Nervous women throwing plates at you, weeping all over you, in their kitchen apron they make irrational requests and irritate manhood by emotionality throwing themselves to the far-away ground towards death just by asking for a sandwich. The term makes for ridiculous assumptions and conjures up old time stereotypes and new time soap opera women, but of course I would not be writing this if this were an art exhibition that does not mean to shatter those images.
But first, founded in 1857 as a psychiatric hospital, originally held the poetic name of ‘hospice pour homes aliénés’ ultimately evolved to the museum we know today as Dr. Guislain Museum in 1986 in Belgium, Ghent. A place we have come to cherish as an original and enlightening place. This museum means to shows their visitor a history of psychiatry and let’s us question the ever changing and ambiguous definition of mental illnesses and the medicine evolving around it, and of course, our past and current selves.
Art has a long history of being intertwined with psychiatry as a therapeutic medicine for recovery of mental illnesses. So naturally, Museum Guislain has evolved into a museum rich of outsider art, an art form often made by psychiatric patients. This base makes for an interesting home of an exhibition named Nervous Women.
The show approaches the questionable relation between psychiatry and women; why is it that so many more women are and have been diagnosed with mental illnesses compared to men?
The Nervous Women exhibit is built around seven chosen couples of a woman and her psychiatrist, or a psychiatrist and his woman? These cases are placed alongside work by artists with a mental illness and by portraits influenced by cultural stereotypes of mental illnesses throughout two centuries; psychiatrists following in the traditional image of female hysteria with the classic white vest and women with bound up arms or rebelling to anti-psychiatric treatments like LSD. In this way Museum Guislain builds an interesting portrait of the opaque and complex history of psychiatry and how utterly linked it is with womanhood and its societal limitations.
An intriguing array of art is shown first by English Victorian portraiture of wild or eerily still and forlorn women photographed by none other than men and men and men. Fascinating faux scientific photography of Henry Hering shows us the charlatan nature of early psychiatry its staged theatrical patients quite literally acting out hysteria for a supposed documentation purpose. Sketches of crazed women with out-of-this-world expressions scarring their faces look at the viewer and laugh. Until stories of progressive women ahead of their restrictive time contradicts this male-centered view. Suddenly freaks and weirdo’s and total creeps, or rather people who have been cast aside and for whom there’s not a place in our narrow world, find their homes in Diane Arbus’ photography and tell us their stories of making their own home rather than being forcibly placed in a men’s world. Later a more contemporary and thoughtful vision of Tracey Emin’s truisms and Cindy Sherman’s exploration of female gender expression and its simultaneous honesty and falseness makes us confused like many women must surely have felt and are still feeling. This story ends in tales of the patients themselves, finally, like voluntary psychiatric patient Yayoi Kusuma and her polka-dotted language of a singular world in organic and colourful sculptures and Unica Zürn who draws confusing portraits of portraits in portraits and then some.
As usual Museum Guislain throws us weary visitors a myriad of valid questions by showing us the many and vast different viewpoints of mental illness through time. It starts with the obvious and often-dubious question (dubious, as it is often asked to devalue mental illnesses) is mental illness not merely a sign of the times? Is it influenced by how much, how far or how little society restricts us?
Is the development of mental illnesses influenced by cultural ideology? If mental illnesses are shaped and constructed by society does that mean that society pressures us to develop neuroses or does it mean that we develop neuroses because society pressures us or are mental illnesses free from influence and does our societal viewpoint restrict our viewpoint so it selects only certain behaviours? Is our culture too shortsighted and limited for a range of people who ultimately get driven into madness? What is mental illness and how is it influenced by our culture?
In short, cultural, social and ideological viewpoints of our time define what madness is, how we see madness, but this madness might not be objective at all, quite possibly it is extremely subjective. Following this is the most intriguing question; does any of this make mental illnesses any less valid, any less real for the person living with it?
The exhibition and its questions remains open-ended but by the many stories of suicide and the little stories of repair visitors will answer this honestly and hopefully without skeptical glances towards psychiatry and its patients.