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Willem Van Genk

Dutch, 20th century.
Born 1927, Voorberg; died 2005, the Hague. 


Willem Van Genk is an Outsider Artist whose work is not limited to one genre. His oeuvre is nevertheless unified by his modus operandi: to create art as a way of ordering chaos and of protecting himself from harm. 

Van Genk was born in Voorberg, the Netherlands in 1927, and struggled greatly with physical and emotional illness. Suffering isolation and rejection throughout his childhood, he was placed in an orphanage. During this time, he was enrolled in arts workshops, where he gained limited skills, while still being allowed to develop a highly personal mode of artmaking. He was diagnosed with both autism and schizophrenia. 

Railways and travel are a prevalent thread running through the oeuvre of Van Genk. He made elaborate paintings, richly layered with collage elements. Inspired by his own travels, as well as by commercial travel guides, he created visually dazzling vistas in which trains provide a setting for mysterious narratives. Typically delineated by elaborate systems of lines, Van Genk’s cityscapes reveal what scholars have claimed to be the artist’s penchant for ordering a disordered world. He eventually shifted his activities to creating models of busses from found materials. 

Due to a wartime confrontation with the Gestapo, Van Genk developed an excessive fear of authority figures in overcoats. After he was moved to a nursing home due to ill health, efforts to clean out his apartment revealed an extensive installation—including numerous hand-decorated overcoats—constructed over time by the artist to protect his home from imaginary invaders.

While Outsiders often operate from a perspective radically different than our own, we have much to learn from artists like Van Genk, who responded to adversity with singular dedication to realizing an artistic vision.

Jenifer P. Borum


Selected Exhibitions

2014, Willem Van Genk, American Folk Art Museum, New York

2010, The Museum of Everything, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin

2008, Heterotopia: Works by Willem van Genk and Others, Deutsches Architektur Museum, Frankfurt

2006, Inner Worlds Outside, traveling exhibition, Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundacíon "La Caixa," Madrid; WhiteChapel Gallery, London; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

2005, Dubuffet & Art Brut, traveling exhibition, Museum Kunst Palast, Dusseldorf, Germany; Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne; Museum of Modern Art Lille Metropole, Villeneuve D'Ascq

2000, The Outlanders, Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

1998, Museum De Stadshof Zwolle, Museum Charlotte Zander Bonnigheim, Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Selected Collections

Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne
Halle Saint Pierre, Paris
Museum Dr. Guislane, Ghent

Selected Bibliography

The Museum of Everything, exhibition catalogue, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli & Electa, Turin/Milan, 2010.

Förster, York & Peter Cachola Schmal, Heterotopia: Works by Willem van Genk and Others, exhibition catalogue, Deutsches Architektur Museum, Frankfurt, 2008.

Inner Worlds Outside, exhibition catalogue, Fundacíon "La Caixa," WhiteChapel Gallery, Irish Museum of Modern Art & Ediciones El Viso, Madrid, 2006.

Dubuffet & Art Brut, 
exhibition catalogue, 5 Continents Editions & Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, 2005.

Van Berkum, Ans, "Willem Van Genk," Raw Vision, No. 36, 1998. 

Van der Endt, Nico, Lexicon of Twentieth Century Dutch Naïve Art, Venlo/Antwerpen, 1995.
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