Works by schizophrenic artists Adolfi Wolfli (left) and Arthur Bispo do Rosario (right)
Part III: Art and ‘Madness’
Copyright 2013, David J. Bookbinder
Toward the end of the 19th century, the Romantic preoccupation with the idea that genius and madness were linked prompted a search for unrecognized geniuses in insane asylums. Previously seen as the mindless creations of lunatics, the art of the clinically insane suddenly attracted the attention of scholars.
An early example of scholarly attention was “Art and Artists in the Insane Asylum of Saint Benedetto,” written in Italy in 1880 by a physician named Dr. L. Frigerio. Frigerio was interested in finding relationships between the mental condition of the asylum’s inmates and their art. He noted that even among those who had never before been involved with art, many inmates began spontaneously to draw.
Frigerio’s work was joined by that of Cesare Lombroso, the most prominent proponent of the insane genius theory in the 19th century. In his book L’Uomo di Genio, first published in 1864, and in subsequent articles, Lombroso presented, classified, and attempted to analyze the drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other creations of mental patients. He isolated 13 basic characteristics of his patients’ works: originality; uselessness; uniformity; imitation; criminality and moral insanity (sexual perversion); minuteness of detail; absurdity; arabesques (abstracts); atavism (stylistic features from an earlier period); eccentricity; insanity as a subject; obscenity; and symbolism (symbols used consciously in an allegorical way). Lombroso theorized that “the imagination is most unrestrained when reason is least dominant, for the latter, by repressing hallucinations and illusions, deprives the average man of a true source of artistic and literary inspiration.”
The interest in the art of the insane continues into the present day, largely due to the influence of Surrealist French painter Jean Dubuffet, who traveled to Switzerland in 1945 and viewed the works of schizophrenic patients Adolf Wolfli, Heinrich Anton Muller, and Aloïse Corbaz. Dubuffet became acquainted with other schizophrenic artists, whose work was, to him, an example of the extreme individualism born of isolation. He spent the next 40 years collecting and popularizing this art, which he referred to as “Art Brut” (Raw Art), and which today is also known as “Outsider Art.” Dubuffet said in 1949, “Our point of view is that the role of art is always the same, and there is no more ‘art des fous’ than there is art of dyspeptics or of those with bad knees.”
A well-known example of art created by a mental patient is the extensive work of Arthur Bispo do Rosario, a paranoid schizophrenic who spent 50 years in the Juliano Moreira Colony for the mentally ill in Rio de Janeiro. He had no training in art and refused to participate in art therapy, but he created enigmatic cloaks, sashes, and other textile pieces, as well as sculptures made from whatever materials he could find in the hospital. He did not regard his creations as art but instead was preoccupied with recording the world as he saw it in order to save it in the Last Judgment; however, his works have been posthumously displayed worldwide.
The Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli, who spent the last 35 years of his life in the Waldau Psychiatric Clinic in Bern, was sent to the institution after three instances of attempted child molestation. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Although he was aware of the physical world around him, in his first few years in the institution he gradually constructed an imaginary life which he depicted in text and drawings, in part derived from his memories of growing up in Bern but much more so on illustrated calendars, magazines, and journals he used as sources for his self-created world. His life outside the institution had been brutal — an orphan before he was ten, a succession of foster homes, a short term in the infantry, two years in prison for the first two attempts at child molestation. But in his imagined world, he is a new person: “St. Adolf II, Master of Algebra, Military Commander-in Chief and Chief Music Director, Giant-Theater-Director, Captain of the Almighty-Giant-Steamship and Doctor of Arts and Sciences. Director of the Algebra and Geography Textbook Production Company and Fusilier General. Inventor of the 160 original and highly valuable inventions patented for all times by the Russian Tsar and hallelujah, the glorious victor of many violent battles against the Giants.”
Wolfli began to draw after his first four years in the Waldau clinic and by 1908, 13 years after his incarceration, had begun an epic autobiography which occupied his remaining 22 years. The work comprised 45 volumes, hand-bound by Wolfli. They intermingle reality and fiction and their 25,000 pages combine text with some 3000 illustrations, and conclude with a massive volume of nearly 3000 songs. Wolfli was unknown as an artist during his lifetime, but posthumously his work has been shown throughout Europe and the United States. In 1975, his work was transferred from the Waldau Psychiatric Clinic to the Kunst Museum in Bern.
Although his world was private, unlike most schizophrenics who make art Wolfli was aware of a potential audience. In his 11th volume, he wrote: “To be sure, the entire verbatim text in this little book, has the thought, attitude and character of a madman, as the introductory title clearly indicates. At bottom, it is however, fundamentally and throughout, a genuine and true edition and narrative. Thus, I herewith hope that the kind reader will appreciate my piece of entertainment staged in the cell of the mental asylum.”
To be continued….
David J. Bookbinder, LMHC
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Text and images © 2013, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
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