Bedlam: The Asylum

Things to do, Exhibitions Free
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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‘They call it madness,’ as Prince Buster sang, but they’ve called it loads of other things too. ‘Insanity’ crops up (in Georgian Britain it was a legal rather than a medical status) and a new utopian asylum concept even has a shot at reclaiming ‘mad’. But if one term sums up this Wellcome exhibition as a whole, it’s a Shakespearean favourite: ‘distracted’.

Is this an exhibition about madness? About the treatment of mental illness? About the history of Bethlem, the original London mental hospital, whose corrupted name gave us the word ‘bedlam’? It’s all of those things, mixed up in a chaotic fashion that’s kind of appropriate but hardly illuminating. The discord starts in the first room, where a massive assemblage by the Czech contemporary artist Eva Kotátková shares space with a short history of Bethlem and a film about the Belgian town of Geel (home of St Dymphna, patron saint of victims of mental disorders). It’s all interesting, but it’s a bit of a mess.

Some things here are well worth seeing, particularly three older artworks: Richard Dadd’s weird portrait of Bethlem’s governor (and some women carrying fish for some reason), Van Gogh’s etching of his doctor (who was as weird as he was) and a startling lithograph of a morphine addict by Eugène Grasset. Also good: a glossy brochure for a redeveloped asylum in north London that hilariously skirts its unpleasant history, and some creepy Victorian medical equipment (‘Pulvermacher’s Galvanic Combined Bands’ don’t look much fun). But sorting this disparate stuff by date rather than theme robs it of much overall sense – a shame, when there’s still so much to be said about mental health in this madhouse of a city.

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