Grand Maître of the Outsider

In the October issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, largely dedicated to Twin Peaks: The Return (link), editor in chief Stéphane Delorme describes David Lynch as a member of the “outsider art” constellation. I agree that this classification makes a lot of sense and this blog post will explore why so.

Outsider art is a category that gravitates somewhere in the vicinity of “naïve art” and “visionary art”. It originated in France with Jean Dubuffet’s term “art brut” (raw/rough art). Outsider artists are generally self-taught and function outside the mainstream art world. Their artistic training is usually very limited. Frequently driven by spiritual quests, their oeuvre is often prolific and multidisciplinary, making use of various materials without regards to traditional disciplinary divisions or material techniques. In this vein, their message driven work often incorporates written texts within the visual works, once again blurring the lines between materials and categories.

Various paintings by David Lynch and Jean Dubuffet

Although David Lynch received formal training in the arts, it is rather obvious that he continues to rebel against many of the traditional rules associated with art making in general and cinema in particular. Many have underlined how the script of The Return, for instance, breaks classical television expectations by adopting a radically personal take on how a story must be told (which led a vast number of viewers to be totally disoriented during the first third of the show). Script writing as it is taught in schools and as it is applied in the vast majority of TV series around the world, feels very academic and “passé” compared to the free form chosen for the 3rd season of Twin Peaks.

 Lynch’s attitude does not appear to be the result of a desire to break away from traditional academic rules as much as it reflects a complete disinterest in them. Lynch’s only concern is to stay true to his own ideas – the rest seems irrelevant. While some viewers were surprised by the low-tech quality of certain special effects in The Return, they offer proof of his disinterest in any sort of expectations one might have from contemporary artists, allowing him to focus solely on his vision – closer to a collage by Max Ernst than to the latest CGI blockbuster.

One of the reasons why a film like Eraserhead, for instance, left such a trace in cinema history was because of its difference, because it did not follow the usual constuction of film stories and its dream logic. It is also crucial to note the obsessive nature of Lynch’s work while making Eraserhead: the film was seven years in the making on abandoned sets (the school stables) of the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies (a course he despised – he would have dropped out if he had not had the chance to shoot his film there). Most filmmakers would have given up the project after the first signs of difficulties whereas Lynch persisted until he was finally able to give birth to this grotesque and horrific child that is Eraserhead. This is typical of the choices an outsider artist would make, so driven by a personal inner world that other considerations have no weight whatsoever.


Here is what Jean Dubuffet (who created the label “art brut” – outsider art – to describe art created outside the boundaries of recognized culture) had to say about outsider artists: “These works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, due to these very elements, more precious than professional productions. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade“.

In a sense, this describes what Doctor Jacoby is doing in The Return, when he paints his shovels with a layer of gold (he too is a complete outsider, living in the forest, far from the town and its human community). Totally reclusive and eccentric, on the verge of madness (or is it illumination?), he creates gold out of lead, far from the commercial considerations of most creators. His spiritual discourse too, mixed with conspiracy theories and social truths, is not unlike the kind of syncretic intellectual constructions proposed by many outsider artists (including Lynch himself, when he starts discussing Transcendental Meditation’s capacity to bring peace on Earth with its Maharishi Towers of Invincibility).

The link with mental illness appears powerful in relationship to outsider artists. Dubuffet, for instance, used psychiatric hospital patients and all sorts of prisoners, mystics, recluses and children as examples of such artists. He was notably interested in the research of German doctor Hans Prinzhorn, who collected the works of his mentally ill patients in Heidelberg (many of them schizophrenic). The following drawing, for instance, can easily be linked to the importance of electricity and radio waves in The Return. In the Wikipedia entry about Ousider art, we find the following statement: “People with some formal artistic training as well as well-established artists are not immune from mental illness, and may also be institutionalized“. This is not an attempt to claim that David Lynch is mentally ill, but that it’s possible to have been formally trained and categorized as an outsider artist (in Lynch’s case for his visionary capabilities). When it comes to Lynch, there is no denying that a certain amount of mystical and obsessive qualities set him apart from the mainstream.

From Artistry of the Mentally Ill (Hans Prinzhorn – 1922)

One outsider artist who might have influenced David Lynch during his creative process is Paul Laffoley. This visionary American artist from Boston was diagnosed as autistic when he was a child and given electroshock treatments: “Laffoley began to formulate his unique trans-disciplinary approach to a new discipline combining, philosophy, science, architecture and spirituality to the practice of painting. Laffoley first began to organize his ideas in a format related to eastern mandalas, partially inspired by the late night patterns he watched for Warhol on late night television… Painted on large canvases, the majority of Paul Laffoley’s paintings combine words and imagery to depict a spiritual architecture of explanation, tackling concepts like dimensionality, time travel through hacking relativity, connecting conceptual threads shared by philosophers through the millennia, and theories about the cosmic origins of mankind“.

The Kali-Yuga -(Paul Laffoley‘s first painting – 1965)

According to Lynch (see his interview in the December issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, here), we are living in the Kali Yuga (associated with the demon Kali) – the age of strife, that lasts 432, 000 years. This age will end in the destruction of the Universe by fire before a new golden age. Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu, will appear at the end of the Kali Yuga and usher in the Satya Yuga (the age of Truth / the golden age), while riding a white horse with a fiery sword.

Who’s gonna ride the horse?

Returning to Paul Laffoley, one notes that “from an early age, Laffoley manifested an obsessive interest in UFOs. He had seen the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still 873 times. He explains that his obsessive interest in the film derives partly from a fascination with the architecture of the space ship in the film which, early on in his life, was subconscious. While he was still a child he made a vow to become an architect so that he could design flying saucers, although he did not become a registered architect until he was 50 years of age“. I have pointed out in a former blog post (link) the possible influence of the same film title on The Return (notably, the Firman’s Palace).


Laffoley was also interested in time travel. Could there be a link between the following painting and the glass box through which Cooper transits on his way to becoming Dougie in Las Vegas?


It’s difficult to negate the links that exist between David Lynch and outsider art. While initial and important studies underline how renowned painters and filmmakers (such as Ernst, Bosch, Cocteau, Richter, etc.) have influenced his work, it may now be time to dig further (with our golden shovels?) towards the roots of the outsider art tree, beyond the examples given in this blog post (Dubuffet, Laffoley) to further explore Twin Peaks and Lynch’s other creations. There is likely a vast network of links to be found that will help us better understand David Lynch and his universe.

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