Augustin Lesage (1876 – 1954) was a French coal miner who later became an artist, following the direction of a voice he heard. As an artist, he was untrained and is thus considered an outsider artist or as part of the art brut movement (another term for outsider art). The French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut (French for ‘raw art’), which he characterised as:
Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. 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.
This certainly typifies the kind of artwork produced by Lesage. He was a non-professional, self-taught, had no contact with the mainstream art world or institutions, and his art comes from raw creative impulses (voices he had heard, which he believed belonged to the spirit world). Like many other outsider artists, Lesage’s artwork was inspired by unusual mental states.
His artistic journey began at the age of 35 when, while working in the mine, he heard a voice tell him that he would become an artist. Lesage believed the voice he heard was that of his deceased younger sister, who died at the age of three. She instructed him on what to paint and what materials to use. The voices he heard from the spirit world – including the voice of his sister – would inspire his various drawings and paintings. Lesage once stated:
In January 1912, powerful spirits came and revealed themselves to me, ordering me to draw and paint, something which I had never done before. […] ‘Do not worry about insignificant details,’ was their response. ‘We are the ones working through your hands.’
As well as creating art based on the direction of these spirit voices, Lesage acted as a medium in séances, summoning and communicating with spirits. He is a mediumistic or spiritualist artist, so he draws on the spiritualist belief that the spirits of the dead – who exist in an independent spirit world – communicate with the living.
Lesage was extremely prolific as an artist, producing around 800 paintings. And the pieces he created, with the guidance of the spirit voices he heard, are strange and unique. His paintings are highly intricate, symmetrical, colourful, and architectonic. His paintings are quite reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art, hieroglyphics, and architecture, as well as Oriental architectural forms.