Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond review – missed opportunity to truly explore mental health

Wellcome Collection, London
This jumbled exhibition tracking changing attitudes to mental illness could have been a powerful study of Bedlam and psychiatry. Instead it fails to make sense of the real place and the myth

Sir Alexander Morison stands tall and sombre with his top hat in his left hand and a white handkerchief in his right. His eyes are grey and slightly sunken, his lips thin, his face long and gaunt. He seems marked by the sadness of his profession. For Morison was an “alienist”, a 19th-century doctor of mental illness, at London’s infamous asylum Bethlem Hospital, popularly known as Bedlam, whose history and cultural significance are explored by the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond.

The man who painted this portrait of Morison there in 1852 was one of his most pitiable patients. Richard Dadd had been marked out for a brilliant career but this gifted young painter became confused on the way back from a trip to the Middle East in 1842, thinking he was receiving messages from the ancient Egyptian gods and had uncovered a plot by the pope to have him killed. In 1843, he met his father on a country lane in Kent and stabbed him to death because he thought he was the devil. Dadd spent the rest of his life in Bedlam and at Broadmoor. In both institutions, his doctors provided him with materials and space to paint – contradicting modern caricatures of the Victorian asylum as a brutal “madhouse”.

Dadd’s portrait of his doctor is an eerie masterpiece whose take on reality is captivatingly askew. His eye for detail is exact, even miraculous – but is it a little too exact for comfort? The shape of Morison’s shiny black hat, held upside down to reveal the yellow lining inside, engrosses him. So do the figures of two tiny women in the background who are totally out of proportion to the tall, thin doctor. Dadd is fascinated by Morison. He sees him as a heroic, lonely pillar of compassion. Yet with his wild white hair the alienist looks like he could just as easily be an inmate as a doctor.

The 1890 etching L’Homme à la Pipe by Van Gogh depicts the doctor who treated the artist after leaving Saint-Rémy asylum.
The 1890 etching L’Homme à la Pipe by Van Gogh depicts the doctor who treated the artist after leaving Saint-Rémy asylum. Photograph: Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum

More than 150 years later, Bethlem Royal Hospital still exists, although it has changed its location, architecture and attitude to mental illness. Today it is home to an artist called Mr X who makes amazing trucks and vans out of cardboard. In a video, he tours Bromley in his homemade vehicles, driving into a filling station and on the main road. No one bats an eyelid. Most significantly he drives in and out of the hospital gates, for Mr X is not a prisoner.

The Wellcome’s exhibition tells a story of changing attitudes to mental illness from the middle ages to now, using Bedlam hospital as both an example and a metaphor of the rise and fall of the asylum. Why were “lunatics” locked away from the 17th century onwards, when they had not been before, and why have asylums been abolished since the 1960s?

I think that’s a fair summing up of the exhibition’s intentions. I hope it is. This is a serious, absorbing subject, and the curators bring together a rich variety of documents, photographs, books, films and art. Yet Bedlam is a confused and complacent exhibition that touches on huge issues but fails to follow through – often adopting a semi-ironic pose.

The revolution in thinking about mental illness in the 1960s, for instance, is encapsulated by some controversial books in a transparent case. What exactly is anyone going to learn about the history of psychiatry by looking at the cover of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation? Either you’ve read it, in which case looking at it in a vitrine is a bit irrelevant, or you haven’t, and you need to know what it actually argues – not to mention the debates it provokes.

Even sillier is an exhibit consisting of a drug company’s brochure illustrated with paintings by Salvador Dalí. It’s too flip as a way of dealing with anything, let alone the lives of millions of people afflicted by mental illness and its treatments. Worse, these superficial hints at vast cultural changes and misrepresent the history of psychiatry. Radicals including Foucault and RD Laing are equated with the evolution of pharmaceuticals (there’s a jar of Largactil on display) when they represent diametrically opposed attitudes.

Epitaph of My Poor Jack, Squirrel II, 1834, by Bedlam resident James Hadfield.
Epitaph of My Poor Jack, Squirrel II, 1834, by Bedlam resident James Hadfield. Photograph: Jonathan Stokes/Bethlem Museum of the Mind

It’s much more poignant to see that it was health minister Enoch Powell who announced a much more sceptical approach to asylums in Britain in the early 1960s and so helped spearhead new attitudes to mental illness. I doubt if old Enoch was a big reader of Foucault’s theories. So what was his thinking? The exhibition does not tell us.

The history of asylums is a vast theme, of course, but this exhibition fails to make sense of it. Bedlam is both a real place and a modern myth. The Wellcome could have created a powerful exhibition by concentrating on this dark shadow on the story of London. If it stuck to its title and shone a light into Bedlam, it would be much more moving. Instead, it throws in loads of other stuff – including plenty of second-rate contemporary art – and ends up being vague, diffuse and empty.

The show is at its most compelling when it reveals the sad, strange world of London’s historic asylum. A view drawn by JT Smith in 1812 shows the wall of Bedlam seen from the street. Barred windows induce a shudder. Sheets hang out of them – relics of escape attempts? The strangest detail is a man bent double on the street outside. Is he mad or sane? This haunting print suggests that London’s streets are as eccentric and idiosyncratic as the closed wards of Bedlam itself.

This suspicion that “madness” does not respect the walls of Bedlam has long haunted art and literature. In texts of Restoration plays exhibited here, there are jokes about London being one big Bedlam. In William Hogarth’s picture The Rake in Bedlam – shown here only as a print – inmates of a dank chamber exhibit various symptoms of insanity, from a man dressed as the pope to the half-naked, shaven-headed Rake who stares fixedly at the floor, fallen into a “melancholy” madness of paralysing despair. (The paintings of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress are in Sir John Soane’s Museum.) Hogarth depicts two well-dressed ladies who have come to gawp at the lunatics: they seem the most foolish of all. A society that laughs at the mad is itself mad. Hogarth was a social reformer, and he is pointing out one of the grotesque abuses – letting in paying voyeurs – that made Bedlam notorious.

Madlove – Designer Asylum, 2016, by Benjamin Koslowski and James Christian.
Benjamin Koslowski and James Christian’s asylum design for the Madlove – Designer Asylum project. Photograph: Thomas SG Farnetti/Wellcome Images/Courtesy the Vacuum Cleaner and Hannah Hull

In the book Madness and Civilisation, which the Wellcome invites us to judge by its cover, Foucault imagines a medieval world where madness was celebrated and included in the community, until the asylum locked unreason away. Yet mental illness is real. Richard Dadd really killed his father. Another artwork here is a sweet drawing of a pet squirrel by James Hadfield, who was sent to Bedlam after trying to assassinate George III at the Drury Lane theatre. Hadfield was the first person found not guilty by reason of insanity in a British court – a remarkable advance in liberalism. It was lucky for him, because regicides could be hung, drawn and quartered. In Bedlam, the squirrel kept him company, and he mourns it in his 1834 drawing.

It’s not easy living in the supposedly sane world. Is the vanishing of the asylum a true liberation? In the exhibition’s final, utopian exhibit, a group of people with troubled mental health have designed the ideal asylum. Everyone sleeps in a private treehouse. There’s a collective bakery and a forest for daydreaming in. It is a place of refuge yet also of perfect freedom. If Donald Trump is banned from its TV screens, I’ll check in.

Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond is at Wellcome Collection, London, until 17 January 2017.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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