‘Arts in the Asylum: Creativity and the Evolution of Psychiatry’ traces the historical shift from invasive treatments of mental disorders to treatments where creativity plays a significant role. On Wednesday 16th October we sent two of our contributors to the exhibition at the Lakeside Djanogly Art Gallery. Here are their responses:
The information given in the exhibition was incredibly informative. I left knowing more about the treatments used on patients and of the main people who pioneered the field of psychiatry in asylums.
If you removed all the signs saying the art was created by people who were detained in an asylum it could have been any other modern art exhibition. Many of the pieces displayed could have easily passed as modern art without anyone ever asking about the mental soundness of the artist. Purely the fact that they had the label of ‘asylum art’ seemed to make me presuppose things about the art itself. I felt as though I was trying to read too much into the pieces just because I knew it was created in an asylum. This led me to wonder why the art was being displayed in the first place. From a crude point of view, the exhibit could be seen as a monkey show; “Come and look at the things crazy people can make”.
The exhibit could be seen as a monkey show; “Come and look at the things crazy people can make”
One of the sections of the exhibit focused on art created by patients who had been given hallucinogenic drugs in order to recreate the symptoms of their illness. Whilst this could be helpful to the scientific community by helping them to understand what happens during an ‘episode’, the displaying of the art just seemed wrong. Not to mention the actual use of hallucinogenic drugs on patients. Surely they were in the asylum to be protected against themselves and to be helped with their conditions, not to be used as guinea pigs for science, or to be put on display in a cold exhibition for the whole world to see.
Surely they were in the asylum to be protected against themselves and to be helped with their conditions, not to be used as guinea pigs for science, or to be put on display in a cold exhibition for the whole world to see.
Granted, from the information given, I do understand that for many patients creating art was a form of release which helped them cope with their illnesses. However, it seems that it is the process of creating art that helps, not the displaying of the art in an exhibition. So then, why display the art if it gives no positive help to those who created it? Again, I have to return to the idea of a monkey show. Not, I think, the message the curators of the exhibition wanted to give.
In some ways, the idea of art produced by asylum inmates is the purest form of artistic expression I’ve ever heard of. As I was walking through the Lakeside Arts Centre’s exhibition on early pieces of asylum art, I began thinking about what deems art good.
These paintings and sculptures were never meant to be shared with the public; they were, first and foremost, tools that gave doctors some small window into their patients’ broken psyche with the intention of proving an accurate diagnosis–and a successful treatment. This removes, at least for me, almost any predisposition I might have against the artist.
The idea of art produced by asylum inmates is the purest form of artistic expression I’ve ever heard of.
These guys aren’t Kandinsky or Picasso, who (despite their genius) had an awful habit of throwing up on a canvas and calling it “art.” “Art” isn’t the point of these pieces; it’s something deeper, more abstract, and more personal. They’re not trying impress anyone or make a living. The art is truly for the artist and the artist alone, and I find something profoundly admirable in that.
The art is truly for the artist and the artist alone, and I find something admirable in that.
But as I moved through the gallery, I also caught myself studying the blurbs about the paintings more than the paintings themselves. This realisation made me question why I like art in the first place. Do I like looking at paintings, I thought, or do I just like reading about the paintings? Is it the story of a painting that makes it great? Would the paintings of Louis Wain (a former inmate who’s now internationally known as “the guy who drew cats”) be half as interesting if you didn’t know that he was certifiably insane?
In my bedroom at home I have an artist’s recreation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.After returning from the gallery I wondered: do I love it because it’s a beautiful painting, or do I love it just because I know the story Van Gogh’s tragic life as he battled bipolar disorder? Even now I can’t answer this question with certainty.
The greatest pleasure that I can take away from visiting the Lakeside’s ‘Art in the Asylum’ exhibition is the knowledge that there is such a huge variety of art in the world. Although this exhibition is not vast, it displays a fantastic combination of mediums, styles, colours and expressions. From the days of electric-shock therapy and lobotomy, up until the 1970s, an array of paintings, sculptures, ink drawings and film illuminate both patients’ and psychiatrists’ experiences spent in psychiatric wards and on the fringes of society.
A definite raw sense of art created by real people.
A portrait wall of patients dominates the entrance. The simple ink lines convey the raw reality that these people all existed once. This sensation is continued through a series of comic-strip style pictures drawn on hole-punched, lined notebook paper. That the artist created with what they had to hand instilled a sense of reality. It is not farfetched to believe that Lakeside strove for a grim realism. An installation proffered a small enclosure permeated with the sounds of a psychiatric ward. Although the ticking clocks made me feel like I was in a genuine ward, I thought that the sounds of a woman crying were perhaps a little unsubtle.
Lakeside strove for a grim realism.
Nevertheless, it conveyed the point which I liked because this sort of exhibition lends itself to be distorted by interpretation. Granted, some works were bitterly expressive, documenting childhood memories, men in white coats and a life behind bars. Yet I found it reassuring that the information provided refrained from delving into the depths of analysing the artist’s experience. Frequently there was a short biography of the artist and occasionally an opinion offered by a psychiatrist at the time.
I found it reassuring that the information provided refrained from delving into the depths of analysing the artist’s experience.
Overall, the information remained objective allowing you to appreciate the art as art. And that was what was amazing about the collection- a definite raw sense of art created by real people. Some were child-like drawings, others told stories, frequently works had a dream like quality to them reminiscent of Chagal. Surrealism, expressionism, cubism and a wealth of other movements pervaded throughout. This exhibition is for anyone who appreciates pure aesthetic human creation.
Art in the Asylum continues until 3rd November. For more information click here.
Images: Claude Bornand, Louis Wain and cassart.co.uk.