Stained glass windows were the starting point of the first two posts in this sequence, and a woodcut the springboard of the third. This time we feature a monument carved in stone in the seventeenth century by the Flemish sculptor Artus Quellinus the Elder – metaphorically as much a window onto early modern attitudes to ‘madness’ as the stained glass was onto medieval. Frenzy depicts a woman disrobed and tearing at her hair in evident mental torment. The trope of disordered hair (to represent the disordered mind) is employed to unsettling effect here as elsewhere – depictions of Matilda of Cologne and Crazy Jane spring to mind in this connection.
Now in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the original setting of Frenzy was the courtyard of the city’s lunatic asylum. Faces stare out from the plinth upon which the woman writhes, each “with a pleading yet futile expression [as if] determined to see and be seen while at the same time realising that any thoughts of escape are useless”, according to the art historian Richard Cork. Presumably it functioned to advertise the role of the asylum in much the same way as did Cauis Gabriel Cibber’s statues of Raving and Melancholy Madness for London’s Bethlem Hospital from 1676 to 1815. But was it intended as a stigmatising image? Richard Cork thinks not. Whilst certainly “forthright”, it may perhaps have been intended “to arouse compassion for the plight of this possessed woman” and, by extension, that of the insane in general.1
A comparison is worth drawing between Frenzy and another work attributed to Cibber, Dementia, which was sold to a private buyer at auction in 2008. Rather than portraying the illness we commonly associate with old age, Dementia seems to represent a middle-life trauma involving child neglect and alcoholism. It shares with ‘Raving’ and ‘Melancholy’ a stark realism that belies caricature. “How could anyone laugh at their suffering, when Cibber had gone out of his way to avoid all semblance of absurdity?”2
1 Richard Cork, The Healing Presence of Art (Yale University Press, 2012), p. 149.
2 ibid., p. 153.
Published May 4, 2011
Tags: Ancient Mysteries, bbc, BBC radio, David Clegg, dementia, drama, madness and literature, media, radio drama, Tell Mrs Mills Her Husband Is Still Dead, Trebus Project
UK-based blog readers may be interested in the Woman’s Hour Drama to be broadcast each weekday next week on Radio 4 at 10.45am (repeated at 7.45pm, and available for a limited time thereafter on iPlayer). It will be based on extracts from two limited-edition books compiled by David Clegg of The Trebus Project from interviews with dementia sufferers. The first print runs of Ancient Mysteries and Tell Mrs Mill Her Husband is Still Dead are almost sold out – they might be collectors’ items by this time next week – but readers of this blog who are quick to contact the author using the details available on The Trebus Project website may not have to wait for the reprint. The alternative, of course, is simply to tune in to the dramatised broadcasts for a series of narrative insights into living with dementia that promises authenticity and poignancy without heavy-handedness.
As part of Science Week 2011, artist Shelley Wilson will be exhibiting sculptural and photographic work exploring issues surrounding dementia at the Bethlem Gallery. The exhibition addresses the impact of dementia on the collective mental health of the sufferer and their carers, and aims to stimulate debate around identity and the stigma attached to its loss.
Shelley said her motivations for the project came from personal experience.
“I have an interest in this field as one of my close family members was diagnosed with the disease years ago. My work usually explores notions of identity within myself and in society. With the work in this exhibition the crucial difference is that I am looking at the increasing loss of identity in sufferers of dementia and their decreasing ability to identify the family as the disease takes hold,” Shelley explained. “The work also explores how dementia impacts on the families’ own sense of identity as a whole, surely, this has to be the cruelest aspect of the disease.”
The artwork will be shown across two venues simultaneously with the sculptural work on display at The Bethlem Gallery and the SGDP Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry housing the photographic installation. The project was funded by Arts Council England and developed in collaboration with Dr Justin Sauer, Consultant Psychiatrist and Honorary lecturer at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) and the Institute of Psychiatry.
The exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery opens on 2 March, and runs until 1 April, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and Saturday 12 March, from 11am – 6pm.
The photographic installation at the Institute of Psychiatry is open between 30 March and 24 June.