While even the most rigid art critic would have to concede the role of the beholder in matters of taste, rarely has a body of work addressed this concept so directly as that of Josep Baqué’s oeuvre.

Comprised of 1,500 numbered illustrations of imaginary creatures, the Catalonian artist (1895-1967) assembled them in a bound bestiary sometime before he died, leaving it to his niece (and sole heir) to store for posterity. A portion of the book is currently on display at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, as part of its “Vestiges and Verse” exhibition (through May 27th), and raises many more questions than it does provide answers.

For starters: we know almost nothing of the purpose of these drawings—rendered in graphite pencil and enhanced by a variety of tertiary paint colors. An early one in the collection (numbered “37”) features two creatures of tremendous whimsy. The one to the left is a hybrid fish-reptile specimen, its body patterned in stripes of red and light green, with a blue and purple flipper on the side facing us. A short, scaly tail curls up in the back; its neck is a charcoal grey with pink dots, as in a collar; and behind its head are a pair of snail-like antenna. The face is reminiscent of a Japanese dragon, as seen in so many 19th century woodprints, yet its eyes and the jaw of this beast show a pitiable apprehension of expression.

Josep Baqué, "Untitled (Catalog Page 37)," charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75" x 13.25". From the manuscript "1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV," private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l'Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, “Untitled (Catalog Page 37),” charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75″ x 13.25″. From the manuscript “1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV,” private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

The one to the right of the page is even stranger. Like a centaur from classical mythology its body is divided into two halves—which Baqué defines by way of solid color (the top part is orange; the bottom pink). Heavy paws, with five ogre-like toes, root the figure to the ground, whilst its upper portion defies all sense of functionality. There are two small wings, neither of which appear powerful enough to lift this poor beast off the ground, and fleshy rolls, which form the arc of the spine and head, culminating in a claw-like nose. Small, unthreatening teeth point outward, as a sympathetic blue eye on the side of its face looks inward for solace. Describing them is a fine exercise and may lead to some revelations; yet it can hardly replace the sense of wonder one feels in seeing them in person.

A note on the flyleaf which reads “Interior of some marvelous large islands at 2 million meters above sea level, unexplored, uninhabitable by civilized beings, a country of warm snow, discovered by the brush of Josep Baqué in the year 1932” assures us we are dealing with images conjured of pure imagination. There are a number of strategies, however, which defy easy interpretation.

For one thing: they are separated into nine distinct taxonomies (animals, wild beasts, primitive men, bats and insects, giant spiders, et al.) and are displayed as a biologist might arrange his specimens in a bound, illustrated treatise.

For second: though playful in their expressions and active in their poses, each creature is placed against a blank backdrop on a white page, thus reinforcing the notion that they’ve been extracted from any possible narrative application.

It’s a shame, as one can imagine them as the cast of some fictional ecosystem—one that might fill the pages of a wondrous children’s novel or a technicolor fantasy film of the 1930s. At the bottom of each figure, in fact, the artist has outlined a blank box where names and/or descriptions might even be written. Yet no page has any such information filled in.

Josep Baqué, "Untitled (Catalog Page 89)," charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75" x 13.25". From the manuscript "1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV," private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l'Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, “Untitled (Catalog Page 89),” charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75″ x 13.25″. From the manuscript “1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV,” private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

On page 89 a trio of vividly rendered specimens is hosted—each floating on the page, though not specifically flying. The one to the far right looks like something out of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, its green/blue tentacles and dual fangs softened only slightly by the mysterious look it casts outward, as if suddenly aware it is being observed.

In the center there is a sea horse-type creature whose anthropomorphized face and pompadour hair-do seem more of the quality of caricature than of scientific documentation. This type of chimera, in fact, was abundantly common in the period just prior to Baqué, both in Victorian advertisements as well as in costume books made for various carnivals, including Mardi Gras in the American South and the Carnestoltes festival in Baqué’s hometown of Barcelona. (A spider-like creature on page 310, see image at top, far-right, wears the three-tiered crown of the Roman-Catholic Pontiff and bears a distinctly cartoonish face.) The artist leaves no indication of any social or political aspect for his creations however; and indeed the creature to the far left of page 89 confirms this illusive quality in no unassuming terms.

It follows something of the basic form of specimens known in nature, i.e. its head, eyes, and beak are all arranged in the order of a bird or insect, albeit the line between organic material and artifice are boldly cast aside by the artist. One is inclined to root this illustration in surrealist strategies, as there is a dreamlike quality to the figure’s blue legs, for instance, with white dots, which bend and twist until they conclude in arrow-like points, with anklets of golden stars. Doubtless such free associations of form point to something unique in the psychology of this artist; yet we have nothing to go on which tells us whether Baqué in any way associated himself with surrealism, the movement, or not. (One assumes not.)

Josep Baqué, "Untitled (Catalog Page 89, detail)," charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75" x 13.25". From the manuscript "1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV," private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l'Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, “Untitled (Catalog Page 89, detail),” charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75″ x 13.25″. From the manuscript “1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV,” private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

He was apparently a police officer and lifelong bachelor who lived with his mother until she died and by all reports created his artwork in relative isolation. His conviction in the absoluteness of his creations is all the more remarkable then for their not having emerged from a schooled sense of Freudian or Jungian tropes; yet if Baqué’s heart and mind were of a home in the deserted spaces of freedom and isolation, not subjugated to the laws of convention or higher truth, than the point on which a unity might be discovered remains the ultimate question here.

Again, he seems acutely aware of the rigorous formulae of biological treatises—such that he replicates the basic layout in his own catalog of specimens, which he claims are “undiscovered,” save for his own brush. The fact that the artist acknowledges his own creative calling ennobles the precision and technique of his creative project; yet it seems ever at odds with the intimate expressions which Baqué gives to creatures whose primary purpose is to be exemplars of phyllum and category.

By giving them such personality, in fact, the artist not only advocates individuality in a culture which demands conformity, he also challenges the very notion of a knowable universe at all. Indeed, his ensemble of imaginary beings have become like a source of freedom itself—the freedom to create one’s own reality in a world which appears predetermined and to carve out safe havens where the imagination may function without intimidation. They also remind us that distinction can be found in the most unlikely places—namely in this artist himself.

That Baqué chose to cloak his complicated emotionalism in the bizarre physiognomy and offbeat pattern of imagined cartoon creatures tells us much about how he felt his own peculiarities might be received. One could even go so far as to say the metamorphosis of emotion into art is what allowed him to overcome oppression, exude radiance, gaze back at those who would objectify him, and ultimately reflect the inexhaustible spirit of creativity. But then it’s all conjecture isn’t it? (Brian Chidester)

NOTE: Brian Chidester will take part in a symposium about the work of Josep Baqué, and also about nineteenth century visionary painter Charles A.A. Dellschau, at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan on Sunday, May 20th, at 12pm. Admission is free.

Josep Baqué, "Untitled (Catalog Page 4)," charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75" x 13.25". From the manuscript "1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV," private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l'Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, “Untitled (Catalog Page 4),” charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75″ x 13.25″. From the manuscript “1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV,” private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, "Untitled (Catalog Page 137)," charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75" x 13.25". From the manuscript "1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV," private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l'Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, “Untitled (Catalog Page 137),” charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75″ x 13.25″. From the manuscript “1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV,” private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, "Untitled (Catalog Page 217)," charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75" x 13.25". From the manuscript "1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV," private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l'Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, “Untitled (Catalog Page 217),” charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75″ x 13.25″. From the manuscript “1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV,” private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, "Untitled (Catalog Page 286)," charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75" x 13.25". From the manuscript "1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV," private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l'Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, “Untitled (Catalog Page 286),” charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75″ x 13.25″. From the manuscript “1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV,” private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, "Untitled (Catalog Page 359)," charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75" x 13.25". From the manuscript "1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV," private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l'Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).

Josep Baqué, “Untitled (Catalog Page 359),” charcoal and paint on paper, 6.75″ x 13.25″. From the manuscript “1,500 Animals, fieras, monstruos, i homes, primitius, any XV,” private collection, Paris, France; courtesy of the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York, NY).