World Arts / Art News

Art and Subversive Psychiatry

Llegeix-lo en català

An extraordinary exhibition at Les Abattoirs in Toulouse traces the history of Francesc Tosquelles, father of antipsychiatry and a pioneer in the rethinking of this discipline through politics, culture and art.

The Catalan psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Francesc Tosquelles (Reus 1912 – Granges-sur-Lot 1994), a pioneer of critical psychiatry or antipsychiatry, was one of the great transformers of this branch of medicine and the social and cultural perception of the “mad”. Long before the issues inherent in mental illness were debated and transformed, Tosquelles pointed to vital, social, and ethical problems as triggers for behaviours which were labelled as disorders.

Tosquelles 1: Romain Vigouroux, François Tosquelles in a children’s park at Bonnafe Garden in Saint-Alban Hospital (5,3 x 7,7 cm), © Roberto Ruiz.

An unprecedented exhibition at the Les Abattoirs Art Centre in Toulouse now covers the extraordinary and insufficiently recognised life of Tosquelles, highlighting his revolutionary contribution to the treatment of mental illness and his unprecedented connections with modern art and art brut (raw art). After its début at the French Museum, which can be visited until March 6, La Déconniatrie. Art, exil et psychiatrie autour de François Tosquelles, will be presented in 2022 at the Contemporary Culture Centre of Barcelona (CCCB) and at the Reina Sofia Art Centre Museum in Madrid, entitled Francesc Tosquelles. Like a sewing machine in a wheat field. The tour will end in 2023 at the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

“The exhibitions coincide in 80% of what they portray. In Toulouse, the story is contextualised within the regional level as it is the site of Saint-Alban-sud-Limagnole Hospital, where Tosquelles deploys his innovative therapies. In contrast, in Spain we emphasise the origins of the doctor who is trained in a politically and culturally stable Catalonia, where he practices psychiatry with a political vision and uses the cultural, anti-fascist and surrealist tools of the time. In fact, the transformation of psychiatric institutions in France in the 1970s was inspired by the Catalan practice occurring in the 1930s”, explains Carles Guerra, curator of the exhibition together with Joana Masó, Julien Michel and Annabelle Ténèze.

Les Abattoirs La Déconniatrie 2021 © Damien Aspe.

Having fled to France in 1939, along with 500,000 other Spanish refugees, Tosquelles used the traumas of the Civil War, the heart-rending experiences in the Septfonds internment camp in occupied France, to take his therapeutic practice to its ultimate consequences. The exhibition tour follows Tosquelles’s footsteps from Septfonds to the Saint-Alban-sud-Limagnole Hospital, where he developed new treatments based on group dynamics and artistic work. Thanks to its isolated location in the countryside, the hospital became a hideout for members of the Resistance and communist intellectuals such as Tristan Tzara and Paul Eluard, who would set up a clandestine publishing platform there. Saint-Alban thus became a meeting point and a place of confrontation between psychoanalysis, medicine, communism, surrealism and art, to the point that the creations of Tosquelles’s patients would later be compiled by Jean Dubuffet under the heading art brut. The foundations of a dealienating and community sense of psychiatry were raised through group activities such as cinema, clubs and magazines, such as the famous Trait d’union.

“It was a kind of southern Bauhaus, a collective and at the same time clinical, political and cultural experience,” states Guerra. Avant-garde psychiatrists such as Frantz Fanon, a philosopher of decolonisation, worked in this innovative experiment, in which women played an important role. For example, one of the directors who introduced the most improvements, Agnès Masson, wrote a pioneering doctoral thesis on transvestism; Eugenie Balvet, an expert in medicinal plants, formulated unprecedented treatments; and the patient Marguerite Sirvins, considered a misfit for the simple fact of not having married, tells the stories of the hospital through some surprising pieces of embroidery. “From Sirvins we exhibit a white wedding dress made with the threads recovered from the cleaning cloths, which belongs to the Tosquelles Family Collection,” notes Guerra, who was the most recent director of the Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona.

Les Abattoirs La Déconniatrie 2021 © Damien Aspe.

Tosquelles’s extraordinary professional and personal life is narrated through more than 100 works of art, including those created by the hospital’s patients, as well as never-before-published films, books, archives, objects, photographs, as well as works by contemporary artists, created specifically for the exhibition. Among the historical pieces are three 1961 films by Mario Ruspoli, the influential author of cinema verité, produced with Tosquelles. There are also works by Dubuffet himself, André Michaux, Michel Foucault, Antonin Artaud, Yayoi Kusama, Nancy Spero and Karel Appel. The book Souvenirs de la maison des fous that Paul Eluard writes in 1943 in Saint Alban is also exhibited. It is a series of poems with drawings of female patients by Gérard Vulliamy, the husband Eluard’s daughter, Cécile Eluard. There is also the original model of Tristan Tzara’s book, Parlar seul, a series of portraits of female patients illustrated by Joan Miró, which are preserved in the Miró Foundation in Barcelona, while among the works produced by the patients, highlighted by those of Auguste Forestier.

Yayoi Kusama © Damien Aspe.

This acts as a link between the historical and contemporary works, Déconnage, a video essay by Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato on Tosquelles, which Guerra screened at the MACBA in 2012. “Tosquelles used cinema in his therapy treatments. In the 1958 congress that marked his first return to Catalonia, instead of a traditional speech he presented a film to explain the transformations of the hospital”, explains Guerra. The artist Roger Bernat has used excerpts from the silent films shot by the psychiatrist to create a new film which the audience itself can create the audio for. In fact, the projection is presented together with a dubbing station with very simple instructions, so that visitors can make noises with the instruments made available to them and record their voices using the microphones. Alejandra Riera has created an installation about La Borda, a clinic where Tosquelles worked and where the Argentine artist has been holding workshops since 2010. Finally, Perejaume created a cork path for the public to take off their shoes and walk on, inspired by Tosquelles’s belief that cognitive aspects are activated through the feet. “Tosquelles said that the world is read with the feet and not with the head”, concludes Guerra.

Roberta Bosco
Periodista d'origen italià especialitzada en art contemporani i cultura digital, comissària d'exposicions i docent.

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