Posts Tagged 'schizophrenia'

See Miss X’s “Art in the Dark” as part of Museums at Night this Friday, 5 – 7pm

As part of this years Museums at Night – when hundreds of museums around the country open their doors after hours – Bethlem Archives and Museum will be open until 7pm for a chance to see Miss X’s “Art in the Dark”. The exhibition of intricate red biro drawings is viewed by torchlight, turning the viewer into a voyeur: the torch illuminating the most private and intimate areas of the pictures.

The set of drawings, previously exhibited in 2000, was completed following a six month psychotic episode. “When I came round”, Miss X says, “my delusions offered a clue as to why I was suicidal and why I wanted to sleep all the time and why I felt so guilty. I wanted to draw out the problems before I forgot them. I used biro because it was cheap. I wasn’t drawing so that the pictures would one day be treasured, I just wanted to cure the here and now.”

The densely crowded images thus have a direct and visceral quality, incorporating a complex array of symbols: religious, medical or sexual. Arrows direct the flow, but are also penetrative. Question marks question the artist’s sense of selfhood, while the persistent “z” symbol represents the fatigue caused by prescribed medication and lack of motivation. Seeing and being seen are regular themes, and the voyeuristic nature of viewing the work by torchlight reminds us of the uncomfortable nature these ideas often hold within and beyond psychiatric practice.

As Miss X concludes: “In my psychotic period I had “owned” the world banks and I’d discovered Earth and fire. I was 30 different people. When I came round I wanted to be a nobody, so I chose X as a name.”

The Museum will be open from 5 – 7pm for this special event on Friday 18 May. Items from the general collection will also be on display, and staff will be on hand to give regular short talks on the history of the hospital and its art collection. The Bethlem Gallery will also open until 7pm, for a chance to see Steph Bates’ “Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go”.

Miss X Art in the Dark


In the Frame for April 2011

One of our volunteers has chosen to write about Herbrand Ignouville-Williams’ Purple Finger Painting, and the mescaline experiments conducted by Drs Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay in the 1930s (which was the subject of a temporary exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery last September) which inspired it. She writes:

In previous studies, Guttman and Maclay had noticed that although schizophrenic sufferers often wanted to create art in an attempt to ‘explain themselves’, only a small proportion of sufferers possessed the technical ability to translate these hallucinations into art. Therefore, like-minded professional artists such as Ignouville-Williams, who shared the doctors’ interests in the unconscious and irrational, were invited to take part in these experiments exploring experimental psychosis and the results offer a revealing insight into the psychology of those involved.

Herbrand Ignouville-Williams was an active member of an art collective called The White Stag group, which he co-founded in 1934 with Kenneth Hall and Basil Rakoczi, who was to remain a close friend until Herbrand’s untimely death in the 1940s. Rakoczi had a lifelong interest in gypsy law and the occult, and turned his hand to commercial art before turning his attention to painting and psychology. When they met in 1933, after recently serving in the first world war, Herbrand was a mature student of medicine at Cambridge, and in the midst of a disintegrating marriage. This world of bohemian art to which Rakoczi belonged intrigued Herbrand. He wrote in a letter to his mother; “I should be so much happier living quietly with Benny [Rakoczi], meeting artists and musicians and interesting people with ideas.” Ignouville-Williams had also started to study psychology. He introduced Rakoczi to the subject and this remained a lifelong interest to him. Rokoczi’s subsequent work in psychology, which was extensive, was based on his own experience in the mid 1930’s with analyst Karin Stephen, with whom he underwent a “full Freudian analysis”. In late 1933, Rakoczi and Ignouville-Williams set up the Society for Creative Psychology at Rakoczi’s studio in London with the aim of developing the techniques of Freudian Psychological analysis.

In an attempt to avoid conscription, the members of the White Stag group based themselves in Dublin during the war, where they developed a reputation in the city as leading ‘cutting edge’ artists with their calendar of lectures, parties and exhibitions. In all of their exhibitions, the works were diverse in character, ranging from surrealist-inspired images to abstract, semi-representational and symbolist pieces.

The major event in the White Stag calendar in 1945 was the publication of Herbrand’s book, Three Painters, which studied the work of Basil Rakoczi, Kenneth Hall and Patrick Scott, and is the definitive statement of the philosophy of Subjective Art as interpreted by the White Stag artists. In its preface, Herbert Read said ‘modern art allowed greater freedom of artistic expression’. It was, he said, ‘the imagination itself that… lost its shackles’ and Freud was considered to be the source of that release. The group employed the method of Subjective Art where ‘the theme, instead of being drawn from objects in the external world, is elaborated by the workings of the imagination turned inwards upon the memories, dreams and phantasies of the Unconscious’. To Herbrand, the unconscious, and in particular the creative power of the numen, ‘the fountain-head of all artistic and cultural achievement’ was the source of such activity by means of which art obtained ‘its elusive, magical quality’ . These observations seem to be heavily influenced by his experiences with experimental psychosis.

LDBTH82-Mescaline Painting - Purple Finger Painting (1936) b

In the Spotlight: Philip O’Connor

In last month’s In the Spotlight, we wrote of the oft-supposed link between ‘genius’ and ‘madness’ that “without ever coalescing into a testable hypothesis, …finds anecdotal support within both popular culture and academic discourse”. An example we might have cited is that of the bohemian writer and poet Philip O’Connor (1916-1998), who (in his autobiographical Memoirs of a Public Baby) admitted that at one time he had shared the “prevailing scientifically ignorant conception of neurosis as the unemployed, wasted part of imaginative talent”. O’Connor’s own experience of psychological imbalance and hospitalisation must have contributed to his eventual rejection of such an easy identification. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and admitted to the Maudsley Hospital at the age of twenty on 21 September 1936, declaring (according to his autobiography) that, whilst willing to be there, he had no hope of changing.


O’Connor despised his doctors: “I couldn’t believe them capable of understanding me, and certainly didn’t want them to…They appeared to me desperately on the outside of a world they’d give their world to enter; I treated them as unprivileged gate-crashers.” Yet of the Maudsley he wrote: “I liked the place very much, being allowed more or less to do as I pleased, painting, writing and not having to ‘work’; and certainly having my psyche seriously considered wasn’t, in a coarse way, unflattering”. The atmosphere on the ward he found “normal” but “heightened”. Of one memorable night, that of 30 November 1936, he wrote “I awoke as from a trance, and, in the glare of the Crystal Palace which was burning – we could see it from the veranda where we slept – I caught a snap-glimpse of other patients, some dressed, and felt them, from their clothes mostly, to be thrillingly contemporary, of today, absolutely, and I imagined an element of cure in this experience…”


O’Connor’s recovery, though sufficient to warrant his discharge on 20 March 1937, did not serve to lift his spirits. “I left…with the consciousness of having become a grubby, conventional ‘intellectual’; and that a thick glass pane, as is proper to such ‘intellectuals’, had been fixed between me and the world”. If the Maudsley was O’Connor’s university, he certainly rued his graduation. “I felt old, cynical, departmentalised, my mind in its sensory remove from the world working much harder and more consistently, but lacking the original spurts and ‘inspirations’, and on a thinner diet”.


Nevertheless, the Maudsley seems to have been the accidental crucible of O’Connor’s future career. On admission, his occupation was given as ‘painter’, and he is the one person included in this series of posts whose artistic work features in the collections of the Archives & Museum. As part of an experiment conducted by Drs Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay (which was recently the subject of a temporary exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery) O’Connor was given the drug mescaline and asked to represent its hallucinogenic effects in his art (an example of which is given below). Yet O’Connor’s first piece of published poetry was written while he was in hospital, and seeing his name in print set him on the literary course for which he subsequently became known.

There is more about Philip O’Connor in Andrew Barrow’s Quentin and Philip: A Double Portrait (MacMillan, 2002).

Lovely (2)

Madness and Literature: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

Remember we asked on this blog for your thoughts on books showing insight into mental health issues? We’d still love to hear from you, on this blog or by email, but here is our friends secretary’s review of one autobiographical novel.

First published in 1964, I Never Promised you a Rose Garden is a fictionalised account of the experiences of the author, Joanne Greenberg, portrayed in the novel as the character Deborah Blau. Aged just sixteen, Greenberg was admitted to the Chestnut Lodge Sanitarium in Rockville, Maryland, where she was treated by the (at the time) renowned psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (the novel’s Dr Fried). The thoughtful insight into life at Chestnut Lodge, for patients and doctors, is one of the novel’s many qualities: indeed, the sympathetic treatment of those around Deborah (in stark contrast to, say, Sylvia Plath’s contemporaneous The Bell Jar) is perhaps one reason as to why the autobiographical nature of the book was for a long time debated (written under a pseudonym, it was not for several decades that Greenberg began to speak publicly about her work).

Of course, Greenberg’s positivity is understandable, given the conclusion of her story: discharged from Chestnut Lodge after three years as an in-patient in 1951, she continued a close friendship with Fromm-Reichman until the latter died in 1957. Indeed, the novel itself had originally been planned as a collaboration between Greenberg, her mother and doctor. What’s more, Greenberg has remained well since her discharge, leading to an incredible variety of re-interpretations of her illness following the novel’s publication. An increasing emphasis on psychotropic medication, and tendency to view schizophrenia as a purely biological disease, meant that many doctors denied Greenberg had ever had schizophrenia at all: for, they argued, she could not possibly have been cured of this disease with psychotherapy alone. On the other hand, the anti-psychiatry movement has obliterated in the minds of many the notions of “therapeutic community” that Chestnut Lodge claimed to represent: for many, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the paradigm for the post-war psychiatric hospital, with its suggestion that illness is reinforced, not cured, by in-patient treatment.

While this is not to say that the experiences of many (we should, in particular, note that Chestnut Lodge was a private hospital) may certainly have been more Cuckoo’s Nest than Rose Garden (indeed, many elements of Deborah’s treatment may appear more disconcerting to us than they seem to have done to Greenberg, who portrays seclusion and “packing” as less constricting than her illness itself), this is rather to miss the point of the book. The account is, after all, one of survival: thus Greenberg emphasises the purpose of many aspects of mental ill-health, as well as their possible cure (something psychotherapy can indicate in a way drugs never can). Beautifully detailing Deborah’s refuge in the incredibly intricate world of Yr as a means of survival in an aggressively anti-Semitic post-war world, the importance of Dr Fried’s promises become clear: she will not have to give up her refuge until she is ready and, when she does, there will be something there to take its place. Cure cannot simply be a demolition of all that is perceived as unhealthy, it is something has to be created: a trust – in the world? In a future? It is clearly significant that the words of a Jewish doctor, forced to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s, form the title of the book. Anyone who struggles to reconcile themselves to the realities of the twenty-first century world will find much of import in the words of both Dr Fried, Deborah Blau, and Greenberg herself.

Phantasmagoria: New Exhibition Explores Hallucinations in Art

A new exhibition opens at the Bethlem Gallery next week, exploring hallucinations in Surrealist paintings and drawings from the collection of the Bethlem Archives and Museum. Artworks, by Basil Beaumont, Herbrand Williams, Julian Trevelyan and others, were created as part of series of experiments at the Maudsley Hospital into the hallucinogenic effects of the drug mescaline in the late 1930s.

In the late 1930s two of the Maudsley doctors, Dr Eric Guttman and Dr the Hon Walter Maclay started a series of unprecedented experiments. In previous studies both doctors had noted that many patients suffering from schizophrenia wanted to make art in an attempt to ‘explain themselves’. However, they also noted that only a minority of patients had the capacity to translate their hallucinations into pictorial form. These findings led the doctors to invite professional artists from the Surrealist movement, who they believed shared their interests in the unconscious and irrational, to take part in experiments involving the drug mescaline. The results of these Mescaline hallucinations or ‘experimental psychosis’ are a vivid and revealing insight into the psychology of those involved.

All are welcome at the Opening Event, which takes place on Wednesday 25 August, from 3 – 6pm.

Exhibition continues: 26th August – 10th September
Opening times: Wed, Thurs, Friday, 11am – 6pm
(including Saturday 4th September 11am – 6pm, when the Archives and Museum will also be open)
Address: The Bethlem Gallery, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, Kent BR3 3BX
Travel: Nearest British Rail: Eden Park (or a short bus ride from East Croydon on route 119 or 194)