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    Johann Feilacher

    The Gugging Phenomenon

    Maria Gugging is a town not far from Klosterneuburg and home to an Art Brut center that has been in development since the 1960s. There are more representatives of this unaffected art form living and working here than in any other part of the world.

    In the 1950s psychiatrist Leo Navratil worked at the Gugging sanatorium. He had become familiar with the Mensch-Zeichen Test (or person drawing test) and introduced it to Gugging for reasons of practicality. The interesting, creative images that he found among the thousands of drawings motivated Navratil to research the history of art and psychiatry, and in 1965 his book Schizophrenie und Kunst was released by the DTV publishing house. It was a small book that garnered substantial attention since it became the point of departure for a process that had begun as early as the 1920s in the wake of the publication of Hans Prinzhorn‘s Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Artists such as Arnulf Rainer were among the first collectors of works by talented Gugging artists. Rainer presented his collection in a 1969 exhibition at the Vienna Secession that was significant for its era. For the first time, names like Oswald Tschirtner, Johann Hauser and August Walla were plunged into the history of art.

    The first exhibition of Gugging artists took place at Galerie nächst St. Stephan in Vienna in 1970. Theoretical discourses surrounding the topic of art by people with mental illnesses or, to put it even more generally, by people who are not capable of deliberately producing art, gained heightened attention.

    Leo Navratil began working towards creating a better social reality for his talented patients, but it would be an additional ten years before his Center for Art and Psychotherapy, housed in a separate building, opened its doors in 1981. The works of select “artist patients” (Navratil) had already been presented at prominent exhibition venues. Navratil exhibited works in several galleries and museums and continued to attempt to analyze the works on the basis of the artist’s illness. He eventually came to the conclusion that art by the mentally ill is fundamentally informed by the illness, and it is also this that forms the basis for its artistic value. He coined the term Zustandsgebundene Kunst (condition related art), and sold the works of his patients on their behalf because he believed that their output should be rewarded.

    At Navratil‘s request I came to Gugging in 1983 to – among other things – eventually become his successor. My first task was to prepare a large exhibition at the Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna. Navratil retired in 1986, and I took over the management of the center.

    The first thing I did was rename the Center for Art and Psychotherapy the House of Artists. Navratil had spoken of making this alteration earlier, but hadn‘t been ready to make it official. This change of name reflected my approach. I had always been interested in the talent of the individual artists, and not their diagnoses. I was thrilled by the artistic powers demonstrated by the house‘s inhabitants, and made it my goal to offer them the same opportunities available to all artists. I did not just want to sell works at individual events, I wanted to give the artists the opportunity to become recognized in their field. Their disabilities or challenges became the private concern of the respective artists. This was not to repress their illnesses, but rather to remove these as the focus and contextualize illness as simply part of their life stories.

    The original group of artists included Johann Hauser, August Walla, Oswald Tschirtner, Philipp Schöpke, Franz Kernbeis, Johann Garber, Johann Fischer, Heinrich Reisenbauer, Johann Fischer, Arnold Schmidt and Franz Kamlander. In the following these were joined by, among others, Günther Schützenhofer and Karl Vondal. Today we also have Laila Bachtiar, Jürgen Tauscher, Leonhard Fink and Helmut Hladisch.

    I regarded the art from Gugging much as Dubuffet did: as genuine and autonomous art. And it is for this reason that I present their works alongside the works of other contemporary artists in significant local and international exhibitions. I also encouraged the artists to stop donating their works to museums, as they had been in the habit of doing. If a museum like the Setagaya Museum of Art in Tokyo is willing to spend a substantial sum of money, this is evidence that the artist is valued. During the 1990s, exhibitions throughout the Western world took the works and their creators to museums and galleries in many cities, from Malmö to Helsinki, Philadelphia to New York. Some artists, such as Johann Hauser enjoyed travelling, others such, as Oswald Tschirtner, refused; he always preferred to stay at home.

    With the support of the government of Lower Austria our non-profit association Freunde des Hauses der Künstler in Gugging founded a social welfare institution and the house withdrew from the hospital association. Since then, this organization has been responsible for administering the House of Artists and its inhabitants. In 1997, we established our own gallery, owned by the Gugging artists. The gallery represents the artists and sells their work, stays in contact with other galleries and collections, and organizes exhibitions throughout the world.

    During the 1990s there were no funds available to support the opening of our own museum, and thus a work project realized through the efforts of unemployed individuals was our first opportunity to begin remodeling a vacant building. After one hundred years of hasty handyman repairs on the building‘s interior, it took four and a half years of slow and collective detailed work before the first floor was renovated and readapted to its new purpose. Everyone that helped worked their hardest and aided in all areas. I mention Nina Katschnig (the gallery manager) and Florian Reese simply as representatives of all those who deserve mention. And it paid off. The Gugging artists moved into their new spaces immediately, used the studios or just stopped by to chat, the new spaces became communication centers.

    The museum-like architecture was intended to be aesthetic and practical without compromising the original structure. The funds sufficed to frugally complete work on museum gugging, and in 2006 we opened with all necessary security requirements, such as fire safety.

    The museum’s objective was, and continues to be, the presentation of works by the Gugging artists and their international Art Brut colleagues. The museum is also expected to be able to measure up to all other art institutions and offer group exhibitions of comparative stature that include all art forms.

    In order to ensure permanent planning security, we eventually entrusted the operation to the Niederösterreichische Kulturwirtschaft (Lower Austrian cultural industry), which manages over thirty-two other cultural operations in the state.

    The Privatstiftung - Künstler aus Gugging (Private Trust – Artists from Gugging), which at that time consisted of approximately 500 donated works, was also called into existence. Private donations raised this number, and the trust now holds one thousand originals and etchings. Many international artists and collectors have also donated works to the foundation. Hannah Rieger is one of these donors.

    Past exhibitions have showcased major Art Brut artists from around the world: from Adolf Wölfli to Aloise Corbaz, August Walla to Judith Scott, Louis Soutter and Martin Ramirez and Gaston Chaissac, four centuries worth of thangkas, tribal art from New Guinea, the work of African American artists, and photography.

    The museum has also gained significance for being the first venue of its kind to present works of Art Brut within the classic museum context. Art Brut is one of the world‘s many art forms, and should be presented the same as all other art. Then and only then can the creators of this art form be appreciated in the same way.

    To appeal to a broader audience and integrate additional art forms we have established an open access studio at our Art / Brut Center, which is located beside the galerie gugging, as well as a music hall, theater, and museum shop.

    Galerie gugging organizes sales exhibitions of Gugging artists in-house as well as in twenty partner galleries spanning from Paris to New York, Chicago and Tokyo, and also supports the artists in building their careers. The gallery is the artists’ main source of income – a factor that is of utmost importance. Nina Katschnig has been looking after the artists for twenty years, and manages the gallery. She was also involved in the development of the museum and led its management for a number of years. Gugging has become one of the most significant Art Brut centers in the world, and will continue to bring its universe closer to collectors and visitors alike.


    Johann Feilacher

    Johann Feilacher was born in Villach, Carinthia, in 1954. He studied medicine at the University of Graz, graduating in 1978

    as Dr. med. univ. before going on to specialise in psychiatry and neurology in 1986. In 1983 he was brought by Leo Navratil to the state psychiatric clinic Gugging as an assistant. Three years later Feilacher succeeded Navratil as head of the department for art-psychotherapy, changing its name to the ‘House of Artists’ (Haus der Künstler). In 2000 Johann Feilacher was able to separate this internationally renowned artists’ community from the psychiatric clinic and transform it into a social welfare institution. Since then he has – together with Nina Katschnig, managing director of the galerie gugging, and his team – transformed Gugging into an Art Brut Centre that is unique throughout the world.

    The museum gugging opened in 2006 and Feilacher has served as its artistic director ever since. He also serves as a member of the board of management of the Private Trust – Artists from Gugging (Privatstiftung – Künstler aus Gugging) that has been building up a permanent collection for the museum since 2003. In order to ensure that there are future generations of Art Brut artists, Johann Feilacher founded an open studio at the site of the museum. As curator, he is responsible for countless international exhibitions and frequent publications about the Gugging artists.

    Johann Feilacher is also an artist himself. After many years as a painter, in the 1980s he moved to sculpture, working predominantly in wood throughout Europe and America. Some of his sculptures are monumental in size.


    © Hannah Rieger
    All Rights Reserved

    All Photos (rooms and artworks): Maurizio Maier
    Concept & Layout: VISUAL°S