Art and mental illness at the birth of modern psychiatry

If you’re in London before the end of June, make sure you drop into the Wellcome Collection museum which has two fantastic free exhibitions on the art and history of mental illness. If you can’t make it, the exhibition website is excellent and has video and images from the shows.

The first exhibition, Madness and Modernity, explores mental illness and the visual arts in Vienna in 1900, then the epicentre of the medical world.

Modern psychiatry was beginning to emerge and the ‘mad doctors’ employed some of Europe’s most pioneering architects to create asylums that were intended to be therapeutic by their very design.

For example, this poster is for one of the newly developed asylums of the time, as well as being beautiful in itself. The image to the right is the somewhat more intimidating ‘Tower of Fools’.

Also the use of art as a tool to document and disseminate ideas about mental illness became popular, as did an interest in the ‘art of the insane’.

There’s a video on the site which is a wonderful summary of the exhibition as well as being a great standalone discussion of how art and psychiatry influenced each other in the heady culture of 1900s Vienna.

The other exhibition is a series of diary paintings made by artist Bobby Baker from 1997-2008, as she charted her experience of mental illness and treatment. They’re only really done justice when seen as larger pictures, and the online gallery will give you a feel for their impact and humour.

A couple of things you can’t get online are the free events that accompany the exhibitions, which sadly seem all booked up, and the bookshop, which has a special section where they’ve collected (curated?) a great collection of books on almost everything to do with madness, the mind, art and history.

If you’re just visiting the website, you may need to do a bit of clicking around to see the best of the online material, but it’s well worth the visit. Watch the video if nothing else.

Link to Wellcome Collection Art and Mental Illness website.

Full Disclosure: I’m an occasional grant reviewer for the Wellcome Arts scheme, but I’m not associated with this exhibition in any way.

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