Mad in Vienna

Madness and Modernity
Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna 1900
Wellcome Collection, London

Those seeking solace from nervous exhaustion – a common complaint on Euston Road – can now stumble into the air conditioned Wellcome Building and find themselves staring at a model of Am Steinhof, a psychiatric hospital on the edge of Vienna that had 60 separate buildings and room for 2,500 patients. It’s a key part of this survey of representations of ‘madness’ in the time of Freud.

The model, and the rest of the exhibition, leaves you somewhat uncomfortable – here is mental illness as modish fashion accessory or artistic prop. Whilst it wasn’t the done thing to be distinctly barking it was more than acceptable to be in need of have a nervous disorder and pop off for recuperation. It took Freud to move away from the long stays in lovely buildings to conversations in consulting rooms.

The exhibition draws on work by Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka – the former self portraits of the artist as a twisted hyperreal body, the latter portraits of the Vienna bourgeoisie as a bunch of, erm, withered nutters. It all looks a bit Topolski. The final section shows the art created by two patients themselves – a collage by ‘Frau St’ about whom we know nothing and the vibrant paintings of Josef Karl Rädler, whose work now appears to be quite collectable.

Accompanying this survey is a more personal exhibition – “Mental Illness and Me” by Bobby Baker. Spanning 17 stages over 11 years (and now “Beyond the Stages”) it’s drawn from a series of daily and weekly drawings that Barker produced whilst suffering from fairly extreme mental illness, and its accompanying traumatic treatment. Needless to say they are very striking and the accompanying text tells a powerful story simply and effectively.

All in all, another good reason to visit the lovely Wellcome building … and then pour out into today’s London and wonder what a survey of our insanity will look like in a century’s time.

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