Josef Hofer, an explorer of the Self

Drawing Now Paris 2019

I must admit that I discovered Josef Hofer belatedly, at this Drawing Now Paris art fair; Galerie Christian Berst art brut had the wisdom to show several pieces of his work. Let us say it very clearly : Josef Hofer is an important artist.

His story is sad, dramatic, and joyful all at once. Josef Hofer was born in 1945 in Wegscheid, close to Linz in Upper Austria, only a few weeks before the end of the Second World War; but, as was also the case of his elder brother, he suffered from a severe physical and mental disability. Virtually unable to speak, except for the utterance of poorly articulated sounds, deaf, with difficulties to walk, he would have been unlikely to survive had the war lasted longer : the nazi program of genetic cleansing was in full speed, and the Hartheim Castle, not far from Mathausen, itself in the neighbourhood of Linz, was one of the six places where handicapped people were killed in the systematic, industrial, zealous way with which the regime implemented euthanasia.

Certainly more than 20,000 people were killed there. This was no secret: the smoke and stench, the buses bringing people in and nobody out, could not have left any of the neighbours in doubt. Josef’s father, a pipe maker, knew that. His own sister was murdered in 1941 in a psychiatric clinic. With courage and foresight, he moved his family to a relatively isolated farm of the Mühlviertel region, where he hoped nobody would notice. After the end of the war, strangely, the family continued to hide little Josef, who never went to school. It would seem that they did not trust the Russians either, who then occupied Austria. Or that they could not escape from the overwhelming shadow and darkness of danger which had become ingrained in their own minds.  

So here we have a child who developed practically without any interaction with the outside world, with any humans other than close family, and without any contact with cultural life whatsoever. It is said that, as a child, he used to make drawings about the farm life, or pieces of agricultural machinery, but none seems to have survived. 

After his father’s death in 1977, the family moved to Kirchschlag, then to Linz in 1985, giving him a chance to experience a slightly wider social life than mere family; he has been living since the early 1990s in the Lebenshilfe Oberösterreich of Ried im Innkreis, a centre for people with disabilities. In 1997 he met Elisabeth Telsnig, who discovered his work and became his adviser and mentor; it is to a large extent thanks to her patience, sagacity and dedication that we know of this artist. In a documentary directed by Chris Lewis, and dated 2007, one discovers the man, now in his sixties: short, his face marked by the tension between the lingering youth of his mind and the age of his body, silent but joyful. His attitudes are neither those of a child, nor quite those of a man, in a world of their own; his room is full of toys, mostly playmobile figurines, excavators, tractors, with which he seems to be playing in an sort of sandbox, though “playing” does not really catch the mysterious form of interaction he entertains with these very simple objects which he touches, pushes and contemplates as if they opened some doors of memory or perception which we are not allowed into.

When he works, Josef Holder – nicknamed “Pepi” – demonstrates an amazing degree of concentration, his bespectacled eyes often very close to the paper, or rapidly drawing lines with his wooden ruler, these lines which are so characteristic of his work: straight, but not quite, as each line seems to be made of the overlay of several segments of shorter lines, so that the geometry is never “pure”, and therefore never dominant.

The art of Josef Holder is very personal, and can be recognized at first sight. Several features are permanent, the first and most obvious of which is the framing of each drawing with red, orange and yellow bands within black pencil contours. These bands are neither neat nor homogeneous, not quite scribbled either.

Yellow is the colour of light, of clarity. Symbolically, it is associated with analysis, with the division into smaller parts, extraction of what is useful to the body or to the mind. In chromotherapy, yellow is usually associated to the Manipûra chakra which, in the vedic tradition, is located at the level of the solar plexus and is the seat of the fire, the place of ego, passions and impulses, within our body. Interestingly, Manipûra is related to the principle of sight and the sense of self. According to the Shiva Samhita, a root text of the Hatha Yoga, the adept who contemplates Manipûra chakra not only conquers disease and death but also acquires the ability to enter another body. Red is associated to life, heat, reproduction. In chromotherapy, red is usually associated to the Muladhara chakra located at the very bottom of the spine, wherefrom life energy flows.

I am not suggesting that one should read the work of Josef Hofer in accordance to yogic symbolism, but there are most probably associations which the mind will make naturally, when left to itself, and here we are in a situation where the artist is mentally isolated from all sort of cultural conditioning. Somehow a process of individuation seems to be at work.

Inside these frames, which are never identical, we see for the most part nudes or erotic drawings both of men – in fact self-portraits originating in a protracted daily observation of himself in the heavily-framed mirror which stands in his room at the institute – and more rarely of women, often wearing stockings, whose images most probably originate from the books and magazines he may have seen at the institute. The reference to Egon Schiele is unescapable; for instance to the Grimassierendes Aktselbstbildnis of 1910, or Rückenakt mit orangefarbenen Strümpfen of 1918. It is difficult to say to what extent he may have reinterpreted works of Schiele seen in books or pictures, though stockings are of course a typical feature of erotica of the turn of the century. Drawings are made in an apparently systematic manner, starting with a naked body which is then occasionally “dressed” in several layers of colour. Male sex is often clearly drawn, or even enhanced with red, but its presence is never dominating the portrait; it is rather as if the artist made visible the libido itself.

With extremely few and noteworthy exceptions, there is never more than one character inside each frame, and although one may find several adjacent frames on the same drawing, crossings between such frames – by an arm or a leg for instance – are extremely rare, as though communication were near impossible between to beings. Sometimes, it would seem that a hand or a leg penetrates the frame, without actually succeeding in crossing this barrier; or that the “ceiling” of the frame weighs on the head of a crushed person. In quite a number of cases, the body is without a head, or legs. And in some rare instances we find an animal, such as a horse, or a purely geometric figure. Most of the human bodies are drawn in black pencil only, though they may be coloured in pale yellow, and lips in red. 

When watching a drawing by Josef Hofer, and one should insist on their extraordinary diversity despite the common themes and methods, it would seem that the artist re-enacts in each one of them a process of individuation, directing the energy of the libido towards a constant re-birth of the self, as if the mirror he owns and uses were not sufficient for this reassurance but the image had to be transformed by the act of drawing into a proper self, the frame acting as a window through which the man Josef Hofer – and the world – may seem him, and not only his body. Art becomes perhaps the mirror of one’s own soul, one’s own self. Which part of the self may Josef Hofer reach, we do not and will never know. And is nakedness a manifestation of life itself, or of the desire to live, or of what is most intimate, and might be an allegory of the soul ?  These can only remain speculations. We are reminded of the dialogue of Socrates and Alcibiades, where we learn that the soul can only know itself by “looking” outside of itself toward another soul, which may then reflect back the truth of one’s own. In those minds which are isolated from society by illness, there is no such other soul, but perhaps the one created by the drawing.

SOCRATES: And if the soul, my dear Alcibiades, is ever to know herself, must she not look at the soul…?

ALCIBIADES: I agree, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And do we know of any part of our souls more divine than that which has to do with wisdom and knowledge?

ALCIBIADES: There is none.

SOCRATES: Then this is that part of the soul which resembles the divine; and he who looks at this and at the whole class of things divine, will be most likely to know himself?


SOCRATES: And self-knowledge we agree to be wisdom?


SOCRATES: But if we have no self-knowledge and no wisdom, can we ever know our own good and evil?

ALCIBIADES: How can we, Socrates?

I have no knowledge of the diagnosis which is relevant to the ills of Josef Hofer, and it does not really matter from our perspective; one cannot help thinking of Freud’s view that, in the case of schizophrenia, the libido is withdrawn from the exterior world with which ties are weakened, and reoriented towards the self; he thought that what he called this “regression of the libido” reaches an archaic state of self-erotism which even precedes the “stage of the mirror”, a stage where perception of one’s own body as separated from the other is not yet established, and where the body still appears as made up of various pieces. There is no clearly differentiated Other, and in such disorganised perception an isolated organ of the body may “speak” for the whole. Lacan presented the case of an Italian patient, Isabelle, who had drawn a tree with three large eyes inserted in the trunk. From a branch hung a writing, which she deemed “the formula of her secret” and which read: “Io sono sempre vista”, “I am always seen”, but which can also be read as “I am always a view”, the object that is seen. In the language of schizophrenia, the word is the thing itself, not the sign which leads to the thing.

One could perhaps extend the idea by saying that the image becomes the thing, the self, or perhaps even the Other, once humans are severed from society for one reason or another, and the question is likely to resurface with the massive advent of virtuality in our cultures.

From an art history’s perspective, we are of course led to insert the work of Josef Hofer in the realm of Art Brut, as it was initially defined by Jean Dubuffet in 1945: an art which does not rely, or is not conditioned, by any technical or cultural transmission, and an art which does not seek to become part of any system of recognition or be inserted into any symbolic or economic market.

Let us read Dubuffet, who is eminently clear in his definition : “…We mean by that works which are executed by persons who remained unscathed from art culture and therefore in whom mimicry, contrary to what happens with intellectuals, has little or no part, so that authors may draw everything (subjects, choice of materials, means of implementation, rhythms, manners or writing, etc.) from themselves and not from commonplaces of classic or fashionable art. We witness the artistic operation all pure, brute, reinvented in each one of its phases by the author, from its own impulsions…” (in Jean Dubuffet, L’Art brut préféré aux arts culturels, October 1949). The question remains of whether or not novelty, or the urge to invent new forms and languages, has any relevance; otherwise, a flower pot painted by a Sunday amateur would count as Art Brut

Antoine de Galbert says that artists become brut when they stop wondering about other peoples’ eye. He is echoed by Christian Berst who points out that Art Brut has no manifest addressees, adding the criteria of marginality, whether mental or social. However, and apart from the fact that the art market will “absorb” and judge an art work whether the artist wants it or not, there is of course an internal contradiction in the concept of Art Brut : so that your grandmother’s painting of a nice flowerbed does not count as art, you do need an external eye that makes a judgement… Art Brut is now in many collections, and it is no accident that Christian Berst, one of the great galleries of Art Brut,  have been repeatedly – and thankfully – showing works by Josef Hofer for a number of years. Long ago, Hans Prinzhorn had acknowledged the difference and the importance of art created by the mentally ill, and analysed in his important book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922), the works in relation to their creators’ psychosis. The huge collection which Prinzhorn and his colleagues gathered at the time was saved from the Nazis, is now on display in the University of Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic. There remains however something unsatisfactory in this idea that there is no addressee to Art Brut. The eye these artists work for is perhaps not clear to us, and is certainly not  the eye of collectors, art critics, or posterity. This does not mean that there is no idea of an eye. Did the Magdalenian artist work to get feedback from some clever curator ? Or for his own leisure and enjoyment ? Clearly not.

Despite the occasional similarities of form, Art Brut is obviously distinct from primitive art, in the sense that it is our own culture which defines primitive art as an art, when it may just be a ritual or decorative object from the perspective of other cultures, and that marginality has no relevance other than in the sense of a relationship to cultures alien to the centrality of writing. And although primitive art is not produced in order to be part of the art system, but rather the local symbolic system, and may not be transmitted by teachers (though this can be disputed), it is often heavily conditioned by the local culture. But perhaps Art Brut and primitive art (including prehistoric art) have some eyes in common …

Christian Berst notes that Art Brut, “produced with no clear audience in mind, is created by individuals who live in « otherness », be it psychological or social. Sometimes it draws our attention to the metaphysics of art – the creative urge as an attempt to elucidate the mystery of existence – and at others, to the need to repair the world, to care for it, to make it habitable.” More interesting than marginality in itself, which is in a sense the condition of possibility of this isolation from cultural heritage and judgement and therefore largely redundant to the definition, this idea of creation ex nihilo is intriguing. It relates to the attempt of identifying the essence of the creative process, and thereby the essence of what may be essentially human, or to put it differently, of that divine portion within humanity, precisely the key argument around which Plato’s Alcibiades revolves, and which we already referred to. 

If we re-read Dubuffet’s sentence, we feel tempted to think of revolutionary art: doing away with the past, with culture, with classicism, re-starting all from scratch; this has always been the aspiration of revolutionary times. Let us read Mayakovsky: “Only the Revolution of the spirit will free us from the trash of old art…the revolution of contents, social-anarchy, is unconceivable without the revolution of the form, futurism” (1918). The difference is that revolutionary art is focused on re-building society, and often re-creating man itself, while Art Brut has no such purpose. Hence a return to the core of the matter: what is inside the artist, what is spontaneous, genuine and unspoilt. But if there is no cultural conditioning, where does that inside come from, or represent ?  Is it the implicit suffering that results from the condition of mental or social isolation of the artist ? Is it an elaboration stemming from a relatively narrow universe of experience, and transformed by a spectrum or depth of emotions which is made wider by the paucity of social experience ? Or is it some otherwise unreachable region of the self, which culture obliterates or disguises ?  

In his letter to René Auberjonois, in 1945, written after a visit to a psychiatric hospital, Dubuffet writes that the art of professionals does not seem more clearsighted or lucid, meaning perhaps also prophetic, than that of the mentally ill, rather the contrary. We meet here this ancient topos according to which madmen are wiser, have some access to regions of the spirit, which other men do not have. Perhaps, just like shamans, they have a gift to communicate with a world that is more real, more worthy. One may of course discern behind the positive valuation of Art Brut an implicit denigration of humans engaged in society, therefore of the process of history itself, which are typical of a gnostic form of dualism; or more simply the endless quest for innocence, a metonymy of purity, of the lost origin.  

It is therefore a reduction to consider Art Brut as the art of the mentally ill. Art Brut as we see it through the work of Josef Hofer is a glimpse of the tragedy of the being stripped, so to speak, from the veils of culture.

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