Visual arts: You don't have to be mad to work here... but it helps

The Bethlehem Royal Hospital not only gave the world a new word for lunatic asylum, it even advertised its wares with a pair of matching stone madmen outside. Not exactly PC. But then, says Tom Lubbock, earlier centuries were under fewer delusions about the human condition than we are today.

Critics are sometimes guilty of reviewing not the show they've seen, but the show they'd like to have seen. This week I'm tending that way myself and I can be very specific. The show I'd like to have seen and to be reviewing now is called "Art and Madness", a comprehensive survey of this rich and complex subject from the Renaissance to the present. But the sad thing is that this show isn't likely to happen in the near- future - for the simple reason that it just has happened. "Kunst und Wahn" opened in Vienna in September and closed in December and to judge from the catalogue it was everything that could be desired. But I missed it completely. I heard about it a few days ago. I can only apologise.

So I and you must make do with two small exhibitions in London, marking the 750th anniversary of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, the ancient madhouse which gave the world the word "Bedlam". It first stood in the middle of the City, moved to Moorfields after the Great Fire, then to Southwark at the start of the 19th century (to what is now the home of the Imperial War Museum) and, since 1948, has been incorporated into the Maudesley Hospital in Beckenham, Kent. Both shows are drawn from the hospital's archive. At the Museum of London there's a historical display called "Bedlam: Custody, Care and Cure 1247-1997"; and at the Science Museum there's "Surprising Regions of the Mind", an exhibition of art made by the hospital's inmates, most of it just shown also in "Kunst und Wahn".

Well, both shows are interesting enough, though I think that the Museum of London one is too much of an example of the common fallacy that all knowledge can be made into an exhibition - you know the sort of thing, a few objects and many documents in glass cases, plenty of captions and you end up with the frisson of looking at the actual manacles and an informational content that could in fact be contained in a short leaflet. The show at the Science Museum is more worth visiting, to see some works by Richard Dadd (Bedlam's most celebrated artist-patient) and an extremely curious picture by William Kurelek (from 1953) - and, in general, for the always beguiling chance to ponder whether signs of madness can really be detected in the work of the certified and whether madness makes not-very-good art more interesting.

Or rather, the Science Museum show is very much worth a visit, not for any work by Bedlam's inmates but for the two remarkable stone sculptures that flank the exhibition's entrance. These are the figures of Melancholy Madness and Raving Madness. They were carved by the Danish-born sculptor, Caius Gabriel Cibber, in about 1676 and were originally placed on high pediments either side of the street gates of Bedlam at its Moorfields site. Legendary in their own time, they're quite often reproduced in books about mental illness. I'd never seen them before and had long wanted to. They were the hospital's advertisement to the world and, though they're in a pretty crumbly state now, they teach the modern mind a surprising lesson.

Their titles are not original and not quite accurate. The figures represent the two poles of insanity as it was conceived back then - mental excess and mental deficit. Raving Madness lies on his back, naked, in a pose rather like Michelangelo's Adam. His wrists are manacled and his upper arms bound together round the back with ropes. He raises his torso, shaking his chains. His head rolls, his eyes have a wild look and he bellows in uncomprehending pain. Melancholy Madness is more striking still. In a loin-cloth, he half sprawls on his front, his legs twisting round each other in a spasm, his hands clawing his bedding. His shoulders are hunched around his head and his face falls vacant, the eyes blank and the tongue lolling idiotically out of the mouth.

Perhaps the figures were studied from life or perhaps they're more like theoretical models, medical specimens. But, whatever their relation to nature, these pathetic creatures make high artistic references also - to reclining classical river-gods and to Michelangelo's Medici tombs, to the ideal male nude generally. They are, for all their helpless convulsions, very powerfully muscled anatomies. Cibber's achievement here is to make an extraordinary composite of contraries: of strength and helplessness, nobility and wretchedness. Even their nudity becomes ambiguous. To use Kenneth Clark's famous terms, they are both nude and naked - the classical boast of human perfection combines with the mark of degradation and neglect. Each aspect exacerbates the other, so that you feel what a terrible fall the human ideal has taken and, on the other hand, that even these wretches are still human. Indeed the mixture of genres gives the figures a kind of self-consciousness: writhing in mania or stupor, they seem to know what they have lost.

But, for all that - it's really too obvious to need saying - such figures wouldn't be acceptable ornaments to the entrance of a psychiatric hospital today. They would be found in doubtful taste, to put it mildly. This is not merely because melancholy and raving madness aren't categories used by modern psychiatry. Statues personifying, say, Depression and Schizophrenia would be more tolerable. Nor is the problem simply that making the mad into pitiable spectacles of pathos is nowadays thought an unhelpful attitude - though it is so thought and in a way rightly; the old practice of sight-seeing in mental hospitals seems to us disgusting, even if that doesn't stop people admiring the photographs taken by Diane Arbus. No, what we find especially disturbing about Cibber's work is not the images themselves, but where they were once placed - up front and in full view.

That response isn't so new. The sculptures were not put back by the entrance when Bedlam moved to Southwark. They were kept indoors, behind curtains, only being displayed on rare occasions and even this the hospital surveyor found "in doubtful propriety". So what is the propriety that's offended here? It's a matter of something being boldly stated in public. The statues stand outside the mad-hospital and they declare, for all the world: Here is Madness. What's more, by making lasting monuments to madness, the statues affirm its presence in the world - which, for us, comes uncomfortably close to celebrating it.

This is the problem: the public recognition of affliction as a fact of life. Our attitude to public images is that they should either be celebratory, of some good or (where the subject is negative) solemnly memorial. The idea of public sculptures that represent an evil - and represent it not as something to be mourned retrospectively or something overcome, but as a great living force - isn't on the agenda. (Imagine street statues of Cancer or Child Abuse.) But this is what Cibber's figures, in their original position, actually stressed. Their grandeur and physical power may play against their helplessness, but also work another way, allegorising the power and grandeur of human madness itself - not romanticising it (it's unquestionably shown as a wretched state) and not looking towards cure or recovery, but simply saying: acknowledge this mighty thing, it exists and it is terrible.

Today only crucifixes perform a comparable role, as emblems of pure suffering, but they aren't seen as fully public images, being linked to a non-universal religion and anyway their story doesn't stop with the pain. But with Melancholy and Raving Madness it does. They writhe for ever. They served their contemporaries as a reminder that affliction is a great, permanent and terrifying aspect of human existence. They serve us as a reminder of how fundamentally and insistently optimistic the tone of modern public discourse has become.

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