Arthur Bispo do Rosario

Arthur Bispo do Rosário
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
13 August – 28 October 2012

It is impossible to ignore the personal history of “outsider” artists – if for nothing else than in an attempt to get the facts straight. Arthur Bispo do Rosário was born in 1909 (some sources cite 1911) and died in 1989 after spending more than half of his life in the care of a psychiatric hospital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was admitted at the age of 29 with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and for the rest of his life he lived at the hospital. During this time he created over eight hundred objects often covered in text and made from found everyday materials such as string, paper, buttons and card, including hand embroidered banners and garments. His mission, we are told, was to “record and remake the world [and] represent symbolically in his art everything that he felt should be saved at the coming Day of Judgement.”

The V&A’s two-room exhibition has over eighty pieces exhibited on loan from the in Rio de Janeiro, which oversees the artist’s archive. Much of the artist’s work is wrapped and bound and, with time, now shows a faded beauty. For example, one wall is filled with Miss Universe sceptres, intended to represent beauty queens from around the world in the 70s and 80s and explained in the exhibition text as a celebration by the artist of global female beauty. Flags, sails and medals are more common. The latter, seen in “Fights 1938-1982” is attributed to Bispo do Rosário’s brief early career as a successful lightweight boxer, while the former offer a possible connection to his time in the navy.

As with many “outsider” artists, Bispo do Rosário’s compulsion to create is not entirely clear. Textiles are a familiar appearance in the art loosely collected under this umbrella – perhaps because they tend to be close to hand or possess some basic ability to offer comfort that goes beyond language. His work offers no exception to this rule. More unusual are the staged photographs of the artist wearing his work. Wilson Lázaro, curator of the Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporana, has confirmed that these images were taken with strict instructions from the artist and suggest an intriguing element to his work: a desire to capture his vision precisely or perhaps create a format to share with others.

“Outsider” art – I use only for want of a better term – that makes use of textiles has made other recent appearances in London. In 2011 the Museum of Everything held exhibition #4.1 of the late American artist Judith Scott. Scott, who was deaf and had Downs Syndrome, was introduced to textiles at the Creative Growth Centre in Oakland, California and spent the remaining years of her life constructing powerful wrapped sculptures from thread and found objects. The Museum of Everything exhibited Scott’s formidable work in the gutted former Selfridges Hotel – a gesture that smacked a little of kitsch. The V&A’s decision to exhibit Arthur Bispo do Rosário seems to be both a departure for the hallowed halls of establishment and a suitably venerated setting for the work.

This is far from the first time that the artist’s legacy has enjoyed such a renowned platform. Other notable venues have exhibited his work in the past, including the 1995 Venice Biennial and a 2003 solo exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. This current exhibition is part of the London 2012 Festival, a series of cultural events timed to coincide with the Olympics and Para-Olympics. Selecting a Brazilian artist acknowledges the hosts of the next cycle of Olympic events in 2016. Unfortunately, the V&A provides scant information to accompany this modest exhibition of fascinating work. A subtitled 30-minute video captures dialogue with the artist, but an interpretation of this information is lacking. While many may conclude that this is art that defies explanation, greater contextualisation would not have hurt.

Ironically, Arthur Bispo do Rosário did not see himself as an artist at all, but instead believed he was fulfilling a spiritual calling. In the video footage on exhibit he explains, “If I could, I wouldn’t do it.” Selfishly, we can be glad that he did.

Selvedge Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2012: 89)