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Strange meetings

A century ago in Vienna, madness and creativity existed side by side. The artists and thinkers who g

Vienna at the fin de siècle was a crucible of modernity. Amid the nervy multicultural babble of tongues in the imperial city, writers, artists, composers and architects jostled with philosophers, social reformers and scientists. Sacher-Masoch, Freud, Wittgenstein, Boltzmann, Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Mahler (Gustav and Alma), Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, Adolf Loos . . . the city’s roll-call of greats goes on and on, sometimes even to include Trotsky, who stopped by to play chess. In cafes and cabarets, at exhibitions and in salons and lecture halls, these dreamers and schemers met and talked and reinvented the times. They also reinvented the mind and theories about how to treat its disarray.

Madness, it seemed, was not only out there, locked up in the Narrenturm, the 18th-century asylum poised just outside the city, but in here, in everyday dreams and slips, in unruly bodies, in the shape of our sexual lives, in anxieties, hysterias and neuroses. It was also the result and part of the very fabric of modernity. If society could dream collectively, the great Viennese novelist Robert Musil wrote in The Man Without Qualities, it would dream Moosbrugger – the anarchic rapist-murderer who shadows the life of his book. That nightmare shadow would take on flesh in the horrors of the First World War and even more terrible substance in the politics of Vienna’s one-time citizen, the failed artist Adolf Hitler. Vienna, as the satirist Karl Kraus said, was also a laboratory for world destruction.

Since the opening of the Wellcome Collection’s new, light-filled premises in 2007, the gallery has given us a number of conceptual exhibitions that mingle art and medicine in illuminating ways. “Madness and Modernity”, the most recent of these, may share the gallery’s ground floor with Bobby Baker’s excellent “Diary Drawings”, about her journey through mental illness, but its limited space does nothing to detract from the fascination of what is on display and the thoroughness of the long research that has gone into the making of the exhibition.

Focusing on the interaction between madness, the visual arts and architecture, and how each tangled with and stirred the others, the exhibition opens with the old: 18th-century Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s grimacing heads. Trapped in extremes of emotion and sculpted in the last eight and reclusive years of the one-time society portraitist’s life, these “characters”, who may be the artist himself, peer and leer out at us. Rescued from oblivion and exhibited to the Viennese in 1907, Messerschmidt’s scowling and twisted sculptures caused a stir. With their expressionist aura, they also served as something of an inspiration to artists looking for a way to convey inner excess and their jangled times.

At the Wellcome, Messerschmidt’s heads look out at a model of the Narrenturm, the 1784 panopticon that predates by at least a year Jeremy Bentham’s vision of a disciplinary institution. A haunting film by David Bickerstaff takes us through the circular tower’s now empty rooms and eerie corridors, designed to confine “dangerous lunatics”.

By 1900, notions of both madness and confinement had changed, as had art and architecture. When the Austrian authorities set out to have a new psychiatric institution built, doctors and architects alike had a hand in the planning.

They wanted a quasi-utopian environment that would soothe and alleviate. What resulted was Steinhof, a mammoth hospital, housing private and public patients, for the “cure and care of mental and nervous disorders”. Set atop the gently sloping Viennese hills in outlying Penzing and overlooking the city, Steinhof was planned by Otto Wagner, a member along with Klimt of the Vienna Secession group, and himself a native of Penzing. Wagner believed that buildings needed to reflect their function and that “new human tasks and views called for a change or reconstitution of existing forms”. The hospital and the fine church at its crest were in some respects his crowning achievement. Form and function were married here to contribute to the humane treatment of the mentally ill and to provide respite for despairing urbanites.

Steinhof was something of a sparkling new town, encompassing 60 separate buildings. There were “pavilions”, all with the latest facilities, to house 500 staff and 2,500 patients. Some were for those who needed confinement; others for those free to roam in its pastoral grounds or stage and attend plays and concerts in its theatre.

A poster publicising the hospital calls out to Vienna’s “mad” – to anyone suffering from “neurasthenia, hysteria, hypochondria, the neuroses, cocaine or morphine addiction” – and promises progressive treatment in bucolic surroundings. Inmates lovingly created a large model of their glimmering church, here displayed. Artists, perhaps inspired by the iconography of Jean-Martin Charcot’s much-photographed hysterics and neurologically deformed patients, came in and out to paint sufferers. Their brushstrokes were labile and as expressive as their palettes in their painterly attempts to capture the physiognomy of mental pain and make inner torment visible.

Kokoschka came here to paint the writer Ludwig Ritter von Janikowski, an early patient. When the portrait with its lurid hues and jagged lines was exhibited, it caused a great stir: the anguish of its subject was visceral in impact. Psychological and pathological portraiture were born. They became an emphatically Viennese genre. Kokoschka and Schiele – whose in­imitable nervous line and gaunt, tormented self-portraits are undiminished even in the reproductions displayed here – were only two of its greatest exemplars.

Max Oppenheimer was so taken with Kokoschka’s work that his psychological portraits were sometimes mistaken for the latter’s. The nervy, long-fingered hands he gives his portrait of Heinrich Mann are as evocative as Schiele’s lines, and seem to signal breakdown.

For the wedding of Freud’s daughter Mathilde, a portrait of her father was commissioned from Oppenheimer. Like Lotte Franzos, who hated Kokoschka’s jarring rendition of her, Mathilde was dismayed by the result. This was no Freud she recognised. Unbearded after his trip to America, Oppenheimer’s clear-eyed, moustachioed and serene Freud seemed to her nothing like her father. This is, ironically, an “unpsychological” portrait.

The brown-hued painting depicts a small object at Freud’s side. Its original is part of the exhibit, together with a small selection of other objects from Freud’s large collection of antiquities, loaned by the Freud Museum London, as is one of the Persian rugs which cover his iconic couch.

Freud had a penchant for the domestic, that shaping ground of the psyche, and for the buried archaeology of the mind. Fundamentally stoical and anti-utopian, decidedly verbal rather than physiognomic in spite of Freud’s neurological training, his psychoanalytic project stands in stark contrast to its exhibition neighbour: the Sanatorium Purkersdorf. This was a state-of-the-art facility, designed down to the last functional detail by Josef Hoffmann, an important figure in that artistic production house which was the Wiener Werkstätte. Light, elegant, airy and set in open countryside, Purkersdorf was an inspiration to Le Corbusier. The sanatorium served as a treatment centre for Vienna’s fashionable elite when they wanted a change from the urban consulting rooms of Freud and his colleagues.

Here, architecture itself provided a rest cure. Rational design was understood as enabling rational thought. The displayed objects include graceful light fixtures and chairs, including a chessboard armchair flown over from the Neue Galerie in New York. There are also treatment machines: an exercise bicycle, a modish electro­therapeutic cage in which the patient stood as a current travelled round the wooden enclosure.

Such tools of the psychiatric trade are nowhere to be seen in the paintings of the patient Josef Karl Rädler, a porcelain painter before his institutionalisation for the last 24 years of his life. His watercolours depict himself and a host of other patients engaged in mundane tasks, often in sociable groups. There is a rustic, naive, occasionally Dürer-like quality to these, and apart from the inscriptions surrounding the tableaux front and back, there is little evidence of “madness”. “I myself see this home as a church, these poor souls as living saints,” reads one of these unstoppable streams of writing. Mauer-Öhling, the rural psychiatric centre at which Rädler was latterly interned, still functions. Its most recent famous patients were Elisabeth Fritzl and her children, who sheltered here just after they emerged from long captivity in Josef Fritzl’s cellar.

Curated by the architectural historian Leslie Topp and the art historian Gemma Blackshaw, this is an enthralling and beautifully mounted exhibition. If there is a lack, it is of the ideas which permeated the work of the mind doctors of the period. Their understanding of what it was that had disturbed their patients, what made them tick in troubled ways, is a terrain that visual representation and architecture cannot quite reach. The excellent catalogue provides a useful verbal supplement.

“Madness and Modernity: Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna – 1900” is at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1, until 28 June. Details:
Lisa Appignanesi’s “Mad, Bad and Sad: a History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present” is now out in paperback (Virago, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?