How could one approach the work of the Danish artist Ovartaci (1894-1985) without describing, not simply the life of this person with all its biographical details, but this artist’s persistent self-experimental productivity? Ovartaci changed himself throughout his life, from a shy boy from rural Denmark, named Louis Marcussen, to the great artist Ovartaci, the creator of spectacular visions from his lives in other eras and places. He morphed from a shy boy into a shaman, who stood in contact with spirits, animal spirits, and the spirits of long-lost family, which he magically brought to life with improvised materials. Ovartaci lived in and through his art, and to some extent, he artificially rebuilt himself. In 1954, he hammered off his penis with the iron from a planer, and in 1957, he underwent a full sex change surgery, this time at a hospital. Ovartaci elevated into one of the high heeled women of his paintings, and possibly even beyond. In the 1970s, he made yet another transformation, changing to the status of a man, and wanting again to be addressed as "Mr."; of course, this was not just a return to an old identity but the invention of a new one. No wonder there are birds, butterflies, and other winged creatures everywhere in Ovartaci’s oeuvre: there is a sense of flight, of taking off, of leaving for other unknown destinations.
59.5×93 cm, oil on canvas. The oldest buildings of the Mental Hospital in Aarhus, Risskov. Courtesy of Lene Helsborg.
Not just imaginary destinations. After Louis Marcussen finished his training as an industrial painter in the small town of Ebeltoft in 1913, he gradually began preparing for an adventure. In 1923, he left for Argentina, where he lived from 1923–1929. He worked there, he vagabonded with a friend, he disappeared, and he turned up again some years later at his friend’s doorstep, claiming to have visited some indigenous people in the jungle of one of the northern provinces of Argentina. Ebeltoft, Buenos Aires, the jungle. The single photo we have from the time in Argentina shows the young man from Ebeltoft with a large grin on his face. But something happens in Argentina. His beloved Argentina, where he also starved and was struck by a lightning bolt under a ferocious thunderstorm. When Louis returns to Denmark after his adventurous journey, something is not quite right. He sees things that are not there. He wanders around in his mother’s living room; he feels threatened by two Japanese porcelain figurines on a shelf. He is the same as he was when he left, and yet something—an inner empire of fantasies and paranoid delusions—has returned with him. Louis feels trapped. Between two destinations, between reality and a dream-world, without being able to separate the two. Finally, Louis threatens his brother with a rifle. He is apprehended by police and spends the rest of his life in psychiatric institutions, from 1929 until his death in 1985. It is from his position as an inmate at a psychiatric hospital that he makes his change from Louis to Ovartaci.
Strange enterprise. Can one approach Ovartaci without approaching something within oneself? Something enigmatic perhaps. Why have I, with considerable intensity in the last couple of years, spent so much time investigating the life and work of this artist? When I first met Ovartaci’s work over fifteen years ago, I was struck by its quality but also its weirdness. I had the sense of encountering something very strange, yet also strangely and uncannily familiar. What hit me was not the allegedly spontaneous character of so-called "art brut", the category invented by Jean Dubuffet to describe the art of the insane. For all its spectacular qualities, I do not believe that true art merely emerges from this somewhat wild, yet very romanticized, productivity described by Dubuffet and others, and found in what they praised as the "anti-culture heroes" of inmates at psychiatric hospitals. But something else hit me when I dove into the production of Ovartaci: the invention of artistic practices in a very barren place. Not only in the sense of the place of the psychiatric cell but at the exact place where something has fallen apart.
Not every invention at this place would be art. Not every trauma turns into art. But art can emerge here. What Ovartaci made me see was not a program of "art brut" in the sense of an art that breaks free from all culturally established rules and bonds. Rather some kind of "foundational art", one that cannot be read as an attempt to escape from culture, but to restore the cultural context of the subject. In an age of care, when we must perform and realize ourselves to the utmost degree, and when, paradoxically, our shared institutions of care are underfinanced and overburdened, this way of approaching art would be timely.
Jesus in the Madhouse
In my recent book, Ovartaci: The Signature of Madness, I have outlined two very broad aesthetic strategies that seem to be played out in Ovartaci’s work, namely the strategies of "cutting" and "adding." Both strategies have to do with the way Ovartaci manages to create a new, vibrating artificial texture, but they nonetheless work in very different ways. The strategy of cutting has to do with a sometimes very violent fight against the harmful forces attacking Ovartaci; this fight is also fought on the turf of his own body. Ovartaci wants to eliminate, or cut out, the evil forces in himself. The strategy of cutting is a destructive strategy, which says something about the high stakes of the art of Ovartaci. Even if it makes a colorful, even if somewhat spooky and ambiguous, first impression, it is not without trauma.
The strategy of adding has to do with the way something nonfunctional is replaced or even repaired by something new. For example, the male body is replaced by a female body. But the strategy of adding not only works at affective levels of bodily feeling and intensity but also on the plane of social inscription. Hence the name "Ovartaci" (that replaces the name Louis Marcussen) itself carries an enormous weight. It can be used as an escape to another life or as a magical device, but it also has its own mythology and genealogy. In a broader picture, the very "delusional" mythology of Ovartaci, with its many strange bodies, figures, animals, and landscapes, with its background anecdotes about life in other reincarnations, often told by Ovartaci, and with its religious and philosophical framework, itself can be read as a "working through" of some very traumatic features of human existence, detected by Ovartaci. Delusion is not madness, as Freud already knew, but "in reality attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction.”1 Let me illustrate the dialectics of cutting and adding and the creation of artificial, reparative texture by way of two important examples of artistic production from Ovartaci’s oeuvre.
When Ovartaci is hospitalized in 1929, he is placed at (what was then called) the Mental Hospital in Risskov, Aarhus. He is diagnosed with schizophrenia. However, in 1932, he is moved to a nursing home in the countryside, in a small town called Dalstrup; one of the reasons behind this is, as far as we know, that he is considered "incurable." He stays there until 1942, when he is transferred back to Risskov. A new path opens up for Ovartaci in Dalstrup. It is here that he begins to use the name "Ovartaci," and it is here that he begins a feverish production of all kinds: he decorates his room, he produces mechanical devices (for example, a little steam engine), and he even begins to decorate the homes of some of the locals in Dalstrup. Even if Dalstrup nursing home was not the place one wanted to end up, as patients here were considered incurable and thus somewhat abandoned, when Ovartaci arrived in 1932, the personnel there were rather quick to notice the creative talents of their new patient. The manager of the nursing home even gave Ovartaci an important assignment: to decorate the nearby chapel.
Ovartaci worked hard on this task in the summer of 1932, and the result was astonishing. It attracted the press, and many tourists came to visit the chapel. Ovartaci has filled the entire room with ornaments, for example, ornamental patterns inspired by thistles. The main piece is a painting of Jesus Christ, who is flanked by two angels. It is as if Jesus welcomes the dead person and bids him follow him into the heavenly afterlife. Even if the paintings and ornamentations are made in a rather traditional or at least well-known style, there are already elements that are Ovartaci signatures. For example, the halo, or the light beams emanating from Jesus' head. Those same types of beams, seldom discovered in Christian iconography and more often present in Asian art, will later be found in Ovartaci’s so-called Nirvana paintings.
When winter comes, however, something strange happens, finally resulting in the loss of Ovartaci’s artwork. Jesus comes to visit Ovartaci. "A vision appears in the room; it was a brown figure," narrates Ovartaci. "It wasn’t that pretty. It was Jesus—Jesus Christ.”2 And Jesus is not happy with what Ovartaci has done, as he has discovered that the whole place where he has been painted belongs to a "nerve clinic," a "madhouse," and he will not be placed there, alongside the dead lunatics. He yells at Ovartaci. Therefore, Ovartaci collects his painting equipment and wanders through the snow to the chapel, where, in the light of a candle, he scratches out the entire painting of Jesus and the angels. Instead, he paints a naked woman, and this painting, of course, creates quite a stir the next day when it is discovered.
The mortuary chapel at the nursing home in Dalstrup with Ovartaci’s original decoration (made in 1932-1933) before it was destroyed by himself.
How should one approach "the Jesus incident" in Dalstrup? Must one not, alongside the first painting itself, also factor in Ovartaci’s further negotiations with what has been painted? Thus, this is not art in the sense of a finished product, but rather, as I previously stated, a process of thinking (“durcharbeiten,” “working through”) at a personal and cosmological level.
Jesus is in fact one of Ovartaci’s central antagonists; this will become evident later from many of his fables, his stories about his life, which in 1968 were collected by the doctor Johannes Nielsen. In the fables, we hear about Ovartaci’s many reincarnations, about the many times he has been murdered, about his fights with Jesus Christ, whom he believes to be a cannibal, about his religious outlooks, and so on. What we are witnessing is a way of thinking, a productivity principle that touches on the very foundations of existence. Cutting and adding. Defending oneself and inventing something new. Something is painted—Jesus Christ—but the painting of Jesus must be scratched out, must be eliminated. A painting is not a dead thing, but rather a phantasmatical space that informs its creator, allows him to map out forces of good and evil, and allows him to investigate the state of the religious and political authorities that should ensure his survival. Or as Ovartaci explains, in his own rather fabulating style of speaking:
Sometimes I talk to the Pope. Christianity does not exist in 1968. Christ has been given 2,000 years and shall no longer be the god of the world, or the Jesus who should be worshipped, or that self—the self—that is to be prayed to. I do not know who will replace him, as there certainly are many to choose from. There will have to be a big meeting within the religious community.3
To question Jesus. To allow Jesus to enter the symbolic texture as a villain, a cannibal. To remove him and replace him with a naked woman. We should try to make Ovartaci speak through broken narratives like these. There is trauma and pathology in Ovartaci's life. To handle this I have, also in this regard, allowed myself to be guided by a Freudian intuition. Maybe it is exactly through pathology that we gain true insight into the stakes of subjectivity as such? Why not follow Ovartaci when he asks about the fundamentals of existence, when he asks about what or who is to be believed? Not because Ovartaci is a seer who provides correct answers, but rather because he poses the right (radical) questions.
“The Chinese formula”. 151.5×82.5 cm, gouache on canvas. Photo from ‘Ovartaci & the Art of Madness’, 2017. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Photo by Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy of Jørgen Winther.
We must stay in the chapel with Ovartaci for a while to sense this. Isn't it also true that we've entered a zone where life and death can be questioned, where we with Ovartaci can shake the solid barrier separating two very different states? "Can you die and yet live on?" asks Ovartaci. And who is to decide when you are really dead? Ovartaci’s production bears witness to an abundance of lifeforms and life beyond death. In some paintings, we see burial chambers filled with living creatures; we also repeatedly hear about life that continues in another form after the death of the body. With Ovartaci, we can ask a tricky question: Why is it impossible to die?
Once again, look at Ovartaci’s decoration of the chapel in Dalstrup and notice that the chapel’s floor continues into the painting. Life continues into death. Death is not final, but more like a threshold that you can cross. And death gives a little leeway. You can move on the magic floor of death. Several of Ovartaci’s paintings show us dreamlike hallways and colonnades, where it seems you can transform and become something else. It is as if Ovartaci is caught, not in death anxiety, but in the almost opposite: life anxiety, anxiety for life in one definite form, and hence the desire for transformation with death as a lever.
My Liberation Day
The painting of what he refers to as his liberation, which is his deliverance from his status as a man, is a very iconic Ovartaci-painting. The painting depicts liberation on two axes: the axis of the body and the axis of the name. The old body and name must be eliminated, and something new must take their place.
The painting depicts one of Ovartaci’s iconic slender women, naked and high-heeled; she is somehow too tall, so that she must bow down to perform her act. The woman is there as a woman on the basis of having cut off the genitals of the man she was before. The text underneath the woman reads: "Gør som Jeg = befri [Dig]" ("Do as I = liberate Thyself "). A new creature is born. She was born on a specific date—July 22, 1951, which is "My Liberation Day." The date is not, however, the exact date on which Ovartaci performed the act of cutting off his penis (July 22, 1954); the month and day are right, but the year seems to refer to the time when Ovartaci first handed a letter to his doctors asking for the removal of his genitals. It is thus a painting, not only of an act but also of a decision (even though the painting was done after both the decision and the act). The painting is also signed in several ways. There are two Chinese-like letters. And then there is a new name: ‘Frk. Ovartaci’ (Miss Ovartaci). As if to strengthen the message and give it extra depth, the back of the canvas has the same motif, although slightly more blurred, and here is the name ‘Marcussen’ (the name left behind). The new sex, or something that is both wound and sex at the same time, is the painting's focal point. The green lines attract and center our gaze, but at the point the lines lead us to, we find something that is not there; it has been removed and thus displaces our gaze, so that we oscillate between seeing the act of amputation and the wound.
For Ovartaci, being a man has a disturbing virility. Man cannot control himself, which is emphatically (and comically) expressed in the male sexual organ that seems to have a will of its own. What Ovartaci perceives here is, I think, not only the disturbing virility of being a man, but the disturbing virility of being a sexed creature at all (whether you are a man, a woman, or something else). Ovartaci cannot uphold this mandate as sexed being. Therefore, liberation is necessary. One could read this as a liberation from the heteronormative environments of Ovartaci’s time, and the project and the act certainly upset the institutions and doctors around him. Ovartaci confused the doctors, who incessantly conferred with each other to figure out what they should do with this patient, so determined in his plans to rid himself of male aggression and stupidity, and so eager to redeem himself. But the liberation is not simply to be read as "Ovartaci against the system." It also works, as I read it, in a much more disturbing way, where once again a foundational art, an art of recreation, is called for.
Again, we find the strategy of cutting, simply cutting off the male organ. This is, on the plane of the body, a rather radical strategy. This is where auto-mutilation also sets in, and Ovartaci was never afraid to use the knife on himself; he amputated his penis, he cut off parts of his nose (because he found it to be ugly), and when operated on by doctors, he would afterwards try to correct and improve their work. In the end, cutting off means wasting and discarding the whole of the body because of its sexual impurity. This can be seen from Ovartaci’s many meditations on fire; he fantasizes about being burned up and thus totally cleansed. It also relates to his idolization of ways of living that, for him, seem to be withdrawn from sexual pleasure—he praises the figures of the eunuch, the yogi, the Buddhist monk, the nun, the innocent girl, and the woman.
Destructive strategies are countered by restorative strategies. How can one reinvent oneself when everything has been destroyed? Ovartaci’s opposition to the domain of sexuality, of course, only heightens the sexual tension in the work. This makes for a wonderfully ambiguous display of bodies. There are saintly bodies, but there are also uncanny, funny, erotic, and weird bodies. Ovartaci must find his own body among these. I argue that this process is not simply liberation from something (heteronormative, patriarchal control), but a question of finding or balancing oneself in the midst of trouble—a question of staying with the trouble of sexuality. Like in Ovartaci’s painting "Flame people", where a womanly creature burns in the oven as if she were to sacrifice her whole body to the flames, and yet she almost overconfidently poses inside the flames in a powerful Malasana yoga pose. Are the flames cleansing flames, or are they, on the contrary, desirous flames of (a new kind of) sexuality?
“My Liberation Day”. 35×20 cm, gouache on paper, double-sided.
“Flame people”. 76.7×39.5 cm, gouache on canvas. Photo by Erik Balle Povlsen.
The Chief Lunatic
We are all mad. I have approached the art of Ovartaci through such solidarity, using Ovartaci’s patho-creative practices as an entrance into the fundamentals of existence. One could also evaluate Ovartaci’s art differently. One could make a stronger case for the animistic and magical sides of his work. Is it not time that Western rationality and colonialism backed down and allowed for other practices, for other and more holistic ways of relating to the world and its lifeforms? This was one of the reasons Ovartaci was selected for the Venice Biennale 2022. In the words of curator Cecilia Alemani, some important questions behind the 2022 Biennale, with the title "The Milk of Dreams," inspired by the British-Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington, were: "How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates plant and animal, human and non-human? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and other life forms? And what would life life look like without us?”4 So, who is mad? Is it madness to believe in spirited nature and eco-feminism, as Ovartaci and Carrington suggest? Or is it madness to stick to Western over-rationalization, male hierarchies, and capitalist realism? What if both stances are mad, but in different ways? I acknowledge the counternarrative presented by Ovartaci and kindred spirits to Western rationality, a counternarrative that also relates to the disciplinary regime of the psychiatric hospital. What if esoteric knowledge, shamanic practices, and shapeshifting are also part of what we humans must engage ourselves with in a world that is larger than what can be described through measurements and randomized controlled trials? But dearer to me than esoteric knowledge is the very point where knowledge breaks down—the infamous domain described by psychoanalysis with terms like the unconscious and the drive and brought into human existence in the form of madness.
Do we need more or less of this mad subjectivity today? Some rally to restore sanity, but one could argue that this sanity effectively only means a particular version of business as usual (returning to Western scientific progress in the form of capitalist realism). Maybe we need other kinds of madness? The madness of Ovartaci stems from a certain unease around his existential, symbolic, and sexual status. Ovartaci works through this unease, finally finding some kind of modus vivendi with it. Perhaps this kind of unease and the ways it compels us to invent new ways of living are a source of mutual solidarity. We do not live the same lives in a segregated world, but we probably all (from different positions) share the feeling of unease. Oceans are rising; animosities are intensifying; and tensions can be found in every corner of the globe. Can we stay the same as we were before? How can we expose (as a negative) this feeling of unease, of not being able to control ourselves or the direction of the world? Maybe it is only when we recognize our own unease that we can truly invent new ways of engaging in our social and political context.
This is where we must finally turn to the anecdote attached to the name "Ovartaci". As the anecdote has it, the name alludes to the Danish overtosse, meaning something like "chief lunatic" or "über-looney." Three years after Louis Marcussen is hospitalized, he begins to call himself Ovartaci, but it is not until 1980 that Johannes Nielsen overhears Ovartaci making this connection, mumbling it to himself.5 This explanation of the name is gently amusing. The title "chief lunatic," when measured against its obvious model, namely "chief physician" (in Danish overtosse and overlæge), introduces the position of a madman who is in charge and thus on the same level as the chief physician—as if there were two fields of expertise of equal status. However, an asymmetry shows itself in and through this postulated symmetry: One can only be a master of things that can be mastered, such as biology or psychiatry. You study, then you become a physician; you study some more and become a psychiatrist; and then, having mastered your field, you are given special organizational obligations and rise to the role of chief psychiatrist. But how do you become a chief lunatic? What would this mean? First you go mad, and then you do what? Can one be a beginner madman? Could you do an apprenticeship at an Office of Madness, where the chief lunatic is busy with all kinds of delusions? Madman or doctor—whose side are you on? Here, there seems to be no common ground (such as knowledge). There is the territory of reason and knowledge, and then there is the breakdown of this territory, where you find madness. Madness occurs precisely where something cannot be mastered and then overpowers you, and if the name "Ovartaci" does in fact allude to the title "chief lunatic," I find it very appropriate. Ovartaci is not only about being the great shaman, the bearer of arcane knowledge; he also knows that something is wrong in his universe. He knows himself to be mad (to be a tosse), which means knowing that something in this madness cannot be known or mastered, or that madness itself is simply an articulation of something that is fundamentally failing to function. And this insight, I would say, accounts for his status as "chief lunatic"; he is not only mad but also able (in a superior way) to work with his madness.
We are back here at the foundational arts. What are the petty knowledge and organizational skills of the chief physician compared to the non-foundedness that the madman encounters, must articulate, and must confront to begin again—to organize a world from ground zero?