A pioneering French collector of Art Brut (often translated as Outsider Art), Bruno Decharme brought this genre from the fringes to the Musée National d'Art Moderne (Paris) with a remarkable donation in 2021. A milestone for art history studies and for the man now focusing on Photo Brut, or Outsider photography.
Photo: Nathalie Mey
In 2021, you made a remarkable donation to the Centre Pompidou of 921 works by 242 artists from the 18th to the 21st centuries. Can you tell us about this initiative?
The initial idea was to give this collection to the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval, although we made a lot of progress in this direction, it proved impossible. I had also thought of creating a foundation but didn’t have the means to make that happen. Then I had this meeting with the Centre Pompidou, thanks to Antoine de Galbert. Bernard Blistène, the then director of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, the donation was accepted immediately, no questions asked, and in three months it was a done deal! At first, perhaps he thought I would donate 100 to 150 works, but I explained that it was important for the museum to have a large corpus, in both historical and geographical terms, so that some serious work could be carried out. I just asked for one room to be dedicated to Art Brut. The display changes every six months. A major exhibition featuring the donation is being planned, but it is difficult to set a date right now because of the work being carried out at the Centre Pompidou. In any event, the entire collection went online on our website (abcd-artbrut.net, ed.) in early September.
What do this change in scale and the institutionalized aspect contribute?
Barbara Safarova and I now have a research center, with our own teams, within the Kandinsky Library. The curators are currently revising the entire hang of the permanent collection to integrate Art Brut. All this generates projects, some of which are in now the gestation phase. For Barbara and me, it's amazing. The Centre Pompidou’s response was incredible.
Was it a surprise?
Yes. They spotted right away that this collection was a tool to enrich the way we look at modern and contemporary art, and art in general. We participate in their discussions, because we are familiar with the subject, while they are still discovering it.
Is there a curator dedicated to studying this collection?
Yes, indeed: Sophie Duplaix, who curated the current exhibition on Gérard Garouste. Having worked on Dubuffet for some 30 years, she is one of the people who knows most about this artist, and was of course really interested in our collection.
Are there any areas of research you couldn't explore before?
There are some fabulous archives we didn't have access to and are only discovering now, including the incredible Surrealism collection. We are also really lucky because the president, Laurent Le Bon, is passionate about the subject. We are trying to finance projects through the Friends of the Centre Pompidou, like the publication of Céline Gazzoletti's thesis on Art Brut and women. It needs to be rewritten to make it accessible to the general public.
Don’t you feel rather bereft?
The fact that I have donated this collection doesn't change anything; I don't have a sense of ownership. It gives me the same thrill whether I am working for myself or the Centre Pompidou. As Barbara and I are collectors and researchers, we pass on knowledge, and in the end that’s our real job.
We find an echo here of the 19th-century collectors who felt that art should serve the common good, and whose collections made up the core of fine arts museums.
Yes, that’s absolutely true. I don't know if it’s in my genes, but my great-grandfather was one of the donors who founded the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. I feel a moral responsibility. I realize that I am a patriot: something I would never have imagined. I am very proud to have given this collection to France, especially as I was approached by a major American museum. Today, it is important for us to focus on this project and take it further. I am also trying to find other collectors and encourage them to make donations as well, to expand the Art Brut department at the Musée National d’Art Moderne. It takes time to persuade people...
Until now, you were in contact with the field and the art market as a collector. With this 'institutionalization,' what has changed in your relationship with the artworks?
It requires a different working methodology and greater meticulousness with biographies and research. This will enable us to rebalance the situation and, above all, integrate these works into the history of art and give them real legitimacy.
Will this change the way you collect?
I’ve stopped collecting! The only thing I'm involved with now is a photography department, and that's great for two reasons: I feel like I'm starting over, because it's not expensive, so I can fund it, and I'm the first one to do this in a committed way. I already presented the first section in Arles in 2019 with "Photo | Brut. Collection Bruno Decharme & Compagnie". I expected to be massacred, as I was coming to the Mecca of photography during the Rencontres d'Arles, but it was an incredible success. The same thing happened when we presented it at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, in 2021. This is why I am continuing with "Photo | Brut Bxl" in November. Anne-Françoise Rouche, who runs La "S" Grand Atelier art center, and I are creating a Photo Brut festival to be held in Brussels for six months, at both the Centrale, where we will present "Photo | Brut 1", and the Botanique, with "Photo Brut 2", featuring works on show for the first time. As well as the exhibitions, there will be workshops, performances, two study days and some completely new publications.
What are your latest discoveries?
A few weeks ago, a lady brought me 90 amazing postcards she found in a yard sale. On the backs of these anonymous masterpieces, there are some breathtaking erotic drawings! Apart from that, I can mention a drawing by Achilles Rizzoli, which is being exhibited at L’Appart Renoma. It went up for sale in the US, but it was very damaged, and you couldn't see much. I bought it for a song and the restorer cleaned it up. It's now worth a fortune! It shows a delirious world where members of his family are metamorphosed into cathedrals and palaces. I am very attached to Masao Obata, also in the exhibition. I had dreamed for years of getting hold of his works and then one day, the curator with whom I had done an exhibition about 15 years ago got in touch because he had been appointed to manage the artist's works and wanted to place them in several collections—including mine. I’ve given most of them to the Centre Pompidou.
So what's next?
I’m going on a world tour as part of a big event coming up in 2025. The subject will of course be Art Brut, which we will approach through unexplored territories and periods. That's why I'm going in search of works by major mystics and visionaries all over the planet. They have this other, really different perception of the world you find in great artists. They come together in the unspeakable, in the absolute mystery, in profound questioning—and it is at this moment that humankind of necessity becomes creative.