These are some impressions of a visit to the history of psychiatry collection held in the Museum Dr. Guislain in Gent. We venture into delicate territory here – a place where careless language and lazy thinking can easily give offence. Contemporary attitudes to mental illness seem to be conflicted between pious public expressions of sympathy for the victims of depression and a generalised complaint that the NHS is failing in its responsibilities to them and on the other hand, vociferous complaints that sufferers of schizophrenia are inadequately incarcerated and allowed to roam free to inflict terrible acts of random violence on members of the community. The use of emotive language (dysfunctional, abnormal, insane, delusional, deranged) and pejorative terms (nutjob, headcase, loony, mentalist, psycho) is hard to avoid. The museum is housed in part of one of Europe’s pioneering institutions in the humane treatment of mental illness in civilised surroundings, established in the second half of the 19th. century. Exhibits reflect the desperate measures resorted to by clinicians in their efforts to modify, control or inhibit aberrant human behaviour and shock-therapy treatments involving lengthy immersion in cold water and the administration of high-voltage electricity are thoughtfully displayed.
Alongside this is an art gallery with a selection of Outsider Art in two and three-dimensions created by self-taught, marginal individuals for whom the creative act became an essential survival skill. Colour and composition are deployed in a directly personal way with little regard for pictorial conventions often with sensational results in terms of formal repetition and disharmonious but vibrant colour choices. Reading these paintings as if they were case notes is not for me. I prefer to look and respond to them out of a clinical context as I would any other painting. That’s not to disregard the circumstances in which they were made but simply to avoid over-valuing them.
André Breton, Surrealism’s Holy Father, was an early cheerleader for autodidacts and the art of the insane which for him embodied absolute freedom from convention. In his writing he deplored the “blind and intolerable prejudice which has for so long surrounded works of art produced in asylums”. It was a short step for Breton, with his head full of convulsive beauty and the wonders of delirium, to consider madness as a state of exaltation and a short-cut to creative nirvana. Sadly, in 1927 when the young woman whose dazzling personality had inspired Breton’s book Nadja was committed to hospital suffering from paranoid hallucinations, the great man couldn’t find it in him to visit her. The sublime but inglorious story of Breton and Nadja’s diabolic dance through the streets of Paris is the stuff of great melodrama. A transgressive vortex of divided personalities and erotic obsession flavoured with bad faith, exploitation and betrayal all leading to the publication of a literary landmark. Coming soon to a screen near you.
The complex and dense paintings and constructions of Willem van Genk crackle with electromagnetic energy – a wild and intoxicating blend of grandiose architecture and explosive public transport networks. Supercharged linear grids barely contain the airships, helicopters and jumbo jets that drone overhead. Express trains scream through the sky on lofty viaducts. Trams and trolleybuses fight for road space in overpasses and tunnels, subway trains drill their way below the city streets, illuminated advertising defines the skyline. The photos below show van Genk’s disorderly, extemporary re-imagining of the bus station at Arnhem formed out of discarded packaging and paper refuse. Bruised and battered vehicles are entrapped in hopeless tangles of collapsed overhead wiring and uprooted poles – as if an experiment in matter transference has gone terribly wrong. The restless energy and magnitude of the modern metropolis got right under his skin and compelled him to find a visual equivalent. His achievement was to realise his vision with little more than an incisive line, cross-hatching and colour washes, over painting, cut and paste and collage.