Doing Away with "The Art of the Insane"

February 19, 2018

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois is a psychiatrist in charge of the Art Therapy unit at the Parisian institution, Hôpital Sainte-Anne. She is also scientific director of the hospital’s museum for asylum creation. When psychiatry meets art history...

Workshops are multiplying, patient demand is rising... From the treatment of anxiety to schizophrenia, art therapy has met with growing enthusiasm in mental healthcare institutions for the last thirty years or so. Used for psychiatric purposes, art-therapy techniques may well also change the way we see otherness, and transform our fears about insanity...

To find out more about this art whose contours are still hazy, we went to meet the psychiatrist Dr Anne-Marie Dubois, in charge of the Art Therapy unit at the Encephalon Mental Illness Clinic. At the heart of the Parisian hospital Hôpital Sainte-Anne, this doctor is also scientific director of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, whose creation dates back to the end of the 19th century. She has curated numerous exhibitions, including Les Unes et les Autres, Psilocybine, or Elle était une fois devoted to the Collection Sainte-Anne (until 28 February, 2018).

From therapeutic issues to aesthetic commitment, Anne-Marie Dubois presents this “psychopathological art”: a singular practice crossing over mental health and art history. An interview.

AMA: The exhibition “Elle était une fois” goes over the history of the Hôpital Sainte-Anne’s collection. What are the milestones of this history?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: The oldest works date back to 1858. Already in the 19th century, a certain number of psychiatrists and artists paid interest to these spontaneous works produced by hospital patients. Some of these patients discovered, by chance, that they enjoyed this activity while others already practiced art before being hospitalized. At a time when hospitalization periods were long, this art could be described as “asylum” art – which is no longer the case today.

Later, psychiatrists like Marcel Réja, for example, or Dr Auguste Marie, focused their attention on these productions... and collected them. We can also mention Cesare Lombroso, in Italy, who gathered works from hospitals. Sometimes, doctors encouraged their patients, but at that time, the works were in no way produced in workshops: creation was not organized as a therapeutic activity. Some psychiatrists also collected these works at the start of the 20th century.

Between 1920 and 1945, Sainte-Anne was an important cultural spot where leading psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and writers would meet up. André Breton knew Gaston Ferdière [editorial note: the psychiatrist of writer and actor Antonin Artaud]. With this cultural input, Sainte-Anne, at that time, was a genuine artistic site. It was in this context, following a first exhibition on spontaneous works in 1946, that psychiatrists of the time took part in a simultaneous double event: the first World Congress of Psychiatry, in 1950, and the International Exhibition of Psychopathological Art which gathered productions from the sixteen countries participating in the congress, with works from England, the United States, Brazil, Serbia, India...

AMA: What was foundational about the 1950 exhibition?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: At the end of this exhibition, certain works were given to the hospital, and today make up the basic corpus of the Sainte-Anne collection. In this respect, it is foundational. It marks the true birth of the collection as a defined corpus that would be protected and promoted. It was from that time onwards that many international donations were made.

AMA: Were the works chosen for display by psychiatrist Robert Volmat, and those presented by Jean Dubuffet one year earlier in 1949 at the Galerie Drouin in Paris very different?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: [The years] 1949 and 1950 correspond to a very specific period because in 1949, Jean Dubuffet showed his collection to the general public, and in 1950 Volmat also showed works. The exhibition currently underway at Sainte-Anne aims to create a dialogue - or not - between Dubuffet’s gaze and that of psychiatrists with respect to the same works, from the one place.

We’ve incidentally identified four artists present in both of the exhibitions: Albino Braz, Aloïse Corbaz, Gaston Duf and Adolf Wölfli. But while the corpus is identical, the gaze is different. And it is this divergence that we investigate.

AMA: What were the links between Dubuffet and Volmat at the time?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: For the 1950 hanging, Volmat called on the help of Dubuffet, who refused as he wished for exclusivity and did not want to be assimilated with the “art of the insane”, preferring not to be associated with the universe of psychiatry - even if we see the same artists. In a letter to Robert Volmat, Dubuffet stated his positions on illness - positions that weren’t clear and that would change over time.

AMA: Today, the contemporary collection no longer focuses on the psychopathological aspect of the works, but on phemenological or aesthetic elements. Does this mean that works are no longer considered clinical objects?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: The Collection Sainte-Anne stems from two different collections: the museum collection with 1,650 so-called “historic” works or works that are inscribed in the history of art as some of the artists contributed to the renown of Art Brut; and a scientific collection gathering 60,000 works produced in therapeutic workshops that were not intended for exhibition.

While these works might have been clinical objects up to the 1980s, this is no longer the case. It was also absurd to think that symptoms could be translated in a work.

So many examples attest to the contrary... Take Guillaume Pujolle - Sainte-Anne conserves seven works by him - who suffered from a serious psychiatric illness. His creations were not necessarily affected by his disorders. The objective that we set ourselves is to really separate the illness from the work.

AMA: What does this collection reveal on how we see insanity, otherness or psychic disorders? What do they also say about our fears?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: This collection is shown to de-stigmatize mental illness as well as artistic categories. There is not one single type of work that corresponds to a given affliction: style is not a reflection of an unconscious or a psychic disorder.

Several times, we’ve associated works by contemporary artists with pieces from the collection, without signposting “sick people” over here, “not sick” over there. This is the idea that we wish to develop, the aim being to not know, in order to restore a gaze where emotion dominates rather than curiosity.

AMA: This is quite a “poignant” corpus, highly emotionally charged. Does this complicate the hanging of these 120 works?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: The hanging was designed with sensitivity, I believe, with respect for the works, and also with respect for the persons. We wanted to give the works their place as works, not as mere testimonies.

Because a person can be sick and not at all an artist... and the opposite is also true.

AMA: Is the French term "l’art des fous" no longer a viable category? Is the distinction between asylum art and art full stop one that should not exist?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: The term "l’art des fous" is limited to the first part of the 20th century. The expression gained renown through André Breton, with his text written in 1948, "L’Art des fous, la clé des champs", which praised this type of production.

I’d say that between "l’art des fous"  and Art Brut, there is the Collection Sainte-Anne. In other words, we’re beyond definition, these categories that don’t stand up when we look at art history. The only works that can be called "bruts" are the ones that Dubuffet qualified as such. Chronology clearly shows the similarities between asylum production from the first half of the 20th century for example, and works being produced outside hospital walls. Walls don’t stop culture or artistic movements from circulating.

AMA: In March 2016, the Collection Sainte-Anne was labelled a “Musée de France” (Museum of France). In concrete terms, what does this mean?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: First of all, we needed to meet a certain number of obligations in terms of inventory, conservation, scientific and cultural projects… This enormous work being completed, the label now offers us protection. Let’s remember the fragility of this type of hospital collection, subject to the hazards of time, to the loss of works, sometimes treated disrespectfully.

Managed by an association (the Centre d’Étude de l’Expression), this collection risked facing an uncertain future if certain protagonists left the project. So the label brings us something essential: the inalienability of these works which had been so poorly handled since the start of the 20th century.

In addition, the “Musée de France” label facilitates exchanges and loans, encourages projects with places such as the LaM in Villeneuve d’Ascq or the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne.

AMA: And to conclude, don’t exhibition curators have an element of madness, a slight obsessional neurosis for example?

Dr Anne-Marie Dubois: Ah, perhaps things would be better if I were more obsessional with my personal archives, but too bad... An element of madness?

I’ve always been interested in the most diverse artistic practices, independently of my psychiatry studies. This occupies my life, it’s a guiding thread. The creative process and the thinking process have always intrigued me. I engaged in this type of research even before working in this unit, and perhaps that’s why I’m here! I think that what motivates me, even before aesthetic emotion or the love of works, is the humanist message that can be read behind all this: contributing to the de-stigmatization of illness and works. This is what drives me...

A therapy for every art form

The Hôpital Sainte-Anne in Paris - from 1954 onwards - was one of the first hospital units to offer art therapy, firstly focusing on the visual arts.

While historically, drawing, painting and modeling were the most common treatment tools, since the 1990s, new types of workshops have emerged. Physical activities like dance therapy, musical initiatives with music therapy, drama propositions with drama therapy, or writing workshops for producing literature or poetry...

Today at Sainte-Anne, some thirty different workshops are held on a daily basis. Let’s bear in mind that this psychotherapy unit is the largest operating one, with the highest staff numbers, in France. Not only are patients treated there, but practitioners are also trained, namely through the University Diploma in Artistic Mediation Therapy, delivered by the Université Paris-Descartes.

Elle était une fois, la Collection Sainte-Anne. Acte II. Until 28 February 2018.
MAHHSA, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de l’Hôpital Sainte-Anne, Paris.

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Featured image: H.A.R. - Untitled, ca 1905. Charcoal on paper, 31.5 x 48.00 cm. Image via Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de l'Hôpital Ste-Anne - Mahhsa.