In the Frame for April 2013

This month’s In the Frame is ‘Red and Blue Abstract’, an anonymous work produced as part of a series of experiments, overseen by Maudsley doctors Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay in the 1930s, into the hallucinogenic effects of the drug mescaline. Since “mescaline hallucinations are predominantly, though not exclusively, visual,” they wrote, “a description of them by  means of drawings and pictures could be expected to be somewhat more impressive, and perhaps more realistic, than a verbal account”. “Artists who were willing to volunteer their services” were “given enough mescaline to cause hallucinations and were asked to sketch what they saw”.1

The Archivist has chosen to highlight ‘Red and Blue Abstract’ on the strength of his reading of Oliver Sacks’ latest book, Hallucinations, which (according to one reviewer) is “a superb synthesis of the literature on these arresting, disturbing and sometimes terrifying phenomena” as well as “a profound work of humanity”.2 In the public imagination, hallucinations are most closely associated with the experience of schizophrenia, and are often highly feared on that account, but Sacks writes relatively little about schizophrenic hallucinations (phenomena that demand separate consideration, in his view), preferring to focus his attention on hallucinations arising from “organic” psychoses – “the transient psychoses sometimes associated with delirium, epilepsy, drug use, and certain medical conditions”.3

Anyone who has read the description, cited by Sacks, of the drug-induced hallucinations written by Daniel Breslaw – a participant in a 1960s experiment not entirely dissimilar to Guttman and Maclay’s – might be forgiven for detecting shades of ‘Red and Blue Abstract’ in his account.

“I closed my eyes. ‘I see stars!’ I then burst out, finding the firmament spread out on the inside of my eyelids. The room about me receded into a tunnel of oblivion as I vanished into another world, fruitless to describe…The heavens above me, a night sky spangled with eyes of flame, dissolve into the most overpowering array of colours I have ever seen or imagined; many of the colours are entirely new – areas of the spectrum which I seem to have hitherto overlooked.”4

‘Red and Blue Abstract’ is by an anonymous artist, but another participant in the mescaline experiments, Basil Beaumont, wrote to Dr Guttmann in 1936 that his “appreciation of beauty, particularly flowers; is still enhanced greatly” and that his “painting is becoming more brilliant in colour”. Another of Guttman’s correspondents, a medical colleague, drew attention to a far less welcome by-product of the experiments:

“I hope you will not feel that I am interfering in writing to you, but I wonder if you know what sort of an experience taking mescaline can be in some cases? Have you taken it yourself? … In the case of the younger man [to whom you gave mescaline last Friday] it was an experience so hideous that no human being ought to undergo it without the very gravest necessity.  No one would go into it voluntarily if he had the slightest notion what it was going to be like; also in his case, it might have had disastrous consequences.  … I must tell you that but for luck, in that I happened to see him and detain him, I firmly believe he would have murdered his friend that night in a state of hallucination and I think also that if he not been under observation at the Maudsley he might at one point… have committed suicide.”

Sacks’ chapter on drug-induced hallucinations, in which he describes visionary experiences – in turn elevating and terrifying – that resulted from his own habitual drug use in the 1960s and 70s, makes for equally unsettling reading, and invites as much wonder concerning the abandon shown by previous generations of researchers as ‘Red and Blue Abstract’ does concerning the vision of the artist.

1 W. Maclay and E. Guttmann, ‘Mescaline Hallucinations in Artists’, Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, vol. 45, no 1 (1941).

2 Raymond Tallis, ‘Oliver Sacks on Drugs’, The Times Literary Supplement, 13 February 2013.

3 Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations (Picador, 2012), p. xiii.

4 ibid, p. 99.

 photo LDBTH191-MescalinePainting-BlueandRedAbtractc1938b2_zps10e78ab3.jpg

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