Von Ströpp’s The Five has been on display in our British Outsider Art exhibition, which ends early next month. It frequently draws the attention of school groups, whose regular refrain is, “I wish I could do something like that!” The intricate detail of the piece draws the viewer in, forcing the eye on a journey around the loops and swirls of the image rather than offering easy access to a conventional scene. The complexity of the work is awe-inspiring: small wonder the artist described the process of creation as both painful and compelling. Both of these emotions are easily invoked in the viewer.
At first glance, the picture appears old-fashioned, resembling an etching, perhaps from an antique religious text or one of the Old Masters his work is often said to resemble. The group of figures in their flowing clothing, blurring into their environment and the surrounding furniture and beasts, also suggests the idea of a textile: perhaps akin to the fifteenth century French Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Yet the overpowering detail of the image might also suggest more modern concerns: the surrealist concern with dream representation, or even the conflicts between science and nature so evocatively described in many science fiction settings. The lack of distinction between objects and background means that one of the many things this picture brings to mind for me is the creeping progress of the red weed in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, covering and obscuring detail.
A self-taught artist, Von Ströpp recalls doodling from an early age, but was never encouraged to paint or draw. Despite the pain he describes while creating, the artist feels compelled to paint as a means of imposing order on the chaos of the visionary experience.
British Outsider Art is on until 3 November in the Bethlem Museum.