Paintings of the psyche: an innovative hospital program and museum in Rio has nurtured highly acclaimed artists while revealing the healing power of art
Mark Holston (2004) Americas (English Edition) March-April, 2004
For half a century, the environment that has nurtured some of Brazil’s most celebrated artists has not been the customary setting of an exclusive art school or Bohemian enclave, but the cloistered surroundings of an aging psychiatric hospital. Isolated behind fortress-like walls in a nondescript residential neighborhood hi the vast working-class region of Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Norte, the Pedro II Psychiatric Hospital has, since 1946, been a pioneer in using artistic expression as therapy for patients suffering from schizophrenia. The hospital’s occupational-therapy unit has proven to be a breeding ground for top-flight creativity in the plastic arts. And, since its founding in 1952, the institution’s Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente (Museum of Images of the Unconscious) has, through regular exhibitions and advocacy of their work, elevated the creative endeavors of mental patients in Brazil to a stature not found in many other nation.
The significance in Brazil of “Images of the Unconscious,” as the movement is known, was underscored when the country’s top art experts tackled the daunting task of identifying Brazil’s most representative and outstanding artwork. Their charge was to create an all-encompassing exhibition to commemorate in 2000 the five-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of Brazil and document its rich art history. By the time the Rediscovery exhibition traveled in 2001 to Buenos Aires, Argentina, its first stop on a tour to the Guggenheim Museum in New York and may other major museums of the world, the show had been edited down to four broad thematic areas–baroque, popular, contemporary, and art of the unconscious.
“The answer to the question of why there is a special section of images of the unconscious,” explains Nelson Aguilar, the exhibition’s chief curator, “certainly involves insight into just what it means to be Brazilian, since an institution like the Museum of Images of the Unconscious does not exist in Germany, the United States, Japan, or any other country.”
In the mid-1940s, a young staff psychiatrist, Dr. Nise da Silveira, was troubled by the overly violent methods used at that time to treat the mentally disturbed. Rather than lobotomics and electric shock, she believed occupational therapy, particularly art, might produce better results.
Like most of the patients whose artistic flair earned him fame beyond the hospital’s fortress-like facade, Raphael Domingues was institutionalized most of his life. Of Spanish and Italian descent, he was born in 1913 in the state of Sao Paulo. His father, a sculptor and early-artistic inspiration, made cemetery monuments. Virtually the only patient in the history of the hospital to have had any training as an artist before he was committed, Domingues studied formally as a youth at Sao Paulo’s Liceu Literario Portugues. As a teenager, he had worked as a designer and had won an art competition before mental illness led to his commitment to an institution at the age of nineteen. After being transferred to the Rio hospital, his artistic abilities flourished in the supportive environment of the institution’s art studio, when he was in his thirties.
Critic Pedrosa, entranced by Domingues’s fluid style, cited “the playfulness and ornamental” qualities of his work seen in the “earrings, turbans, medals, name tags, necklaces, and plumes of his figures.” Pedrosa further commented on the artist’s attitude in his creative process, noting the “expression of this disinterested game.” When he painted, the critic said he engaged in “monosyllabic soliloquy” and passed the brush from hand to hand behind his back. He continued to produce artworks until several months before his death in 1979.
Fernando Diniz, like many of the hospital’s more accomplished artists, was an Afro-Brazilian. Born into poverty in Bahia, the Brazilian state with the most profound African influence, Diniz dreamed of being an engineer. This early fascination with formal organization and mechanical concepts may have contributed to the precision his artwork would later reflect, including a penchant for using geometric patterns, three-dimensional perspectives, and intricately repeated patterns, as evidenced in a series of canvases he produced in 1989 titled Digital Rug. Diniz died in 1999, having produced over thirty thousand works, including paintings, drawings, carpets, and sculptures.
A native of Rio de Janeiro, Isaac Liberato was born in 1906 and grew up as an only child. After a brief career as a radio and telegraph operator in the Brazilian merchant marine, he married in 1930, but the union lasted only three months. The emotional problems that followed led to his commitment to a mental institution. It was eighteen years until he would begun to visit the recently inaugurated art studio at the Pedro II Psychiatric Hospital. Lacking in verbal skills, Liberato painted deliberately, taking time now and then to play, by ear, Debussy on the piano. Specializing in landscapes and portraits, his work, described by critic Pedrosa, boasts “an intimate quality and his color harmonizations tend to fuse, with all the tones combining in the same musical atmosphere.” Liberato died of a heart attack in 1966, paintbrush in hand, while on his third canvas of the day.
Carlos Pertuis, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1910 of French descent, was described early on as being psychologically immature and of a sensitive and religious nature. At the age of twenty-nine, he was committed to a mental institution. Seven years later, he began to attend occupational-therapy sessions at the Pedro II Psychiatric Hospital. Unable to communicate verbally at a functional level, Pertuis devoted his waking hours to his work, creating over twenty-one thousand paintings, drawings, modelings, and writings, including poems, before he died in 1977. His work ranged from rigidly defined geometric constructions to soft-edged, whimsical paintings that depicted mythological figures, as in his Fantastic Creatures, a panel of rectangular frames side-by-side, each featuring a cartoon-style shape from his fertile imagination. Pertuis, observed critic Pedrosa, produced “precise outlines, of limpid, well marked forms in which there is little figural modeling and the style is created by the play between contrast and symmetry.”
A prodigious painter who continued to produce new work until his death at the age of ninety-two, Emygdio de Barros was born in Rio de Janciro in 1895. Although iris mother suffered from emotional problems, he was a diligent student and showed an aptitude for creativity and working with Iris hands from a young age. After several years in the Brazilian navy, he started to exhibit traits of mental illness and was committed to an institution in 1924. After over two decades of life as a mental patient, de Barros began to visit the Pedro If art studio. At the age of fifty-four, his artistic side suddenly came to the surface, and he produced over three thousand works before he died in 1986. Some of his canvases seem to reveal, in theme and technique, the subtle influence of Matisse and van Gogh. It’s possible; while in the navy, he was stationed in France for two years and may have seen firsthand the work of these and other European masters. De Barros’s dense and brooding works quickly made him a favorite of art critics, while the singularity of Iris expression once again confirmed the wisdom of Dr. da Silveira’s vision.
Although she died in 1999 at the age of ninety-three, after five decades of hands-on direction of the art-therapy program and museum, the work she initiated continues unabated. And, although the vast majority of the institution’s patients will never achieve the kind of fame de Barros, Liberato, Pertuis, and a handful of others achieved through their singular work, the healing power of art can be observed firsthand when museum patrons visit the Museu Vivo (Living Museum), a cluttered but welcoming space adjacent to the museum’s formal gallery. Here, outpatients come mad go throughout the day, working on projects at their own pace with a resident art instructor at hand to provide tips on technique.
“I’ve found another kind of life and another kind of friends here,” says Manuel Godinho, a jovial fifty-seven-year-old who worked for Varig Airlines before mental health problems sidetracked Iris civil aviation career. He’s been part of the hospital’s occupational-therapy program for three years and spends extra time painting in the Museu Vivo. “Instead of staying home, I like to come here to paint,” he adds. “I learn a lot from the other patients, because they do different styles of art.”
For Alcir Ribeiro da Rocha, the hospital and its occupational-therapy programs, with its emphasis on art, have literally been a lifesaver. The forty-year-old Rio native immigrated with iris father and several other family members to the U.S. in 1973, returning to Brazil in 1986 to work in an uncle’s shoe store. The death of his father led to bouts of depression. Da Rocha attempted to take his oven life. “I couldn’t work and stopped taking care of myself,” he recalls. His family had him institutionalized, and his nonstop association with the hospital’s art-therapy pro gram began in 1989.
The good thing about it is that you are free to do what you want,” he says. “They help you discover what you are best at,” he continues, a piece of charcoal in hand as he fashions the image of a horse. The song “Top of the World,” a 1970s-era tilt by the U.S. duo the Carpenters, plays in the background as da Rocha and three other outpatients focus on their projects. A skilled watercolor artist, he today teaches English and helps care for his seven year-old daughter. His daily visits to the hospital’s occupational-therapy center and the Museu Vivo help keep his life on track. “Thank God it’s free,” he laughs, adding that everything else in Brazil is expensive for low-income residents. “Coming here and creating art helps keep my thoughts in the right direction.”
Luiz Carlos Mello, the da Silveira protege who serves as the program’s current director, hopes to triple the space of the museum in coming years. “If the public had no knowledge of the origin of this work, they would not guess that it had been created in a psychiatric hospital,” Mello said on the occasion of an exhibition in Sao Paulo of selected works from the museum. “The images of the unconscious are almost a symbolic language that the psychiatrist must decipher. But nobody can dispute that those images can also be harmonious, seductive, dramatic, vibrant, or beautiful–real works of art.”
The Museu de Imagens do Inconscience is located in the Instituto Municipal de Assistencia a Saude Nise da Silveira, commonly known as the old Centro Psiquiatrico Pedro II, at Rua Ramiro Magalhaes 521 in the Engenho de Dentro district of Rio de Janeiro. The museum’s Portuguese-language website, www.museuimagensdoinconscience.org.br, features a virtual tour of works by selected artists.
A regular contributor to Americas, Mark Holston is a musician and journalist. He is grateful for the assistance of the InterContinental Hotel in Rio de Janeiro in making this article possible.
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Mark Holston “Paintings of the psyche: an innovative hospital program and museum in Rio has nurtured highly acclaimed artists while revealing the healing power of art“. Americas (English Edition). FindArticles.com. 18 Feb, 2012.
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