Art by psychiatric patients is reappraised in an exhibition

In the mid-1920s, a doctor by the name of Hans Prinzhorn developed an interesting theory on the relationship between creativity and the mentally ill. Echoing Nietzsche and Freud all the way back to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the author held that man’s creative urge is best expressed outside a mainstream culture. A seminal book at the time, it changed the way that society classified the art produced by the mentally ill and accorded an aesthetic value to works that were formerly evaluated merely as a diagnostic tool of psychoanalysis. Thrilled by Prinzhorn’s writings, the artist Jean Dubuffet became, around 20 years later, the pioneer theorist of the so-called art brut. Distinct from official culture and from rational classifications, art brut was inventive, non-conformist, spontaneous and unprocessed. It was produced in the margins of society by obscure individuals and was often the outcome of delirium of madness, which Dubuffet held to be more conducive to authentic art. Particularly attracted by the images produced by mental patients at the asylums of Switzerland, Dubuffet had, by the late ’40s, built a substantial collection of art brut. Together with partners Andre Breton and Michel Tapie, he founded the Compagnie de l’Art Brut and exhibited the collection of «outsider art» at the René Drouin in Paris, therefore inviting public attention. Coupled with the interest that modern art took in primitivism as well as the search for innovation, art brut helped pave the way for a new understanding of the art produced by the mentally ill. Interestingly, however, this art remained in the domain of psychoanalysis and was either used as therapy or as diagnosis. Art by the mentally ill has been marginalized: It was never incorporated into art exhibitions and, unlike the art produced by renowned 20th century artists who suffered some kind of mental disease (for example the famous case of Van Gogh), it was never wholly accepted as art, perhaps because – even though not openly said – imagination is still believed to spring from organized knowledge. «The Other Side,» a remarkable exhibition held at the Athens Municipal Gallery, overturns these prior notions by bringing together works by mental patients and some by well-known artists suffering mental illness, among them Antonin Artaud and Michalis Oikonomou. Organized by the Cultural Olympiad and curated by Katerina Koskina, the exhibition was conceived by professor of psychology Fotini Tsalikoglou and is supplemented by a catalog that poses the fascinating question of art in relationship to psychopathology and psychiatric confinement. A moving and quite special exhibition, it draws from the collections of important institutions including the Pompidou Center, the National Museum of Toulouse «Les Abbatoirs,» the Museum of Outsider Art in Moscow, the ABCD collection, the Collection of Eternod-Mermod, the Lausanne Collection of Art-Brut, and from Greece, the collection of the Dromokaitio Hospital Museum. Although «madness» cannot be said to be a prerequisite for creativity, one cannot help but marvel at the imagination, emotional tension, and skill that emanate from the images produced by mental patients featured in the exhibitions. Some are by patients known both in the history of psychopathology but also in the realm of outsider art. An example is the Swiss psychotic Adolf Wolfi (he became known through the book on his life that the psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler wrote in the early 20th century), who during his 30-year confinement at the Waldau asylum amassed hundreds of drawings, many of them depicting imaginary, galactic travels represented in colorful, dense designs, often with textual commentary. In the exhibition one also finds the colorful drawings of the mental patient Aloise Corbaz. Akin to fauvist art, her images of circuses, princesses and imaginary cities undermine standard notions of a dark and nightmarish art produced by the mentally ill. Less so is Henry Darger’s frieze-like, two-sided drawing of young girls at play. Resembling children’s story illustrations, the images blend innocence with a trace of ominous paranoia. Haunting symbolism is also prevalent. Yevgeniy Suchachev’s recurring motif of a hanged man, surroundings of confinement or a double coffin that bars an exit are examples of a tormented imagination. Other works indicate outside influences: The political content of the images produced by Alexander Lobanov show an awareness of life in the Soviet Union. There are also moments of intellectual depth and intelligence. Benetti’s drawings compiled in the form of a newspaper titled «L’Inquisition Psychiatrique» combine writing with imaginative, sarcastic cartoons on the ties between psychiatrists and their patients. More than anything else, what is striking about most of these images is their heightened power of imagination. Among the exhibition’s highlights are three paintings by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern. Marked by their artistic skill, those works are on a par with some of the best works of surrealism. They are among the many examples that challenge the viewer to think about our notions and the constituent elements of artistic creativity. Whether these are images by latent artists that symptomatically suffered from mental disease or by mental patients that turned to art because of their very condition, the works presented at «The Other Side» raise unsolved and stimulating questions pertaining both to science and art. At the Athens Municipal Gallery (51 Pireos, 210.323.1541) through 31/3.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.