Roger Cardinal obituary | Education
In 1972, Roger Cardinal wrote a book intended to bring to an English-speaking audience the French concept of art brut – literally “raw” or “uncooked” art – a term coined by the painter Jean Dubuffet to describe the work of the neurodiverse, then labelled more baldly as “mad”, eccentric or unworldly.
Cardinal’s own preference, as a book title, was to leave the term as it was. “You’ve got art nouveau and art deco,” he reasoned with his publishers, “and now you’ve got art brut”. The publishers did not agree. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the compromise title agreed on for the book was Outsider Art. It was a term that Cardinal, who has died aged 79, never much liked, but one that attached itself nonetheless to his name.
His interest in the art of the marginalised had grown from another in French surrealism. Here, in the dream states and automatic writings of André Breton and the rest, was pure imagination laid bare – the kind of thing that Rimbaud had talked of, the suspension of the superego and freeing of the id. At Cambridge – he had won a scholarship to Gonville & Caius College from St Dunstan’s college in south London – Cardinal had written his PhD on the surrealist conception of love; a subject that his tutor, the literary scholar Douglas Parmé, had had to fight for his protege to follow.
Armed with this contentious doctorate, Cardinal was, in 1965, given an assistant professorship in the French department of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. With him went his Swiss wife, Agnès (nee Meyer), whom he had met at a summer school in Lausanne three years before. Their first son, Daniel, was born shortly after their arrival.
If Winnipeg was enjoyable enough, it was far from the dark heart of Parisian surrealism. When Cardinal heard, only two months after the fact, that Breton had died, he decided that he could no longer continue in Canada. In 1967, he returned to Britain, briefly to a lectureship at Warwick and then, for 50 years, to teach at the University of Kent at Canterbury, latterly as a professor.
Cardinal was born in Bromley, south-east London, where his father, Thomas Cardinal, was a lens technician for an optical instruments firm. Roger’s mother, Ada (nee Melbourne), came from a large local family. He was a talented linguist and his first and greatest love was for German Romanticism. It was in the emotional excitements of Goethe and Novalis that his interest in the irrational was rooted.
His polymathy was well suited to Canterbury, the university having opened only three years before the Cardinals joined it. (Agnès would teach comparative literature there.)
Less hidebound than Cambridge, Kent welcomed such so-called “new subjects” as drama, film studies and the history and theory of art. It also encouraged academics to move between these, and between cultures and disciplines.
Soon, Cardinal was inventing modules on “Madness” and “The Absurd”. He also began to write books, on a range of subjects – Expressionism (1984), The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash (1989), The Cultures of Collecting (1994) – in a style at once passionate and lucid. His own favourite remained Figures of Reality (1981), a study of the poetic imagination, well received (“innocent and brave”, said one review) if too little read.
It was with Outsider Art (1972) that his name would be most strongly linked. Typically, the work’s British reception was chilly – “a hotchpotch of inferior stuff” – sniffed the Times Literary Supplement. As Cardinal ruefully recalled: “The book was largely ignored.” Not so in the US, however, where it quickly went into paperback, helping foster a local fascination with the subject that persists today.
This was not entirely a source of pleasure to the man who, under duress, had invented the term. In a 2009 essay on outsider art and autism, Cardinal noted that the name had been “used and abused in a variety of ways, which have often compromised it”.
His interest in artists such as the violently psychotic Adolf Wölfli lay in their creativity rather than the sensationalism of their lives. Certainly, it did not lie in the resale value of their work. That outsider art should, since 1993, have had its own multimillion-dollar annual fair in New York ran contrary to Cardinal’s thinking on the term.
One of the few stipulations in his own definition of it was that outsider art “thrived on independence, shunning the public sphere and the art market”. “In the end there is really no such thing as outsider art, no more than there is such a thing as the general public,” Cardinal wrote in the catalogue to Outsiders, a groundbreaking show that he helped curate at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1979. “There is only the ferment of individuality.”
Cardinal is survived by Agnès and their sons, Daniel and Felix.
• Roger Cardinal, art historian, born 27 February 1940; died 1 November 2019