Dr Victoria Tischler, Associate Professor in Behavioural Sciences. Division of Psychiatry and Applied Psychology, University of Nottingham, and curator of ‘Art in the Asylum: creativity and the evolution of psychiatry’ reflects on this exhibition.
Art in the Asylum: preservation and transformations
The exhibition ‘Art in the Asylum: Creativity and the Evolution of Psychiatry‘ at the Djanogly gallery in Nottingham has been in full swing for three weeks now. The exhibition weaves a narrative uncovering the earliest origins of asylum art collections, highlighting key places and people who played a part in the history of the diagnostic and therapeutic use of art, and addressing the crossover between asylum art and mainstream art.
It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind with the opening, a series of public events and tours, talks and papers about the project. The exhibition has taken some four-and-a-half years to come to fruition with all the research done part time on top of the responsibilities of a full time academic post. Finally seeing over 100 pieces of art hung beautifully in a gallery full of visitors at the preview I felt triumphant.
The arrival of the art works in the gallery for the exhibition’s installation was a particular delight. The pieces were all very familiar to me yet some I had never seen ‘in the flesh’ prior to their delivery at the gallery. As I prised open the crates it felt like precious gifts were revealed. The works have been loaned not just from galleries but also from hospital and private collections. Preparing the exhibition has therefore involved not just research and letter writing but building relationships with individuals and institutions, and looking at work in diverse spaces including archives, under hallway stairwells, and in NHS filing cabinets! In some cases it seems that the work has been not just been preserved but elevated in status, as much art created by asylum patients was destroyed, deemed to be of little or no value.
Some of the work has been transformed after restoration and framing by conservators. Much art created in asylums was characterised by crude materials as artists worked with whatever was to hand. This included toilet roll, matchsticks, wallpaper backing, and scraps of paper stuck together. Restored and framed the pieces take their place as museum objects. Perhaps the most astonishing of these are the works on stone and flint by Gwyneth Rowlands, a patient at the Netherne Hospital in Surrey. She collected the materials from around the hospital grounds and then responsively and painstakingly painted them, transforming them into intricate works of art.
Seeing diverse groups of people in the gallery, contemplating and responding to the work has been a source of delight. I am sorely tempted to eavesdrop on people’s conversations and to ask them questions. What do they think of the series of patient portraits made by William Bartholomew, himself a patient at the Crichton Royal institution in Dumfries in the 19th century? These huge works with titles such as Idiocy, Imbecility and Mania of Vanity greet you as you enter the gallery and were made in collaboration with Dr W A F Browne, the superintendent at Crichton, who used them whilst giving lectures on alienation. What of the wailing soundtrack from the installation ‘Sounds of Bedlam’, recreated from archival materials from the Bethlem Royal? How does William Kurelek’s epic piece ‘I Spit on Life‘ make them feel? A work created at a time when Kurelek was profoundly depressed, graphically depicting self harm, violence and childhood distress? And what do they make of the cathartic output of Mary Barnes? She finger-painted ‘IT’, an expression of her rage and despair, all over the walls of Kingsley Hall in London where she ‘went down’ into her psychosis under the care of Dr RD Laing.
I can but wonder how people would reply to these questions yet many visitors have contacted me already to express their appreciation and gratitude and, in some cases, to share stories of their own experiences of mental health. Words such as powerful, disturbing and poignant recur. The events running alongside the exhibition thus far have begun stimulating conversations about the history of psychiatric treatment, the status of patients as artists, and ethical issues about identification and display of artwork by those ‘outside’ the mainstream.
I too have undergone my own transformation as I am now being introduced as a curator rather than an academic.