The closure of mental institutions is recent history. In 1978 the Basaglia law initiated a process that made it possible to reconsider the life of people suffering from mental illness from a medical, social and cultural point of view. No more irrecoverable and dangerous subjects to lock up, contain and hide relegating them to the margins of the community but people in all respects capable of taking part, in specific times and ways, in the life of the community.

The revolution carried out by the Venetian psychiatrist is inscribed in a historical period of profound cultural renewal thanks to the contribution of scholars including Erving Goffaman and Michel Foucault who, in the twentieth century, were among the first to question the relationship between power and space, both in the sense of individual and collective. In the 1970s, the English critic Roger Cardinal, a pupil of Jean Debuffet (who in 1945 had coined the definition of Art Brut) brings these reflections into the world of art: here too the space is clearly distinct in an “inside” – the prerogative of recognized artists, with training in the field obtained thanks to accredited paths and a precise position in the dynamics of power of the art market – and an “outside” in which the excluded move, both from art and from society. In order to underline its discriminatory significance, Cardinal reformulates the definition of Art Brut turning it into Outsider Art, in which the accent is placed on the relationship between artist, space and dynamics of power. It includes those productions made by people who are not allowed in society because they consider crazy, dangerous or both, totally lacking in the capacity of personal self-determination. It is a controversial definition that was not positively received precisely because it was not very inclusive, however it is important to consider that the exclusionary character really connoted the life of these artists.

The process that allowed them to recover their artistic productions was complex and, more often than not, random. In Italy, for example one of the most incredible works ever made was only partially saved, thanks to the work of a nurse who, first of all, understood its value. It is a mural that originally extended for 180 meters on the containment walls of the former psychiatric hospital of Volterra. To carry it out an internship: Fernando Nanetti or NOF4, as he himself had renamed himself once he entered the Ferri pavilion, in 1959, to serve a sentence for the crime of insulting a public official.

We don’t know much about him, except for some information that always comes from the institutions where he had spent various moments of his life. Nanetti, the son of a young and lonely mother, had been entrusted to a charity institution in Rome, his hometown, at the age of seven. Discharged in the teenage years, he lost track until 1948 when he was denounced for outrage but judged mentally ill. Nanetti will spend his entire life inside the Volterra facility, passing from the “Ferri” pavilion to the “Charcot”, dedicated to the agitated and dangerous. In fact, from what we know he was not supposed to be a particularly problematic patient. This is also why the nurses allowed him to spend two hours outdoors every day. In the courtyard, he did not spend his time with the other inmates; taciturn and elusive, he preferred to be alone and use the buckle of his waistcoat to engrave thoughts and reflections on the walls with which to give life to his world and communicate with others, aliens.

Nanetti is methodical: he frames the space through lines to create large pages on which he notes excerpts from life in the asylum, messages received from other galaxies, news related to his past. He uses a boustrophedical script, alternating capital letters with Etruscan characters, he often writes following the line of the silhouettes of the other patients seated on the benches next to the wall, proceeding in a sinuous way, with lines that bend and lift making decoding even more difficult. In the hundreds of words traced, Nanetti describes himself as “Signor Nanof”, “astronautical mining engineer of the space-time mental system” and NOF4, an abbreviation that he composes by adding the name Oreste and the registration number received. The stories engraved on the plaster, sometimes accompanied by drawings and graphics, in some cases they manifest his delirium (“The glass, the sheets, the metals, the wood, the bones of human and animal beings and the eye and the spirit are controlled through the reflective catotic magnetic beam”) in others his incredible lucidity (“Mobile metric graph of hospital mortality 10% for transmitted magnetic radiation 40% for various diseases transmitted or caused 50% for personal hatred and grudges caused or transmitted”). Nanetti tells of wars between planets aimed at the conquest of unknown worlds: on closer inspection, these are themes similar to those told by another artist outsider, the American Henry Darger, also rediscovered in the same period, a few months before his death.

Like Nanetti, Darger also spent most of his childhood in an asylum to which he is sent because doctors believed he suffered from “self abuse”, a term that alluded to masturbation, considered at the time as a dangerous disorder. The institute followed strict rules which severely punished all those behaviors not permitted with abuse and harassment, including corporal. Discharged in adolescence, he found a job as a caretaker in a hospital. The employment allows him to have a dignified, albeit modest and lonely existence, and to rent a room in a building in the suburbs of Chicago where he will live until his death. It is in this room that the owners make an incredible discovery: in fact, they find hundreds of drawings and various volumes, bound by Darger himself. Among these there is one, of more than fifteen thousand pages, entitled In The Realms of Unreal. Darger begins writing it around the age of nineteen and tells of the clashes between two imaginary nations: Glandeliaatheist and slaver e Angelinia, Christian and free country. It is precisely in the territory of Angelinia that the Vivian Girlsseven fantastic girls who, thanks to their courage, try to save the children kidnapped and enslaved in the territory of Glandelia.

Despite having received an elementary education, in the manuscript the author demonstrates a certain command of the language and a remarkable imaginative ability. Many pages are devoted to the battles – built on the model of the American Civil War – and to the detailed analysis of the oppression suffered by kidnapped children, forced into slavery and abuses of all kinds. In many situations, reality and imagination mix, as when Darger is directly questioned by “General Vivian” about the cropping of a photo that he had really lost, in real life. The photo depicted a little girl involved in a crime story, a heinous murder that Darger had transposed into his story by transforming the protagonist into a sort of martyr killed by a Glandelian general. It is not known why Darger was so obsessed with this story, however it seems that it is precisely this news story that provided the narrative trigger.

His intentions were to create a perfect world, in which no child should ever be subjected to violence. In reality, what emerges is an ambivalent cross-section in which images of children playing serene in bucolic landscapes alternate with writings of brutal violence. Probably the war that Darger represents is a transposition of the trauma experienced both in childhood and subsequently. According to Jim Elledge, who spent a lot of time tracking his life, Darger had a complex personality formed both as a result of what today would be called “unfavorable childhood experiences” but also because of poverty, a sexual orientation considered at the time. a problem and the loneliness to which these characteristics had forced him.

Darger and NOF4 share a similar life: they are social outcasts and yet have an incredible interior universe whose rereading, today, is more relevant than ever. Despite the cultural change brought about by the Basaglia law, in fact, it is still difficult to see mental distress far from stereotypes. Artists like Nanetti and Darger can help us take a step forward by reminding us that no person can be defined from a single perspective. Thanks to books (we remember, among others, The Dust of Words, by Paolo Miorandi), to the work of Onlus (such as Inclusione Graffio e Parola) and international exhibitions (such as Outsider Art Fair) we can re-read the scope of artists who would have had a lot to say, if only they had not been forced by a strongly repressive and punitive system to remain on the margins of life.

Art can be a valid tool for breaking down some unstoppable taboos and helping to hybridize a discourse that requires multiple lenses – social, psychological, pedagogical – in order to be understood.

On the cover a shot by Francesco Pernigo taken from Books only

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