Review – Madness & Modernity: Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna in 1900

Madness and Modernity: Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna in 1900 is the catalogue for an exhibition conceived at the Wellcome Collection before showing in Vienna. The exhibition is one of the results of a multi-year research project by the authors of the catalogue, and offers a fresh perspective on Viennese modernism with its interdisciplinary focus on the “two inextricably linked questions about how psychiatry influenced early modernism in the visual arts, and how modernism has since influenced our attitudes to the mentally ill” (9).

The first chapter, by editors Leslie Topp and Gemma Blackshaw, situates their project within its historical and institutional context. They argue that artists and psychiatrists were influenced by each other because both groups were interested in the relationship between mind and body as well as in the idea that modern society was in decline while holding onto the potential for its own salvation. The authors use this argument to explain what they see as Freud’s relative lack of influence on the visual arts in this period. Because Freud studied madness as reflected in the words of his patients rather than their bodies, and because he rejected utopian ideas about reforming society through reforming the built environment, he was evidently out of step with the prevailing concerns of most psychiatrists and artists.

Therefore the authors choose to set Freudian psychoanalysis aside in their description of a psychiatric and artistic mainstream where “the search for and visualization of causes and signs of mental illness in bodily phenomena… fed modernism in painting,” while “the search for and visualization of treatment, coming out of asylum psychiatry fed utopian architecture and design” (29).

The next eight chapters each discuss a specific object or set of objects—doctor Karl Henning’s wax models of the heads of two patients with microcephaly, Oscar Kokoschka and Max Oppenheimer’s portraits of Viennese modernists, Gustav Jagerspracher’s caricature of Peter Altenberg, two essays comparing the Steinhof asylum and the Pukersdorf sanatorium, the artistic output of patient Josef Karl Rädler, Gustav Klimt’s portraits of society women, and finally two ceramic female figures created by Richard Luksch for the Pukersdorf sanatorium.

All of these chapters provide useful background on their subjects, but some also highlight the limitations of the catalogue’s approach, particularly Luke Heighton’s brief essay on the output of Josef Karl Rädler, a patient who began to paint while in the psychiatric hospital at Pilgerhain. Rädler shares neither the modernist concern with the diseased body nor the psychiatrist’s concern with the therapeutic environment, and his paintings are unique in this exhibition. They are characterized by a limited range of subjects elaborated through “abstract geometric and perspectival elements… allowing the viewer either to comprehend more than one scene simultaneously, or breaking a scene up into its constituent parts” (113-116). This is arguably a “modern” gesture, but it does not fit into the catalogue’s definition of modernism. Heighton correctly notes that Rädler’s work confounds our expectations of the art of the mentally ill, but the questions Rädler raises about the patients’ role in the imaging of madness and about alternative ways of thinking through the connection between madness and modernity are not fully explored. Rädler, like Freud, appears as a man out of step with his own time and with the thrust of this catalogue.

The last chapter, by Geoffrey C. Howes, discusses madness in Austrian literature, focusing on the works of Peter Altenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, and Georg Trakl. Given that the rest of the catalogue maintains a tight focus on bodies, institutions, and the visual, this chapter seems out of place. A more specific argument about how writers and artists related to madness differently, possibly including a discussion of Freud, who became influential in literary circles before he became an inspiration for visual artists, would have helped link this essay to the rest of the catalogue.

Overall, this attractive catalogue offers an intriguing, if slightly over-simplified, framework for understanding a formative moment in psychiatry and in Viennese modernism. The catalogue is necessarily focused on how psychiatry influenced the visual arts, but historians of psychiatry will also find points of contact, particularly in the essay about the Pukersdorf Sanatorium and the Steinhof asylum. We can look forward to seeing more of the results of this research project, particularly the unpublished dissertations by contributors Imrie and Heighton and Sabine Wieber’s forthcoming article on nervous women in sanatorium sculpture.

Gemma Blackshaw and Leslie Topp, Madness and modernity : mental illness and the visual arts in Vienna 1900 (Surrey England: Lund Humphries, 2009).  ISBN: 9781848220201.

Lauren Stokes

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