grandeur of the court figures, there’s an underlying sense of humility.’
Two of Corbaz’s greatest admirers were French artists Jean Dubuffet and André Breton. In 1948 they established the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, an organisation dedicated to promoting the best work produced in asylums and other unconventional environments.
‘Dubuffet and Breton recognised how important it was to get back to the root of the artistic process, to unlearn everything they had learned and have a raw connection with art, material and existence,’ says Zimmerman. Breton, in particular, ‘fell in love with Aristoloches’, and begged Dubuffet to let him have it from the Compagnie’s holdings for his personal collection. He renamed it Imperial Violets because of its theme and colours. ‘We have documentation of him asking about it,’ adds Zimmerman.
Aristoloches remained in Breton’s collection until he died, and will be offered in Beyond Imagination: Outsider and Vernacular Art on 19 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York.