Art of Psychiatry Society

Interview with curator of ‘Art in the asylum’
July 16, 2013, 8:55 pm
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Art in the Asylum: creativity and the evolution of psychiatry is an upcoming exhibition at the Djanogly Art Gallery Lakeside Arts Centre Nottingham.  It runs Saturday 7 September – Sunday 3 November.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Victoria Tischler and Dr Esra Plumer.  Victoria Tischler has kindly agreed to be interviewed by AoP.


What is the inspiration behind the Art in the asylum exhibition?

I’ve been fascinated by art produced in psychiatric contexts since I was an undergrad working on a locked long-stay ward in Sydney, Australia. It was a strange place, an old- style asylum with a covered walkway from the river to the hospital. This was where they had originally transported the patients from boats which came up the river.  The ward  on which I was placed  was surrounded by a moat which no longer contained water but the patients still used to pace around the periphery.  There was no art therapy as such but as I was interested in art I would sit with people and encourage them to draw and paint to pass the time. Most were institutionalised, some were mute, others said very little and yet, rather than pace around, they would sit contentedly for lengthy periods creating the most cryptic and beautiful artwork with little guidance or instruction. I was struck by the intricate nature of the work, and how it expressed complex ideas, especially when people found it difficult to communicate verbally.

I’ve always been interested in art history and especially loved the work of the Surrealists and I learnt how art from the asylum had influenced their work, people like was an avid collector of patient art.

My current job includes a role as an arts lead in the Institute of Mental Health and I believe art has a powerful role to play in raising awareness of mental health issues.


Joseph Askew (date unknown) Stylized figure. Courtesy Dumfries Archive Centre

Can you name a few of the exhibition’s highlights?

Dr W.A.F. Browne‘s collection of patient art is the oldest of its kind and has never been seen before outside Scotland. Browne was medical superintendent at the Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries from 1838-1857. His approach was radical in that he recommended that patients painted and drew as part of their treatment. He even employed an art instructor at the hospital in 1846.

Work from the Adamson collection, recently moved from the South London and Maudsley Trust to the Wellcome Library contains a vast array of pieces collected by Edward Adamson, the ‘grandfather of art therapy’ who was employed at the Netherne Hospital in Surrey in 1946.  The stone flints, collected by a patient in the grounds of the Hospital and then painstakingly hand painted are exceptional objects, especially one which strongly resembles a skull.

The work created by Mary Barnes at R.D. Laing’s therapeutic community Kingsley Hall in London in the 1960s is fascinating as she painted with her fingers, often depicting Laing and Dr Joe Berke (her responsible clinician) and ‘IT’, a spitting, writhing representation of her anger and fury. Berke is coming to speak at an event at the Broadway cinema in Nottingham on the 23rd October where we’re showing Luke Fowler‘s Turner shortlisted film about Laing ‘All divided selves’.

Also we’ve some exceptional work by many of the most famous outsider artists associated with influential continental psychiatrists such as the beautiful and complex work of Adolf Wölfli whose work was promoted by Dr Walter Morgenthaler from the Waldau clinic in Switzerland.



Mary Bishop (1959) Cri de coeur. Courtesy of Adamson collection trust


How did patient art come to be accepted outside of psychiatric institutions?

Several historical exhibitions displayed patient artwork alongside mainstream artists such as the British surrealists. This encouraged interest and acceptance of the work outside institutions. Also artists such as Jean Dubuffet avidly collected patient art work which increased interest and acceptance of the work in mainstream art circles.


Johann Hauser-Königin Elisabeth [Queen Elizabeth] ca.1969 Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.© Privatstiftung-Künstler aus Gugging. Photo: Claude Bornand

Is the creation so art in mental health institutions as influential today as in the past?

Sadly the answer is probably not. With services being so stretched art is often seen as an add-on rather than integral to treatment. Yet, art has enormous therapeutic potential which I have witnessed first hand. It can be a route to recovery for both trained and untrained artists with some saying it helps create a new and positive identity away from the stigma associated with mental illness. The opportunity to exhibit and sell art can be hugely empowering for those with mental health problems. I have been involved with facilitating art-making in special hospital settings and for those individuals it is a powerful way to express their emotions and to communicate with others. There remains much interest  in art created by people with mental health problems outside institutions which is a topic we explore in the exhibition and which we’ll be talking about at several of the events running alongside the exhibition.



William Bartholomew (1861) Cake Month. Courtesy Dumfries Archive Centre


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