“Images de l’Inconscient”

Halle Saint-Pierre

Although “Images de l’Inconscient” presented 181 works by six artist-patients from the collection of the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente in Rio de Janeiro, this exhibition paid homage to the work of its founder, Dr. Nise da Silveira (1905–1999)—a devout admirer of Carl Gustav Jung—who might be called an “incurable” psychological materialist. Following in the footsteps of Hans Prinzhorn, author of the groundbreaking 1922 study Bilderei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), and of Jean Dubuffet, she perceived the works of her patients to be “self-portraits of psychological situations,” but also medical charts that, although they might be seen as mapping extreme cases, provided an insight into the border between illness and self-expression. Da Silveira’s activities may, in fact, be viewed as a practical application of Antonin Artaud’s conception of art as action. In 1946, she founded the Section of Occupational and Rehabilitation Therapy at the Don Pedro II Hospital (today called Institute Nise da Silveira), where inpatients were encouraged to undergo therapy by working in painting and modeling studios. Perceiving artmaking as a vital form of reintegration into society, in 1956 the psychiatrist created the Casa das Palmeiras, a clinic for former psychiatric patients, in which art was encouraged as a daily occupation.

Despite the claims often made for the immediacy and spontaneity of the art made by schizophrenics, the works in this show often looked controlled, endowed with formal qualities of artifice that could easily be found in modern art. In fact, the artist-patients could be described as untrained and trained at the same time: Da Silveira worked with professional artists, such as Almir da Silva Mavignier, who fed her patients’ yearning for artistry and enhanced their artistic lucidity, but kept reproductions of artworks away from them. Thus, Fernando Diniz’s mandala-like geometrical works look both stylized and timeless, even though (or perhaps because) their meaning has been interpreted through Jungian understanding of mandalas as archetypal forms. Octávio Ignácio’s bizarre oneiric creatures are of seductive complexity, their appeal enhanced by a paroxysmal repetitiveness that leaves the viewer uncertain whether to see them as documents of the unconscious or aesthetic statements about our inability to communicate complex inner feelings through art. What constitutes the tangible meaning of these works is perhaps not so much their clinical status as their dialogic relationship to the Dionysian and Apollonian instincts behind creation.

While downplaying the conscious approach to artmaking of the participants in the show, the exhibition put emphasis on their biographies, providing dramatic accounts of their struggles with illness through art; their life stories highlight the fragility of the borderlines between sanity and insanity and shuttle from one chronic alienation to another. These biographies are written as stories in two acts, one before entering the hospital, one after, with an event—an anecdote of some sort—leading to a dramatic change of the course of their lives. Adelina Gomes, for example, was diagnosed with schizophrenia after she strangled a cat she loved. Diniz was arrested and then hospitalized after he went swimming naked at the Copacabana beach. Juxtaposed with the biography of da Silveira, those odd but true stories provided, in fact, a useful entry to this show by confirming Artaud’s words: “I am he who, in order to be, must whip his innateness.”

Marek Bartelik