Monday, 30 November -0001

Bedlam: the Asylum & Beyond

The infamous asylum, Bedlam, which allowed the public to view its inmates, finds itself under the spotlight

Written by Robin Dutt

I have been in an asylum. But I must clarify this. That particular monument of madness was long bereft of its sad denizens and at that time, each cell (for cells they were) had been converted into studios for artists and jewellers. But what still hung in the air was the tangible feeling of desperation and sorrow emphasised by the 1950s blue-green paint splinter- lingering. There were also broken skeletons of hospital equipment with hoses and dials. It would make the dead shudder. One supposes that this one-time asylum now boasts luxury flats.

This memory flared when visiting the Wellcome Collection’s insightful show about the nature of insanity. But what is sanity? And who makes the clarification? Are the insaneRobin-Dutt-2015 those who show no remorse after committing murder? Those who feel the presence of multiple characters in their heads? The sad, the lost, the suicidal? The list is endless. Control plays its part – religion, too. It is indeed, a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

The word asylum can be traced to the ancient world where it referred to a quiet space – often a religious or spiritual retreat. In the past, many grand houses had an asylum within and a folly without – both places of contemplation, perhaps? On display at the exhibition are historical material, personal observations, medical records and works of art. For all this the presentation is not sterile and the visitor is hardly a voyeur. Bedlam – that still familiar name that continues to be redolent of perceptions of lunacy in the 21st century – was originally Bethlehem or Bethlem. Located in London, it was an establishment for those whose minds had deserted them. An engraving of the building shows an almost Palladian exterior – a palace of sorts. Also on display is the work of artists who had mental-health issues, including David Beales, Vaslav Nijinsky, Dora García and the ‘fairytale fantasist’ Richard Dadd.

The whole show might put one in mind of the book The Three Faces of Eve or the poignant The Snake Pit – a story of the inhuman treatment of mental patients, which, justifiably, asks us to question the effects of institutions on their inmates. Inmates – that word is not used lightly.

If one gives it a thought, are we not all, or could be, a little insane? This exhibition raises questions that many would not like answered. It is remote and personal at the same time. There but for the grace of God...

Until 15 January 2017 at Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London NW1: 020-7611 2222, 

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