Madness & Modernity: Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna 1900

Co-curated with Leslie Topp. Exhibition design by Calum Storrie. Graphic design by Lucienne Roberts +. Photographs by David Shaw.

When Sigmund Freud published his first writings on psychoanalysis from Berggasse 19, the revolution in the visual arts was well underway. Indeed, Vienna’s artists, designers and architects were already interested in mental illness and psychiatry. From the planning of nervous sanatoriums to the painting of patients’ portraits, the city’s leading visual art practitioners were similarly drawn to the idea of the ‘mad’. Vienna, the capital of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, was one of Europe’s leading centres for psychiatric innovation around 1900, and Freud’s pioneering concept of the mind was one of a myriad of approaches. This activity was fostered by an overwhelming sense of the Viennese living in ‘nervous times’. Anxieties about mental health were allied with fears of the modern, capitalist city, with its new technologies, modes of work and play, speeds of life. The experience of modernity gave a new impetus to the study of madness. This exhibition presented the spectrum of madness in Vienna, from the progressive architectural plans of utopian cities for the mad to the drawings of nameless patients involuntarily confined in them. It sought to show how psychiatry influenced early modernism in the visual arts, and how modernism has since influenced our attitudes to the mentally ill.

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1 Tower of Fools