When I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see their show of the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosario, the nice ladies on the information desk had no idea what I was talking about. It took some searching to find the rooms dedicated to this visionary Brazilian artist. You won’t find him on Wikipedia either. Maybe his obscurity is because Bispo do Rosario spent fifty years of his life on a Rio de Janeiro psychiatric ward, and did not even think of himself as an artist.
Born in Japaratuba on the east coast of Brazil, the descendent of African slaves, he was exposed to a strongly religious culture and to the hybrid traditions of folk art. Bispo do Rosario worked as a cabin boy, as a signaler in the navy (he was thrown out for insubordination), and then as a boxer, before finally ending up in Rio as an odd job man.
In 1938, he had a vision of angels bathed in light. He felt that the Virgin Mary had guided him to record the universe in visual form, in preparation for the Day of Judgement. The same year, he was hospitalized for treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.
In an attic of the hospital of Colinia Juliano Moreira, Bispo do Rosario began his remaking of the world. For the next fifty years he spent up to 20 hours a day working obsessively, creating more than 800 sculptures, objects, garments and banners which began to spread across the entire building. Many of the pieces were recycled from scrap. Back in Japaratuba, it was the men’s role to stitch the banners for the religious processions, so Bispo do Rosario was working within his cultural tradition. He stitched religious messages and all sorts of other texts on his fabric creations – making the recent efforts of Tracy Emin look shabby by contrast. Boxing, ships and other aspects of his past are also recuperated and integrated into his work.
For Bispo do Rosario, this creative outpouring was a spiritual, not an artistic task: he saw it as his duty to prepare for the Last Judgement. He would carefully dress himself in his ceremonial robes for visitors. He enjoyed authority and respect at the psychiatric hospital, which for him was a shelter and refuge, rather than the place of fear and abuse which these institutions have often been for others.
His work has an extraordinary intricacy, complexity and impact. It reminds me of surrealism, of the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, of the fabric creations of Louise Bourgeois, the solitary confinement of Kurt Schwitters: all the more extraordinary in that Bispo do Rosario was entirely self-taught, worked in an artistic vacuum, and generated all this extraordinary art through his own originality and imagination. He did not care about recognition and respect, just as long as he was left to do his appointed spiritual task.
It was not until the 1980s that his work came to the attention of the art world: he had his first exhibition in 1989, followed by shows at the Venice Biennale, in Paris, and now in London. There is a permanent museum of his work in Rio de Janeiro.
Outsider art, like that of Bispo do Rosario, is hard to evaluate. How do you judge a creative work produced by someone who never saw himself as an artist? How much does intention matter? Talking about her fascination with it, critic Terry Castle describes outsider art as a “gorgeous, disorienting, sometimes repellent phenomenon”. Schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses have often been associated with original creative thought, as well as with religiosity. Does it matter that these artistic activities are generated by extreme and unusual brain states? Is there any significant difference between the work of Bispo do Rosario and that of Hieronymus Bosch? Many artists and writers, after all, have experienced mental illness, which gives them a different perspective on the world, and perhaps a burning need to express themselves.
Terry Castle essay on Outsider Art
Extract from “The Prisoner of Passage” documentary