Mad, Bad and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors (exhibition)

Mad, Bad and Sad at the Freud Museum, until 2 February 2014

Freud, drawn by Salvador Dali

Freud, drawn by Salvador Dali

The Freud Museum’s latest exhibition is inspired by Lisa Appignanesi‘s 2008 book of the same name, and focuses (unsurprisingly) on the history of female experience within psychiatric care. The exhibition also includes responsive art works by women including Tracey Emin (who has long been open about her own mental health problems), Sarah Hiller, Sarah Lucas and Jane Fradgley.

There are leading early female psychiatrists included in the exhibition, including Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Sigmund Freud’s friend and confidante Princess Marie Bonaparte, but for the most part this is an exhibition about women looked after by men. ‘Dora’, Freud’s most famous patient because she was the only one ever to walk out of him, is featured alongside notable beneficiaries of Freud’s work such as the American writer Hilda Doolittle and the Russian psychoanalyst Lou Andreas Salomé. Freud, Dootlittle, Doolittle’s partner Bryher and her psychiatrist Hanns Sachs are pictured in a useful photographic demonstration of their relationships, though the presence of Sachs’ monkey is left unexplained.

Early psychiatry tended to treat women as some kind of alien species, so it is hardly a surprise to find a number of exhibits dedicated to that most potent of female maladies: ‘hysteria’.

Augustine

Augustine

The most interesting of these exhibits is a book by Jean-Martin Charcot, a 19th Century French pathologist and neurologist who developed the use of hypnosis in treating hysteria and used photography to document the condition’s physical manifestations. His methods were controversial, not least because there was cynicism surrounding his case study, a young woman called Augustine whose thrashings were distinctly sexual. The drawings make this book into a veritable karma sutra of suspect mental health research.

Charcot established a pioneering clinic at the Hospice de la Salpêtrière, France’s biggest female asylum, where he followed in the humanitarian footsteps of Philippe Pinel, an equally pioneering man whose reforms of treatment for the insane are detailed in A Treatise on Insanity (English translation 1806). One of la Salpêtrière’s inmates during Pinel’s tenure as chief physician was Théroigne de Mericourt, declared insane after a career as a French revolutionary and feminist when feminism was just pesky.

Next to Pinel’s book (which, brilliantly and unusually, visitors are encouraged to touch) is a painting of Charles and Mary Lamb, the literary brother and sister who both experienced mental illness. Mary’s was the most damaging – in 1796, aged 33, she murdered their mother and, after a spell in an asylum, stayed in Charles’s care until his death in 1834. Charles Lamb’s letters, also on display, describe his own mental health in witty detail and are a vital early insight into the realities of living with a mental illness in the early 19th century.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Given their famous mental illnesses you’d expect to find Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath featured, and both are here as recipients of the 20th century’s move towards talking therapies rather than incarceration. There are copies of both women’s works, and a transcript of Woolf’s letters, one of which describes how she was reading Freud ‘to give [her] brain a wider scope: to make it objective; to get outside.’

Other important female figures in this exhibition include English writer Anna Kavan and Austrian Bertha Pappenheim. Kavan developed a close friendship and writing partnership with her doctor Karl Theodor Bluth, who continued to prescribe Kavan heroin to feed her addiction even after her release from psychiatric hospital, and Pappenheim’s talking therapy treatment from Josef Breuer in 1880 was considered by Freud to be the beginning of psychoanalysis.

Charcot's book on hysteria

Charcot’s book on hysteria

Ultimately the contemporary artworks that superficially make this exhibition different are lost among the history, but to be honest that’s no bad thing. While Mad, Bad and Sad might not have much new to say about the history of psychiatry per se, its collation of so many important developmental figures in two small rooms means it feels fresh, and is well worth seeing.

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