Healing arts: art and mental health in the Wellcome Library

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By | From the Collections

Until the end of June 2013 the Wellcome Collection is hosting the exhibition Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan, curated by Shamita Sharmacharja. The show is the last one before the planned refurbishment of our temporary exhibitions space starting in August 2013. It has been getting very good reviews, and has so far been visited by more than 65,000 people.

Poster for Souzou exhibition

Souzou: outsider art from Japan, exhibition at the Wellcome Collection

Shamita insisted on leaving the untranslatable Japanese word as the exhibition’s title: ‘Souzou’ means both ‘creation’ and ‘imagination’, depending on how it is written. The English term ‘Outsider Art’ of the subtitle has come a long way since it was used for the first time by British academic Roger Cardinal in 1972, as he introduced to the English-speaking audience to what the French have been calling ‘Art Brut’ since the 1940s. Initially the focus was on the art produced by people compelled to live in mental health asylums and prisons. Today the term is used more broadly and signifies spontaneous expression by untrained artists working on the margins of society, across a wide range of media and styles.

Among the riches of the Wellcome Library there are many books and pamphlets on the role of art in hospitals as well as texts documenting changing attitudes towards the link between art and mental health. We also hold a number of artworks made by hospital patients (psychiatric and others), that could be filed under the headline ‘Outsider Art’.

Therapeutic effects of art for hospital patients have been long acknowledged. In a holistic approach targeting minds as well as bodies, western hospitals displayed paintings to alleviate their clinical bleakness and to offer lasting pleasure to patients, staff and visitors. Historically, the images prepared residents for the next world, flaunting the gems of Christian imagery, while today they are believed to aid recovery from various illnesses and generally improve patients’ wellbeing. Richard Cork’s ‘The healing presence of art: a history of western art in hospitals‘ is a beautifully illustrated album telling this story.

The relationship between art and the sick takes on another dimension when some patients are the producers and not just the viewers of art. Among the people admitted to British asylums of the Victorian era, most prominently Bethlem Hospital, were professional artists at various stages of their careers, such as Richard Dadd. We hold several watercolours by Dadd from the 1850s.

Between 1925 and 1930 artist Louis Wain, famous for his depictions of cats performing human activities, lived in Bethlem too; we have three gouaches of his cats and two drawings in the Noel Gordon Harris papers (PP/NGH/58).

Artwork by Louis Wain

A cat standing on its hind legs, formed by patterns supposed to be in the “Early Greek” style. Gouache by Louis Wain, 1925/1939. WI no. L0026932

Dadd’s and Wain’s works featured, among others, in a small exhibition titled ‘Art from the asylum and the clinic‘, held in the Wellcome Library’s reading room in 2001.

Bobby Baker’s account in ‘Diary Drawings: mental illness and me‘, was celebrated by an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in 2009. Drawn over the period of eleven years, these diaries chart Baker’s life since she was diagnosed with ‘borderline personality disorder’. They form an extraordinary record of a contemporary artist’s journey through illness and the NHS mental health system.

Self portrait of Bobby Baker

“The idea of giving myself two mouths suddenly popped into my head. This is one of my all time favourite drawings and one of many self-portraits.” Bobby Baker. WI no. B0007864

Towards the end of the 19th century, doctors recognised the unusually prolific artistic output by schizophrenics, not previously trained as artists.  Initially  treated as curiosities, works by mental asylums patients were appreciated for their aesthetic value in a 1922 study by German psychiatrist and art historian Hanz Prinzhorn, ‘Artistry of The Mentally Ill‘, introducing work of ten male ‘schizophrenic masters’.

The growing popularity of psychoanalysis at the turn of the 20th century contributed to seeing artistic production as an externalisation of the unconscious. The works produced by those compelled to live in mental asylums became an  inspiration to Surrealists, aiming to cast off ‘the shackles of the intellect’ to revolutionise the modes of visual representation. The followers of Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist C. G. Jung (1875-1961) used art in a dynamic way in their sessions, while others simply treated art as part of occupational therapy with no psychoanalytic agenda.

In Britain, since the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 the way asylums were run started to change. Methods viewed today as barbaric, like insulin coma treatment and major brain operations including lobotomies were still employed, but alongside these some psychiatric hospitals encouraged drawing and painting sessions. Doctors would use the images and objects produced by the ill as diagnostic tools.

Lobotomy tools

Set of Watts-Freeman lobotomy instruments; box inscribed by Walter Freeman, circa 1950. WI no. L0026980

Some of these psychiatric ‘experiments’ of the late 1940s are guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of a contemporary reader. In his article for the Journal of Mental Science, ‘The “creative spell” of schizophrenics after leucotomy’, the psychiatrist Francis Reitman, Head of Clinical Research at long-stay mental health hospital Netherne in Surrey in the 1940s, coolly assesses the results of prefrontal leucotomy on two patients’ artistic expression. Comparing ‘psychotic art’ with the works of Surrealists, Reitman writes:

It seems that whereas the products of known great artists reflect their subconscious mechanisms, in psychotic artists the subconscious speaks directly, and its unusualness may not bar it from being called art.

Susan Hogan’s ‘Healing arts : the history of art therapy‘ (2001) is an authoritative and at the same time highly engaging source of knowledge about the development of art therapy as a profession in Britain. Those interested in the subject can consult the Rita M. Simon collection in the Wellcome Library, consisting of more than 300 paintings and drawings made between 1942 and 1984 by psychiatric, geriatric, tuberculosis and other patients and by disturbed children. The works were made under Rita Simon’s (1921-2008) guidance, one of the leading art therapists in the UK and recognised internationally, and were presented to the Wellcome Library in 1997.

Author: Anna Ostrowska, Library assistant at the Wellcome Library


Anna Ostrowska

Anna Ostrowska is a Library Assistant at the Wellcome Library.

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