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The Masks We Wear; The Faces We Present

A new exhibition at London’s Museum of the Mind explores the personality masks worn by the mentally ill and by the professionals who treat them.

· 8 min read
The Masks We Wear; The Faces We Present
The centre of The Faces We Present is Richard Dadd’s masterpiece, Portrait of a Young Man (1853).

In 1919, gravity-defying ballet legend Vaslav Nijinsky began his descent into schizophrenic madness. The celebrated virtuoso took to locking himself in a room all night where he would feverishly draw dozens of unsettling images. “Strange faces, eyes peering from every corner,” wrote his wife Romola in her biography of her husband. “Red and black, like a bloodstained mortuary cover, they made me shudder.” Ten decades on, one of these arresting drawings, titled The Mask, is on display at London’s Museum of the Mind, a pioneering gallery housed within the historic Bethlem, the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world. The symmetrical, somewhat tribal piece, is part of The Faces We Present, a new exhibition exploring the many personality masks worn by the mentally ill and by the professionals who treat them.

On one side of the gallery hang classic oil paintings from the 1800s—portraits of distinguished, neatly suited doctors, patrons, and governors, sourced from the gallery’s vast archives. On the opposite side, very different kinds of portrait are displayed—emotional, anguished, tormented self-depictions created by patients during their incarceration. Between the two hang portrait photographs of present-day practitioners at the NHS Lived Experience Network, who have themselves accessed mental health services. Seven NHS trust workers act as guest curators, shaping the intriguing show’s title, content, and unusually personal captions.

“This portrait resonates with me personally,” writes peer support coordinator Laura Jane of Nijinsky’s piece. “I have often felt the need to wear different masks, to portray outwardly something other than what I may be feeling internally, to fit in and be accepted by society as part of self-preservation.” Clinical nurse Debi, too “always had a mask,” even as a child, “hiding myself, trying to fit in, to be acceptable or at least palatable to others.” Undoubtedly echoing many people’s experience, Debi speaks of how her mask has evolved over the years, until as an adult, she “let that mask go, replacing it with one I can take off and put on as required—I have learnt to be more palatable.”

“Debi and Laura Jane are two of many NHS trust workers who themselves access mental health services,” says the show’s curator Colin Gale. “For a long time, there was stigma attached to working for a mental-health trust and accessing services, [and] people were worried about what their manager, for example, might say if they knew.” These workers’ photos are situated between the formal portraits of yesteryear’s clinicians, and the stirring self-portraits of patients. “The red line drawn on the floor, right across the centre of the gallery space, is broken up as it reaches these workers’ photographs,” explains Gale, “to indicate that there is no line between the clinician and the service-user. Or if there is, it is porous, permeable—you can have a foot in both camps.”

If you follow that line to the opposite end of the gallery, you will find two pieces from a collection called Psychiatrists and their Patients, notes Gale, “hanging on either side of the dividing line, both by artist Gemma Anderson. One is a clinician, one a service user, but they are looking away from each other.” Clinician Tim gazes at the portraits of fellow professionals, while service-user Robert faces his fellow patients’ highly charged creations.

“The idea of the exhibition,” explains Gale, “is putting these two kinds of pictures in the same room together—juxtaposition, glaring at each other across the room.” The highly emotional patients are facing the composed practitioners who are attempting to bring calm and order to their lives. “I would like to know what side of the line visitors would place themselves on,” says Gale, “the clinicians’ or service-users’?” Will they identify with Nijinsky’s mask, which has “resonated so loudly with members of the Lived Experience, because they have their own mask to wear, a persona you assume for the sake of self-protection and survival”?

Dadd’s masterpiece returns from the Tate

The centre of The Faces We Present is Richard Dadd’s masterpiece, Portrait of a Young Man, on loan from the Tate. An immaculately executed oil painting has returned to where it was created 170 years ago. A rising star of the Victorian art scene, Dadd experienced a dramatic personality change while working as a draftsman in the Middle East, becoming increasingly violent and delusional. He is now believed to have been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The troubled artist was sent to Bethlem in 1844 after stabbing his father to death.

Haunted by religious delusions and reverence for the Egyptian god Osiris, the “criminal lunatic” believed his father to be the devil. He held onto this conviction, according to numerous accounts, until he was transferred to Broadmoor secure hospital two decades later. In Bethlem, the artist forged close friendships with members of staff who sat for him. The poised and besuited young man sitting in an imaginary garden next to a red fez is believed to be Dr William Hood, the hospital’s physician superintendent who became Dadd’s patron. The scene is calm and enchanting, with warm tones reflecting the benevolence of the Bethlem doctor who encouraged Dadd to paint. It is a solitary yet intriguingly welcoming scene.

Next to Portrait of A Young Man hangs Dadd’s playful 1874 pencil sketch The Broadmoor Smokers, depicting fellow patients at the high-security psychiatric hospital where Dadd spent the last years of his life. “Here too is an example of the divide between service-user and clinician,” says Gale. “On one side, Dadd’s Portrait of a Young Man, where the sitter may well be a clinician; on the other side, the artist’s striking representation of a set of Broadmoor patients.” It is interesting to note that Dadd is present on the clinicians’ side of the gallery, with his staggeringly realistic 1875 oil painting of Dr William Orange, one of the doctors who cared for him at Broadmoor.

The art of verbalising pain

The collaboration between the official curators and members of the South London and Maudsley Lived Experience Network has shaped the title, content, and narrative of the collaboration, with the guest curators captioning many of the works. “These are usually written by museum staff and are fairly objective,” says Rebecca Raybone, curator at Bethlem Museum of the Mind. “By incorporating their personal reactions and their own personal experiences, and by highlighting the details that appeal to them most, they have created captions that show the artworks anew, and I know will enable visitors to see them differently too.”

Take Benji Reid’s 2016 photograph Holding onto Daddy, which depicts the father figure in midair as an astronaut drifting away into space and connected to his daughter by rope that resembles an umbilical cord. The award-winning image reminds Debi of her own father, who died when she was just seven years old “and how I have held onto him, and the few memories that I have of him” even though he has always been out of reach. Debi's caption reads:

A few years ago, during an episode of severe depression and anxiety … my daughter, who was about eight or nine at the time, wanted to go up the road and look around the shops. The thought of being outside was terrifying. I felt like I was a terrible mother for being unwell, and so I made myself take her out, even though I didn’t want to. I held tightly onto my daughter’s hand walking down the street, as I thought if I let go of her, I would float away. I was very scared.

Cynthia Pell’s dark Solitary Figure—curled up, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees, which are drawn into her chest—made Laura-Jane reflect on the mentally ill’s desire to disappear, while Pell’s Despairing, in which a loosely drawn figure covers her eyes, reminds Charlotte of “the technique of children and animals of covering their eyes: if I can’t see it, it can’t see me … the ‘it’ is depression, make yourself small, cover your eyes, and then maybe it won’t come for me, or I can pretend it isn’t there.”

In complete stylistic contrast stands Lynda Bamford’s fiery Psychedelic Woman, the wildly intense a colour palette of which conveys terror and turmoil. The subject’s arms are raised as if to fend off an approach but her eyes are so sad they evoke feeling of mercy.The fire-like patterns in the background supply a Satanic presence to the portrait,” writes Laura-Jane, “resembling horns of the beast, often referred to as ‘the Devil’ … mental illness is often thought of as evil, and for me personally, a fiendish burden I feel I have had to bear, quite often alone.”

Other highlights include Everything is Real Except God and Death by George Harding, The Lambton Worm and Self-Portrait by Jonathan Martin (who was confined at Bethlem following his attempt to burn down York Minster), and Kathryn Martin’s comic The Spirit of Vaslav Nijinsky, which chronicles six critical weeks in the dancer’s life, from his final dance recital to his paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis. There is also Bryan Charnley’s 1987 Broach Schizophrene, the hope-filled photograph Cilmara, and Rozanne Hawksley’s self portraits. These works, reads Carrie-Ann’s caption, “capture the utter anguish and all-consuming nature that mental illness can have at times in our lives” and convey “the silencing nature” of mental illness. She shows “how it feels when you are unable to verbalise the pain you are in … there is a sense of someone who understands how it feels to live with mental illness … however, in the same vein, I’m left with an overwhelming sadness because I feel her pain at a visceral level.”

Are not the sane and the insane equal at night?

Established in 1247, Bethlem Hospital is a mysteriously enchanting place. The Museum of the Mind housed within it opens a captivating and often mindboggling window onto the history of mental illness. The experience is not voyeuristic—it invites us to consider the complex nature of illness and society’s response to it.

Passing through the exhibition, we find the arresting 18th-century statues Melancholy and Raving Madness at the gates, a real padded room, and the Henry Hering collection of patient photographs, which were taken in an attempt to evaluate mental health through expressions and features. The photograph of Dadd painting Contradiction: Oberon and Titania is part of this collection. In the boardroom is a moving list of 19th-century patients and the corresponding reasons for the mental suffering of each. The vividly simple entries include:

Mary Ann Renshaw. 1858. Farmer’s Wife. Grief at the loss of a child.
James Elliot. 1869. Tin plate worker. Disappointment in love.
Sarah Masow. 1878. Solitude.

It is incredible to learn that when Charles Dickens visited the Bethlem Royal Hospital during one of his nocturnal strolls in 1860, at its former site where the Imperial War Museum now stands, Richard Dadd was inside. “I had a night fancy in my head which could be best pursued within sight of its walls and dome,” wrote Dickens in his “Night Walks essay. “Are not the sane and the insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming?”

It is remarkable to learn that Dadd laboured over The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, for nine years—a magical miniature piece that inspired Freddie Mercury's 1974 song of the same title. Modern pieces, too, serve as a snapshot of contemporary British society and culture—works such as William Kurelek’s The Maze, or the stunning depiction, by Boris Johnson’s mother, Charlotte, of a family torn apart by her own Bethlem hospitalisation. It Has Not Worked is a tragic testament to her failed treatment, while the gut-wrenching Where is Mama? features her tearful children missing their mother.

The Faces We Present offers a reflection on all of us, notes Colin Gale, since “we all experience mental distress to some degree.” Our anguish and degree of societal dysfunction might not justify incarceration, but it is an unavoidable part of life. It is no surprise that the artists’ pain resonates so loudly—we don’t just empathise with another person’s fears, pain, and frustrations, we also implicitly recognise it within ourselves.

The Faces We Present is at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Beckenham, from February 22nd–June 17th.

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