Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Patients as Painters in a Portuguese Panopticon

On a recent trip to Lisbon, I was able to visit a remarkable museum, dedicated to the art of the mentally ill. Largely unknown, even to locals, the museum is located in a mental hospital that closed in 2010.  A choice sampling of works from a 3,500-piece collection can be seen there, spanning a century of creative production.  There is also a collection of medical equipment, used by some of Portugal's most distinguished psychiatrists.  The art is displayed in a remarkable building--a 19th century "panopticon"--inspired by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and brought into infamy by Michel Foucault.  Called the Pavilhão de Segurança (“Security Pavilion”), this is surely one of the most interesting museums I have ever visited, and it is an essential destination for any enthusiast of outsider art.

Finding the Pavilhão de Segurança was no easy chore.   I went to visit with Rachel, who took some of the pictures below.  It took us 45 minutes to find.  The address is difficult to find.  Google Maps misallocates it in the middle of Rua Dr. Almeida Amaral, when it is really at the top of that street, and unmarked.   It is nestled behind a large institutional building, which is closed off by a gate with no sign of activity within.  Many people in the neighborhood have no idea that there is a museum there; a security guard at a hospital one block away had never heard of it.  We finally asked a woman in a tiny cafe, who told us the museum was indeed behind that gate.  We returned and tried fruitlessly to enter.  After some time, we caught a glimpse of some people inside--a group of Portuguese tourists--and called out to them to no avail.  Eventually, they emerged along with a security guard who had taken them on a tour.  He normally lets people into the gate, but was inside with this group upon our arrival.  He informed us (in Portuguese, which we do not speak) that that it was now too late for a visit, and we'd have to return in two days.  The museum can only be visited from 2pm-6pm on Saturdays and Mondays.  Unfortunately, we were booked on a Monday morning flight.  After some negotiation, the guard very kindly agreed to let us in if we returned on Sunday.  I will always be grateful to him for that.

The institutional building that lies in front of the museum belongs to the recently abandoned Hospital Miguel Bombarda.  It was originally called the Rilhafoles Hospital, and when it opened in 1848, it was only the third major hospital in Portugal, and the first psychiatric hospital.  Built on the site of an 18th century convent, the hospital encompasses a number of impressive buildings, which handsome tilework and arched entranceways, perched atop a steep street, north of the city's center.  The hospital was renamed in 1911, after its distinguished director, Miguel Bombarda was shot to death by one of his patients.  The incident occurred on the same day that a revolution broke out, which would soon depose the monarchy.  Bombara had been actively involved in the revolutionary cause.

Bombarda became director in 1892.  In that same year, he contracted an architect to design a structure to house the hospitals met dangerous and recalcitrant patients.   It was intended to be a kind of psychiatric prison within the hospital, but Bombarda wanted to create a setting that was humane.  He and his architect, José Maria Nepomuceno, decided to follow ideas that had been put forward by Jeremy Bentham a century before; they decided to build a pantopticon.  It was completed in 1894.

In 1786, Bentham (see his mummified remains, left) travelled with his brother Samuel to present-day Belarus in order to look after some business interests.  On that trip, Samuel came up with the idea of building a circular workplace with a viewing post in the center that could be used to easily monitor all employees, to make sure no one was slouching on the job.  Jeremy then adapted this idea to a new context: the penitentiary.  The later 18th century witnessed a transition from penal systems that emphasized corporal punishment and torture, to a new "enlightened" approach, which emphasized deterrence and reform.  The goal was to make convicts into productive citizens in the new industrial economy, rather than making them suffer.  Bentham devised a prison based surveillance rather than chains.  Cells would be arranged in a  great circle around a central guardhouse.  The guards would be hidden from view, so prisoners would never know if they were being watched.  This, Bentham thought, would encourage good behavior, without physical constraints or a large staff of guards.  He petitioned the British Parliament to creates such prisons and to hire him as their director.  He made some progress towards this goal, securing some parliamentary support, but ultimately failed to get the new design implemented, which was one of the great disappointments of his career. 

Bentham regarded the panopticon as an ideal structure for any institution that might benefit from monitoring multiple individuals at once.  In addition to prisons, he advocated their use for houses of industry, work-houses, factories, poor houses, schools, hospitals, Lazarretos (which were used to quarantine the sick), and mad-houses.  Though no structure was ever built in accordance with his designs, buildings inspired by the panopticon began to appear in the 19th century.   Michel Foucault argued in his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish, that the panopticon ushered in a new approach to behavioral control, reflecting the transition to Enlightenment ideology and the emergence of the human sciences.  We have replaced fetters with hidden observers, creating a form of obedience that is based on information rather than force.  

With the advent of closed circuit televisions, surveillance can now be achieved without the architectural tricks envisioned by Bentham, but the idea is more or less the same.  In institutional settings and on city streets, we are regularly watched by watchers we can't watch.  Invisible eyes are everywhere.  Foucault sees the transition from violent forms of punishment to discipline by surveillance, as a lateral move.  What some regard as a more humane approach is, according to Foucault, just another way to implement coercive power. 

Though overtly concerned with human welfare, Bentham was expressly interested in productivity within prisons.  He wanted to convert inmates into laborers who could contribute to the industrial economy.  In a long article on "pauper management," he also outlined a plan for a workhouse with a panopticon design, in which whole families could contribute to labor together, including the children raised there.  He believed that the poor need discipline, which could be achieved through "inspectability" (see quote on the left.  Below is a figure showing beds for married couples interspersed with cribs for infants.  Bentham believed that children could begin working at an early age (as early as 3 or 4, and no latter than 14), and he devised elaborate tables for determining their wages based on their prospective productivity.  The idea of families living inside a workhouse toiling away under constant surveillance may sound perverse, but the underlying ethos in evident in contemporary society.  We live heavily monitored lives and work incessantly.  Those who try to bypass the wage economy often end up in prison, where labor and surveillance continue.  Bentham's dreams have come true.

The Pavilhão de Segurança was based on the Bentham brother's panopticon.  The physical organization closely resembles the example above  as the floorplan and aerial photo confirm (below).  But there were also important differences.


Bombarda's panopticon was not constructed as a forced labor camp.  Instead, it is an intimate space with 26 cells surrounding an open courtyard--the only panopticon of its kind.  As the 1898 picture at the top of the slide shows, there was originally a surveillance tower in the center, but it was eventually removed and replaced by trees, as shown in the present-day picture below.  The small scale and integration of nature are presumably designed to promote docility.

There is also another stylistic innovation: the architect eliminated sharp edges on which patients might be harmed.  Notice the smooth contours on the built-in benches in this common room:

The absence of sharp edges is a reminder that life was not easy in Bombarda's hospital.
Violence and suicide were constant worries.  The patients' doors were bolted closed, and rooms were spartan. 

So the Pavilhão de Segurança was no summer camp.  But Bombarda was a humanist, and he tried to create an environment in which patients could retain a degree of dignity not often associated with fin de siecle psychiatric wards. Central to his vision was the idea that patients should be allowed to express themselves through art.  He encouraged the residents of his hospital to paint, and he began to display their work as early as 1898.  In 1900, a medical student named Julio Dantas wrote a thesis, published as a book, based on this emerging collection.  Dantas dedicated the book to Bombarda, and, in it, he describes common features of psychiatric art, including anarchism, symbolism, symmetry, chromophilia, incoherence, and egocentricism.   Two plates from the book, attributed to paranoia patients, appear below.  Dantas went on to become a playwright and poet.

Bombarda's faith in the artistic merit of works produced by his patients left a lasting legacy.  During his lifetime and over the next 100 years, thousands of works were created in the hospital that bears his name.   The present-day museum is a direct product of Bombarda's early efforts, though most of the work was amassed after his death.  Here I share a small sampling.  The first example is called "Two men hunting, women, many ducks, hearts, circles, and sayings."   It was created by a patient named Adelino Pesso sometime between 1929 and 1933.

Next we have two by Joachim dos Santos from the same period (c. 1933).  One shows two figures with pronounced nipples and square bodies; curiously only one has visible genitalia, though both appear to be male.  The other picture shows a naked male with  wild eyes and marked skin who has three smaller figures emerging over his outstretched arms.

The following image is by Joao Sardihna, created between 1938 and 1942.  It shows horses in various orientations, as well as potted plants arranged in an arched grid. 

The collection also includes several pieces by the celebrated schizophrenic artist, Jaime Fernandes, whose works can be found in important collections, such as the Art Brut museum in Lausanne.  A photo of Fernandes is reproduced here next to one of his paintings.

There were also a couple of reproductions of Fernandes' works on display.  The most striking was a rider on a horse.  By happy coincidence I was able to see the original in Paris a few days ago at an exhibit of outsider art at the Maison Rouge -- perhaps the best such exhibit I have ever seen.  It belongs to the ABCD collection of filmmaker, Bruno Decharme. 

The work in the Pavilhão de Segurança is mostly by male artists, which may reflect the demography of the hospital.  One outstanding exception is a series of colorful self-portraits by Joaquina Santos, executed in 1929.  Here are some examples (better reproductions of two can be found under the name Joaquina Soares, here):

Another standout is an artist called Helio (I'm not sure the gender), who created bold canvases in highly saturated colors during the 1960s.  Here is an example showing what appears to be a female figure with a visible brain:

Another appealing painting from the 1960s (right) shows two yellow spheres.  In one a group of girls are standing; in another a monochrome boy stares into space--perhaps representing thoughts of unattainability or longing.

I was also taken with a bold painting by an anonymous artist showing a female figure with a red face and exposed breasts, surrounded by colored geometrical forms that are difficult to identify.

An equally vivid painting, with a disturbing theme, by Helder do Carmo Tobia, shows two dogs fighting.  It was executed in 2005, shortly before the hospital closed.

Dogs also appear in the 1970s drawing below, by an unidentified artist.  Here the animals are accompanied by naked women in suggestive situations.   There is also a papal figure on a lion with a serpent and a bound nude in the lower right.  In the center is a structure, which evokes the cloister of a convent, but could equally allude to the hospital.

The collection also contains some examples of pure abstraction.  The two drawings on the right below we executed by Ilda da Conceicao in 1934.  The painting on the left was created in 1964 by Joaqim Demétrio. 

On the realist end of the spectrum, there is an impressive 1973 canvas by Valentim de Barros, showing two young girls on a wide street with fancifully colored trees.  I included a detail and a photo of Barros, who was a dancer, a cross dresser, and a fascinating person.

The collection is not limited to drawings and paintings.  There also three dimensional works, like the venus figure and soda-can monolith below, both of which, I believe, are anonymous.

There is also some fine work by a celebrated poet Angelo de Lima.  Lima was schizophrenic, and he spent his final 20 years at the Bombarda hospital after an arrest for shouting obscenities in public.  For his first decade there, he was under Bombarda's care.  The collection includes two fine drawings executed in 1919, which demonstrates that Lima's skills were not limited to the verbal modality.  

Below is an example of Lima's verse, inscribed above a Rorschach-like color abstraction.  I offer a feeble translation as well.  This poem expresses Lima's depression while interned at the hospital.  In other poems, he makes regular use of symbolism, neologisms, and obscure imagery, informed by his illness.  He was admired by the surrealists and still read today. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find work in translation.

street of sadness
hope it doesn't rain
street of sadness
there are no tears
off the street
street of sadness
mother leaves the children
in the rain
the child
already a man
on the street

Bombarda encouraged Lima's artistic and poetic efforts.  He also encouraged other kinds of expression, such as installation art and performance.  These art forms have become popular in recent decades, but they have a parallel history behind institutional walls.  Here is a photo taken at the hospital showing a performance/installation by José Gomes in 1913.

When learning about the artists at Bombarda's hospital, one gets the impression that life for these patients was centered around their creative activities.  The reality was, no doubt, very different.  These patients suffered from various forms of mental illness and were confined against their will to a crowded institution that operated using the inadequate tools that were available for treating mental disordered at the time.  It is noteworthy that one of Bombarda's successors was Egas Moniz, the lobotomy pioneer.  Brain surgery, strong drugs, and electroconvulsive therapy were all in use at the hospital, and daily life was probably a struggle for most of the patients.  The museum at the Pavilhão de Segurança makes an effort to remind visitors of this fact by including various medical relics in their collection.  I will end with a few examples.


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