Asylum art at the Wellcome Collection


This exhibition is crammed with interesting material, so if your time is limited, I recommend you spend it watching the brilliant 35 minute film, Abandoned Goods. Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson have sensitively edited archive footage and contemporary interviews to interrogate the complex issues that surround art therapy and outsider art through the fascinating story of the development of the Adamson Collection. At its peak it held 100,000 artworks created by inpatients at Netherne psychiatric hospital in Surrey which closed in 1981. In 1951 Edward Adamson had been the first artist to be employed in an official capacity in a mental hospital and the film documents his pioneering work  with “asylum artists” .

A telling sequence shows patients sitting at identical easels with the same limited selection of paints and brushes. This standardisation was meant to enhance the artwork’s diagnostic value when it was passed to the psychiatrists for analysis. Adamson soon changed the emphasis to recognise that creative expression was beneficial in its own right both for the patients’ wellbeing and as a propaganda tool to assert their humanity in a society which too often excluded them. There are some artworks in the film that have real artistic power regardless of their provenance including some wonderfully original, painted flintstones by Gwyneth Rowlands.

Mother Child Flint courtesy of  the artist Gwyneth Rowlands

The film-makers were brave to include some controversial clips. One patient recounts her anger towards her psychiatrist looking out of the ward window onto a peaceful rural scene and telling her “Well in fact, that is what is really important”.  There is also the archive clip of two jocular psychiatrists chortling about their work saying: “We haven’t the faintest clue about what causes people to become ill, why a particular treatment works or how we can stop them from becoming ill again. Ha,ha, ha!” Like other film-makers of thoughtful art documentaries, Luke Fowler in particular, they make apposite editorial decisions and then let the material speak for irself

Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008)  is a 16mm black and white film  by the German artist Javier Téllez who adopts an inclusive approach by including “mental patients”  offering succinct summaries of their take on madness. It extracts much comic value from miscommunication between a psychiatrist and a particular patient played by an actor who believes he is an alien from Mars. The romanticised conclusion that the mad simply see the world from a different angle is a common one in artworks of this ilk. This Laingian approach was a revelation in the 60s but should now be considered oversimplistic given the damage that it caused to some patients.

The Relaxed Wife is a fascinating and cheesy promotional film for one of the early anti- anxiety drugs, Atarax, launched by  Pfizer in 1957. The first 10 minutes of this film presents a cartoonlike humorous narrative of a stressed businessman, portrayed by an actor with remarkable rubbery gurning abilities, who makes repeated unsuccessful attempts to relax under the guidance of his wife using what we now describe as cognitive and biofeedback methods. It is only in the last three minutes that the soft sell of the new wonder drug is slipped in. The commentary perfectly illustrates the innovative psycho-pharmaceutical approach that emerged in the 1950s which exploited faith in the “wonders of science.”  In that innocent era before the benzodiazapine over-prescription scandals  of the 1980s, they could promise with sincerity a pill that delivered “the calming peace of a cloudless sky”

Restless Leg Saga (2012) is seven minute video that is a  bit wacky at times but also conveys a sense of unease about our vain hope for a magic bullet to tackle the current epidemic of anxiety conditions.  Shana Moulton explores this through her alter ego, Cynthia, a very miserable looking young woman suffering from restless leg syndrome and who we see searching through pharmaceutical ads on TV and in health magazines. It is interesting to note the contrast between the volume of dry technical drug information in the magazine ads and the snappy, simplistic imagery and slogans they use.

Overall, a packed and informative exhibition which combines history with contemporary art in the inimitable Wellcome style.