Exhibition: Brilliant Visions: Mescaline, Art, Psychiatry

Title: Brilliant Visions: Mescaline, Art, Psychiatry

Date: 1 May – 31 August 2019

Opening Hours: 10:00 – 17:00, Wednesday to Friday, and the first and last Saturdays of every month

Cost: Free

Address: Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, Kent BR3 3BX

Transport: Eden Park / East Croydon Train Stations, or 365 / 119 / 198 bus

Website: http://www.motm.org.uk


Brilliant Visions presents drawings and paintings by Surrealist artists who took part in the Guttman- Maclay mescaline experiments of the 1930s. Julian Trevelyan, Basil Beaumont and Herbrand Williams are among the artists featured next to archival materials and additional artworks from the Bethlem Museum’s collection. Co-curated by Mike Jay, author of ‘Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic’, this exhibition provides an insight into the first era of research into psychedelics and mental states.

In the 1930s two psychiatrists at the Maudsley Hospital, Dr Eric Guttman and Dr Walter Maclay, encouraged patients suffering from schizophrenia to make art in an attempt to ‘explain themselves’. However, they also noted that only a minority of patients had the capacity to translate their hallucinations into pictorial form. These findings led the doctors to invite professional artists from the Surrealist movement to take part in experiments involving the drug mescaline, as it was believed to produce an ‘experimental psychosis’.

For the Surrealist artists, it was an opportunity to delve into the irrational, unconscious mind to find creative inspiration. The artistic depictions of the hallucinations – which ranged from ecstatic to terrifying – were understood by the psychiatrists as illustrations of psychopathic states, and used as tools for analysis and classification. Some artists depicted tangible objects such as snakes, clocks and menacing portraits, or simply used their chosen medium to make brightly coloured marks that radiated with energy. Julian Trevelyan was a founding member of the British Surrealists, teaching artists such as David Hockney at the Royal College of Art and mingling with Picasso and Miró. His black pen drawings on mescaline featured geometric, ‘kite-like’ shapes. He wrote later that once the drug took effect, “I could not put a line wrong…Perspectives and recessions dripped off my pencil”. During the 1930s psychiatrists across Europe used mescaline in experiments with other artists, writers, and philosophers. Jean Paul-Sartre and Walter Benjamin both participated in sessions of this kind.

In 1932 the Romanian neurologist Georghe Marinescu conducted similar trials with artists, including the celebrated modernist painter Corneliu Michaelescu. This year marks a century since mescaline was first synthesised in a laboratory in Vienna. In the 1950s it became a public sensation after the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond administered it to Aldous Huxley, who then wrote about it in his bestselling book The Doors of Perception. Osmond and Huxley coined the term ‘psychedelic’ to describe it. During the 1950s it was largely replaced in scientific research by LSD, and by the end of the 1960s both substances had been made illegal.

In recent years research into psychedelics has resumed, providing new insights into the workings of the brain and exploring their therapeutic potential for depression, PTSD and end of life care. Mike Jay says: “Long before the psychedelic era of the 1960s, experiments with mescaline were creating dazzling fusions of science, art and visionary experience. The Guttman-Maclay archives offer fascinating glimpses into previously unexplored regions of the mind.”

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