1997 has been a bumper year for those interested in the artistic leanings of the mentally disturbed. Twelve months ago, the Hayward's "Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis" presented the collection of the psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn and his misguided belief that the pathological creative fires of the clinically insane might throw light upon "all artistic manifestations on this minute terrestrial globe of ours".
Though "Surprising Regions of the Mind" makes no such claims - complementing as it does "Bedlam: Custody, Care and Cure, 1247-1997", the 750th anniversary exhibition of the Bethlem Royal Hospital - inevitably it raises the vexed question of the relationship between mental health and artistic ability. To exhibit former patients who happened to be artists, including Richard Dadd and Louis Wain, eases the viewer into that shadow world of art appreciation. There, mindful of Socrates' and Longinus's classical elevation of madness to divine status and the consequent Romantic prettification of lunacy for contemplation, it is impossible to begin consideration of a work of art that point we normally take as given: the relative sanity of the artist.
That said, the location of these works in the Science Museum and the explicit aim of the main Bedlam exhibition to reveal changing attitudes to mental health over the centuries provides a welcome mitigating context. In contrast to Prinzhorn, we are far better off pondering the efforts of former Bethlem patients as an indication of the terrifying universality of mental ill-health and the degree to which artists were encumbered in their work by their illness.
To 4 May 1998. The Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD. (0171-938 8000).Reuse content