Posts Tagged 'In the Frame'

In the Frame for October 2013

As the new Community Engagement Officer here at Bethlem, writing my first In the Frame post seems like a somewhat daunting task.  I’m lucky enough to have had some previous experience of the collections here but, with around 1,000 artworks to choose from, there is still so much more to uncover and explore.

I first came across the pottery of Bibi Herrera in 2008 while curating an exhibition at the Museum of Croydon.  Bibi’s pots come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, all with colourful and eye-catching designs.  I particularly like ‘Electric’ as the vibrant lines and colours to me seem to signify life, growth and positivity.  In many of Bibi’s works, you can see the influences of her time studying Chilean Indian art in Santiago at the age of 16.  Reflecting on this experience, Bibi speaks of how this reminds her of the importance of colour in life and how everything is not always black and white.

Electric, Bibi Herrera

Electric, Bibi Herrera

The beauty of Bibi’s art speaks for itself, but the journey she took to become a ceramicist, for me, makes her work even more powerful.  While studying in Santiago, Bibi became a member of the Young Communist Party and a supporter of the left-wing President, Salvador Allende.  On 11 September 1973, her life was overturned by a military coup, which resulted in the establishment of Augustus Pinochet as President of Chile.  On the morning of the coup, Bibi was arrested at her father’s printing works.  She was detained for three and a half years, during which time she was interrogated, tortured and raped.

In 1977 Bibi was released into the hands of the UN and came to England as a political refugee.  Initially she had no-one to talk to about her experiences and could find no outlet for her distress, which led to her first suicide attempt in 1979.  She was treated at Bethlem for a short period of time, but tried to commit suicide again in 1993.  This time she was offered the chance to talk to a psychologist about her experiences and pottery was suggeted as a form of occupational therapy.  However, the failed suicide attempt had led to Bibi losing the use of her left hand and left her frustrated with the fact she was still alive.  It wasn’t until one day when she chanced upon the sight of another patient working the clay with one hand – while smoking a cigarette in the other – that she felt encouraged to try pottery for herself.

Pottery is still Bibi’s lifeline today and she now uses her experiences to help others.


In the Frame for September 2013

In the Frame goes on holiday once again, as our Education Officer takes a trip to Edinburgh. She writes:

I have to confess to not being a particular fan of Richard Dadd, to not really ‘getting it’, but I have always liked his portrait of Alexander Morison, visiting physician to Bethlem Hospital where Dadd was a patient following the murder of his father. Seeing the picture for the first time in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in a room where it was surrounded by very traditional portraits of the great and the good, was transformative. Dadd’s painting looked startlingly modern and vibrant; the flashes of red, warm yellows and lush greens providing a foil for the starker figure of Morison himself, upright in contrast to the twisted trees, the surface less polished, lending more energy and immediacy. It appeared, perhaps helped also by its more modest scale, more human and less pompous than some of its neighbours.

Dadd depicts the Morison family house at Newhaven, with the Firth of Forth gleaming dully behind it, low hills beyond, open grass and trees in front. There is much to take our eye: the stately progress of the ships on the right, the red-tiled roof of the small building to the left and the animated fishwives in their traditional costumes on the strand, looking not quite to scale.

It is Morison himself though who draws our attention, standing just to the right of centre. He holds his top hat in one hand and could almost be gesturing to the viewer. In his other hand he holds a white cloth, a handkerchief and a book. He is formally dressed as we might expect of someone of his status; the white cravat fixed with a pin bright against the black of the rest of his clothing. His open coat reveals the waistcoat and adds a sense of movement to an otherwise static figure; likewise the wispy white hair standing up around his head like a white halo. The face is that of a man nearing the end of a long career in a potentially difficult profession. It appears quite lined and worn but the eyes hold our gaze. It would be difficult to walk straight past.

Although, as his patient, Dadd would have seen Morison in person, the remainder of the scene relies on imagination and secondary sources. Family members provided information and sketches of the area around Newhaven and the fishwives themselves may have been inspired or copied from earlier photographs by Hill and Adamson.1 All the more remarkable then that this portrait should be so unified and so arresting.

[1] The painter David Hill and the engineer Robert Adamson set up Scotland’s first photographic studio in 1843. 2623

In the Frame for August 2013

This sketch, chosen by the Head of the Archives and Museum for this month’s In the Frame, is one of a number of undated preparatory studies made by the artist Cynthia Weldon (née Pell), possibly during the 1950s when she was a student at Camberwell Art College in South London.

The page of sketches and jottings demonstrates the craftmanship behind the artist’s work. The half legible ‘notes to self’ contain detailed (occasionally surprising) instructions as to texture and colour, for instance: “Child’s navy woolly balaclava” or “purple and orange face, grey hair”. The sketch which I have selected from the page has no such written clues beside it, leaving it open to interpretation. I like to imagine it as a pile of delicious chocolate eclairs on an elegant stand, reflected in a mirror behind.

Cynthia Pell was admitted to Bexley Hospital in the 1970s, and much of the work in the museum’s collection dates from this period of her life. Her drawings include self portraits and observations of those around her on the ward, which can occasionally make for uncomfortable viewing. These studies are a pertinent reminder that there was life before hospital.

The sketch of the eclairs will not be on display at a forthcoming exhibition of Pell’s work at the Bethlem Gallery (Ordinary Moments, 28 August – 20 September 2013) as it is on the reverse of another drawing. However, the exhibition will include a wide range of work, some of it recently acquired from Cynthia’s art therapist at Bexley, Britta von Zweigbergk.

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In the Frame for July 2013

This month In the Frame goes on holiday yet again, this time to Brussels to highlight a work of art which has no direct connection to Bethlem or the Maudsley, but one which sheds fresh light on a long-standing artistic puzzle that has informed (or misinformed) recent discussion of the tragic circumstances that surround suicide.

The puzzle is this: a copy of Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus hangs in Brussels’ Musée d’Art ancien, showing the boy of classical legend plunging into the sea to his death, the wax securing feathers to his back having melted when he flew too close to the sun. In the middle distance a shepherd stands with his back to the tragic scene to the right of picture, gazing up at an empty sky. This scene has been compared to sequences in a 2006 documentary film that show suicidal leaps from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. ‘The analogy sticks’, writes a New York Times film critic, ‘because the fatal leaps go almost unnoticed by passers-by’.1 This Bruegel picture (or more correctly, this copy of the lost Bruegel original) has thus been considered as a depiction of an uncaring world against which suicide may be understood as the ultimate existential protest.

Yet there is a second copy of Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in Brussels, this one at the art deco Van Buuren Museum in the suburbs, which the Archivist made time to see during a recent trip (and which, incidentally, incorporates a series of exquisite formal gardens). It is perhaps not as fine a copy as the one at le Musée d’Art ancient, but it contains a telling detail missing from the other picture: Icarus’ father, Daedalus, who accompanied Icarus in flight and is suspended mid-air to the upper left of picture, having escaped his son’s accidental fate. It is Daedalus to whom the attention of the central figure has been drawn. Rather than being uncaring, the shepherd is simply unaware, his attention having been momentarily – and understandably – caught by the extraordinary sight of a man in flight. By contrast, the figure to the right of the picture knows of the plight of Icarus, though he is too far away to render assistance.

In its conception, therefore, the picture cannot be used to support what The Guardian columnist Giles Fraser has recently called the ‘poisonous connection’ between suicide and the romantic hero against whom, so the story goes, the whole world is ranged. The ‘aestheticisation of suicide’, he writes, ‘denies the reality that most people who kill themselves are trapped and desperate. They are commonly suffering from depression, or schizophrenia, or debt, or homelessness, or alcoholism, or drug addiction, or a combination of these things’.2 ‘Flying too close to the sun’ has become a metaphor for exposure (whether by accident or by design) to risk that endangers life or sanity. To those who find themselves in this situation, things can sometimes seem much more bleak than they really are. People (like Bruegel’s shepherd) who appear not to care may simply be temporarily distracted. As a reviewer of some recent historical studies of suicide has noted, it has been ever thus:

The end of the Samaritans’ information page on self-harm urgently communicates the same message as that of the first full-length treatise on suicide published in English, John Sym’s Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (1637), and it can’t be said often enough: “There is always hope. There is always help”.3

1 Stephen Holden, ‘That Beautiful but Deadly San Francisco Span’, The New York Times, 27 October 2006.

2 Giles Fraser, ‘There’s no shame in suicide, and there’s no glory, either’, The Guardian, 30 January 2013.

3 Freya Johnston, ‘Suicide watch’, The Times Literary Supplement, 16 January 2013.

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In the Frame for June 2013

This month, Bethlem’s Registrar, who has been working on creating a Stanley Lench touring exhibition, highlights one of this artist’s works.

A mass of black, waving lines with green and blue patterns and patches of bright pink paint, Norman Reid’s Brain is one of Stanley Lench’s more abstract works. The subject of this painting may seem odd, but with a few snippets of information we can begin to understand more about it, and its artist. Stanley Lench worked as an attendant at Tate Britain in the 1970s where Norman Reid was Director until 1979.

Having suffered with mental ill health since his teenage years in the late 1940s, Lench began work at the Tate believing his own artistic career was over. In an interview with his friend David Trowbridge, Lench reveals that actually working at the Tate helped revive his enthusiasm, ‘I started to look at the pictures that when I was 14, influenced me…to become an artist, the Picassos, the Braques, the Chagalls, the Modigliani sculpture and the girl with the long neck.’

Lench painted prolifically in the 1970s, depicting David Hockney, William Blake, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Sitwell and others he admired, deriding those he didn’t in works such as The Two Faced Pig of Art (1978). The treatment of Norman Reid’s Brain doesn’t appear to be overtly negative – the largely warm colour palette and gentle lines evoke a careful serenity. This calm is compromised though, by tension created with the presence of a thumb – is the brain being cradled or clutched? Perhaps Lench felt ambivalent about Norman Reid.

The abstract nature of the composition may be a reference to Reid’s celebrated development of the Tate collection, which included the acquisition of much abstract and conceptual work (to the chagrin of David Hockney, who complained publicly that Reid had rejected the figurative). Despite periods of mental ill health, alcohol addiction and reclusion, Lench’s constant and keen interest in the art world is betrayed through this subtle allusion to his subject’s professional career.

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In the Frame for May 2013

This month, the Friend’s Secretary has chosen to highlight a painting displayed at the recent Museum of the Mind exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery: Russell Barton’s Potential Murderers?  The sheer size of this picture means that it is rarely possible to display it at present, but it provides an interesting talking point. One interpretation, used in the exhibition, is that the painting questions one of the common public misconceptions surrounding mental ill-health. The “potential murderers” of the title might thus refer to the seated figures of patients along the wall, the bowed heads and subdued attitudes indicating how ludicrous the generalisation can be. As Barton himself apparently said, “In our mental hospitals today, there are thousands of harmless patients, people who have never done harm, people who never will do harm.”

Yet the figure of the nurse in the foreground is the first thing that draws the viewer’s attention, her face cold and unsmiling, perhaps ignoring those in her care. Meanwhile, the stark walls of the institution fill most of the background: perhaps it is this, and those who run it, that is suggested to have the potential for murder. Barton, who died in 2002 after a lengthy psychiatric career, was an advocate for community care and asylum closure. His key textbook – Institutional Neurosis – argued that asylum care generated a neurotic condition in patients over and above their original ill-health. Colleagues considered that Barton’s experiences at Shenley and Severalls Hospitals (following his training at the Maudsley under Aubrey Lewis) encouraged this thesis: this painting was probably painted during his time at the latter, in the 1960s. The extreme nature of the painting’s title might also reflect the doctor’s early experiences: as a medical student, in the aftermath of the second world war, he volunteered to attend the survivors at Belsen, one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps.

The starkest contrast in the painting is that between the muted colours of the hospital walls and the bright blue and green landscape beyond. One lone patient stares, perhaps wistfully, through the railings at this apparent utopia beyond. A rather romanticised view, perhaps, reflecting the hopes of those who fought to close asylums in the late twentieth century. An addition to Barton’s obituary in The Psychiatrist, from a friend and colleague, noted that “He never regretted his role in the deinstitutionalisation movement, although he recognised, like the rest of us, that the actual performance fell well short of what he would have wished to see happen.”1

1 Miodrag Ristich, “Obituary of Dr Russell Barton” The Psychiatrist (2003) 27: 196.

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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.

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