Despite his unstable lifestyle, and the meagre tools available to him, Janko Domsic managed to conceive an entire habitable universe, which could be adapted according to his whims; a space that mixes religion, politics and mysticism. He made its otherness an escape from hegemonic normality, leaving behind him a cabalistic, esoteric oeuvre which continues to intrigue. He died in 1983, and it is the Christian Berst gallery in Paris, a specialist in outsider art, which now represents the artist. 

Outsider. Janko Domsic is an outsider artist. It is a part of the history of art that is still being written and defined, and more than ever in the process of being legitimised with the acquisition by the Centre Pompidou collection of 921 works in June. It represents a colossal donation from filmmaker Bruno Decharme, which now offers visitors permanent access to outsider art in a national public institution, but also a dedicated research space, thus shaping its posterity. Conceptualised in 1945 by Jean Dubuffet, outsider art distinguishes artists said to be “culture-free”, self-taught, who are on the margins of society and especially the art system, whose desire to create is motivated only by their need for expression and not for recognition. It’s a controversial definition that has been refined over the years, with the succession of artists, by Jean Dubuffet himself and the protagonists, collectors and defenders of outsider art. This new donation opens up the range of works of outsider art accessible to the public, which until now had mainly been promoted by the Collection d’Art brut de Lausanne (Switzerland), the Collection L’Aracine, integrated since 1999 into the LaM (Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art), the Antoine de Galbert Collection or indeed the Christian Berst outsider art gallery.

When mystery feeds myth

We know the artist was Croatian (former Yugoslavia), but his life remains as mysterious as his drawings. Born in Malunje in 1915, he is said to have arrived in France in the 1930s, where he allegedly spent time in prison before being employed on the construction of a railway in Pont-Sur-Yonne. On his temporary residence permit we can read with more certainty that he lived at 8 rue Caulaincourt, between Place de Clichy and Montmartre cemetery. Without a penny to his name, he set up a makeshift shelter on the top floor of his building. His home was too small to indulge in drawing, so he favoured local cafes. Here he became a public persona, hitting it off with workers from the neighbourhood, who were happy to settle some of his bills. They included one of his neighbours, who was a house painter and Italian. Admiring his work, he went to meet him, and a dialogue ensued that became a friendship. Domsic gave him a number of works which his friend treasured. In 1983 Janko Domsic died, and in the absence of his friend, who had returned to Italy, all the drawings that were stored where he slept were destroyed. Only those entrusted to his friend were kept.

With a ballpoint pen, felt-tip or marker, on paper or cardboard, Domsic’s universe became reality beyond his thoughts. His characters who face us come confidently to life, usually alone or in pairs. The colours remain rudimentary like his tools. They appear in repeated lines of red, yellow, blue, green and black. With geometry, the bodies come alive with circles and lines that indicate the use of a ruler and compass. They are puppets, mechanical beings with sequenced physiognomy, some of which have wings, crowns or instruments. Angelic or demonic, they personify the supernatural or the divine. We can also see in them the incarnation of mysteries, hieratic figures with knowledge beyond ours about the future and the construction of the world.

The birth of an individual mythology

With Domsic there is a cosmogonic vision, an ability to create a world, and an individual mythology as defined by Harald Szeemann. The astral and earthly planes are unified, a feeling reinforced by the lack of perspectives. “The figures are sometimes drawn like you would connect the points of a constellation,” explains Christian Berst, founder of the eponymous gallery. The interlacing of lines overloads the composition, multiplies the directions and leaves you dazed. You can see familiar symbols on closer inspection. A sickle and a hammer, a pentagram, an Orthodox cross, the swastika, a dollar… References that constitute our Western society and which are intertwined. You’ll find religion, politics and mysticism here, but also freemasonry. A mix of cults and dogmas that draws us irremediably to semiotic analysis, and an attack on this new entity, this syncretism. However, it would be a colossal challenge, if not futile, to try to decipher all the meanings that Janko Domsic sought to incorporate, and he took the keys to understanding with him.

“What interests me in reading Domsic’s texts is the poetry used in them. I don’t think like him. I don’t play about like him. You need to be humble to accept that you can’t access most of what he wanted to express,” says Christian Berst. To explain what he meant, Janko Domsic constantly alternated between drawing and writing. The one supporting the other when the latter was no longer sufficient, and vice versa. “Coded writings,” as he himself said. It was a feat for this man who never went to school. Expressing himself partly in acronyms, he included complete sentences with only the initials of words before expanding them, each time in a new way. URSPIU is one of the most common, like a mantra, meaning for example “United resolved solar planetary index unifies” or “united restarted together passport inter universal”. A way to further blur the boundaries between signs and meanings. Images and texts are intertwined, inseparable – as close as possible to the etymological meaning of the term “graphein” -, making Janko Domsic’s universe reality, like a unified whole. Writing also had a redeeming role for the artist, satisfying his irrepressible need to fill in all the gaps. A fear of empty space – Horror vacui – is common among outsider artists.

Writing the History of all the arts

When he founded his gallery 16 years ago, Christian Berst did not intend to be an art dealer. As a collector since the 1990s, following his encounter with the work of Adolf Wölfli, a major figure in outsider art in the twentieth century, he continually cultivated his passion for fifteen years before starting out. “I founded a gallery to create economic conditions to effectively promote this field. And for that you need a social space.” Still largely unknown at that time, outsider art suffered from a lack of awareness of it and preconceptions. For Christian Berst, there were therefore multiple challenges; finding and collecting artists, exhibiting them, but above all creating a solid base of empirical knowledge acquired over the years on outsider art. Now more than 80 bilingual catalogues have been published, and round tables and discussions on the subject have been organised.

“I sought to find my own path, by breaking away from Dubuffetian bipolarity (which pitted outsider art against what he called cultural, mainstream, academic art). And at the same time, fight against prejudices and ensure that the art world takes up this question, that it tries to think about this field, and that collectively we write what I still consider to be the great missing chapter in the history of art.”

Today he gives his own definition of outsider art that can be found on the gallery website: Art brut is the expression of an individual mythology liberated from the system and economy of the art object. This work, 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. A changing definition which can still evolve with the research undertaken, and which puts a contemporary spin on the definition offered by Jean Dubuffet in 1945.

By gradually offering lexical, institutional, academic and economic legitimisation to the art brut artists, we are writing the missing chapter, and we are including them in the history of art with a capital H. As this art is consumed by the system, particularly the economic system, its contours shift and again raise questions. In all its uniqueness, it would therefore seem that it never allows itself to be fully grasped, reflecting the “worlds of their own” of its artists.

Christian Berst © Jean Picon / Say Who
Christian Berst Art Brut, Paris
3-5 Passage des Gravilliers
75003, Paris

Text : Marie-Charlotte Burat
Images : Christian Berst Art Brut, Paris