Mark Drinkwater visits an exhibition painting a different picture of mental health
Frames of Mind: Creativity in Mental Healthcare
Museum of Croydon, London Borough of Croydon
Star rating: 5/5
This exhibition stands out from the typical displays of service user art, writes Mark Drinkwater. Frames of Mind is a unique collection of artwork that highlights the rehabilitative role of art in mental healthcare from the early 19th century to the present day.
Most of the works on show usually reside at the two arts facilities at the Bethlem psychiatric hospital in Beckenham, Kent. For over 40 years, historians and arts co-ordinators at the asylum, the original ‘Bedlam’, have systematically collected art by patients. This exhibition at the Museum of Croydon features over 50 of these fascinating artworks.
I particularly liked the lack of delineation between paintings by historically renowned artists and the more recent untrained artists. For instance, Richard Dadd’s 1853 painting Portrait of a Young Man, on loan from the Tate Britain collection, is shown alongside the ‘pop art’ depictions of hospital life by contemporary artists such as David Beales.
Other artists communicate mental distress through their work. Marion Patrick’s painting The Cross is a beautiful, but haunting, image of lost looking children. There are also works from patients where art has contributed to their recovery. The most notable example is the work of Elise Warriner, now an established artist, whose repressed rage is vividly expressed in her taut canvas The Anger Within.
Of course, there is a danger with a collection that lumps together artists who have experienced mental health problems. It risks perpetuating myths that all artists are ‘mad’ or that people with mental illness are just misunderstood artists. Or worse still, perhaps some see the compilation as fetishistic. But rather than appear voyeuristic, this exhibition always feels thoughtful as art is seen as a road to recovery.
And if there’s any doubt about the role of art in mental healthcare, those unconvinced need only look to the words of Lee Galpin written in large lettering above his drawings: “Drugs raise your mood art raises your spirit.”
Mark Drinkwater is a community worker in Southwark, south London
Frames of Mind runs until 31 January 2009.