Move away from the couch

The Victorian physician John Conolly, who specialised in care of the mentally ill, urged actresses to visit his London asylum when they approached the role of Ophelia and observe his own patients. This would give them, he believed, a better idea of how to assume the role of a madwoman. In 1870, Ellen Terry took up the idea, but found it of little use - the madwomen, she asserted, were much 'too theatrical' for her to mimic.

Ideas of theatricality thread through a sharp-witted, wryly revisionist exhibition at the Wellcome Collection called Madness & Modernity. The Collection has, in just a few months, become my new favourite London gallery. It takes medical history out of its niche and welds it to big ideas. One show featured historic skeletons whose bones contained a chronicle of London's diseases, and by implication a story about economics and urban planning. The previous show was a dizzyingly suggestive exhibition about War and Medicine, digging into the uncomfortable paradox by which shiny new forms of carnage can nonetheless inspire medical advances.

Madness & Modernity explores Vienna in 1900: a place of innovation in psychiatry and treatment of mental illness, in art and architecture. Curators Leslie Topp and Gemma Blackshaw bring the two themes together with lucid, imaginative force.

You'll be expecting Freud. I was expecting Freud. Actually, he's barely allowed a toehold here: the curators clearly consider him marginal to mainstream practise in mental health in Vienna. And it's true that, as we noticed on a visit to his London home last week, the furniture tells the story. Freud's heart was in the well-stuffed home, with dark wood and too many cushions, of the late 19th-century bourgeoisie. The airless press of family history is central to his thought, as to his house. The exhibition does borrow a few of his favoured antiquities (honestly, there's such a clutter of deities in the Hampstead study, no one will miss them), and though the couch itself remains at home, it is mocked up here with a Persian rug and a couple of worn velvet cushions in rich ochre and cherry.

The greatest indication that Freud's centrality has been displaced by this show is the unfamiliar portrait on display, which depicts him without his trademark beard. This seems almost indecent: it goes beyond demystifying and approaches what we can only consider castration. Take that, Siggy.

Is madness 'theatrical'? What sort of décor is therapeutic? More after the click:

Does each age design the psychosis it needs? The true innovation in treatment of mental illness, it is argued here, was light, bright and therapeutic. Sleek modernist furniture would produce healthy modernist minds, and instead of the stuffy townhouse, treatment should take place in airy woodland settings on the outskirts of the city. The Am Steinhof psychiatric hospital (1907) was an elegant complex in the Vienna woods, including a theatre. In an email exchange, Leslie Topp told me that this wasn't an uncommon facility at 'villa style' asylums, and that it was used both for dances and social gatherings and for professional performances. She explains that 'as far as I know, the programme for the theatre was pretty much entirely professional acts (cabaret, choirs, light entertainment of various sorts, including "cinematographic") and educational presentations (lectures, slide shows), put on for patients and staff. There wasn't much scope, at least in the early days, for patients themselves to perform.'

So theatre might ease the troubled mind. As for the theatricality of the mad, the exhibition again offers its own smart corrective to over-familiar images. Anyone who has seen Jacobean tragedies like The Duchess of Malfi or The Changeling will have endured actors giving their best screech and caper in the madhouse scenes. The visual artists assembled here embrace a distinct trope of mental illness and distress with almost flamboyant fervour. Egon Schiele imagines his body as a neurasthenic spindle in his self-portraits, while other painters depict themselves or their distressed subjects with gnarled and contorted fingers, hunched shoulders. It is as if mental distress registers through the splayed and twisted body.

But, as Ellen Terry might have asked, isn't this all 'too theatrical'? The paintings often suggest an externalised idea of mental illness, rather than pain yowling inside the head. Some of the most remarkable works in the show are a quiet series of watercolours by Josef Karl Rädler, who spent most of his adult life in Vienna's institutions. A painter of porcelain by trade, his pictures on paper are delicate, tender, beautifully coloured. Instead of torment, he gives us hushed individuality. His figures are not flailing, and their settings are gently bucolic - birds scud past windows or sit on the sill, flowers are in the room and scrolling over the wallpaper borders. They don't make great claims, but suggest the calm benefits of a sympathetic institution with access to the natural world. Showboating actors might not want to channel Rädler's work, but as a key to recognisable, daily distress, they're a matchless guide.

April 8, 2009 10:08 AM | | Comments (0) |

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