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Madness and Modernity. Architecture, Art and Mental Illness in Vienna and the Habsburg Empire, 1890-1914

About Madness and Modernity

Arts and Humanities Research Council
Jubilaeumsausstellung, 1908 Jubilaeumsausstellung, 1908.
This is a photo of Mauer Oehling's Jubilaeumsausstellung, in which patient art was exhibited.
Source of this image: Psychiatrisch Neurologische Wochenschrift, No. 27 (1908): 218-220 (Obersteiner Library, AKH Vienna).
Photograph taken by Sabine Wieber

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Research Grants scheme, this four-year project examines the emergence of the relationship between the visual arts and mental illness in Vienna and the Habsburg Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. Avant-garde movements in the arts concerned themselves throughout the modern period with mental illness, with the experience of it, the objects it produces, the science and myth surrounding it, and with systems developed to relieve or cure it.  This project proposes a new approach to the study of this complex nexus that integrates, for the first time in this area, the fine arts, design, architecture and urbanism.

Austria-Hungary lends itself well to such a study for several reasons. Around 1900, Vienna was as a centre of psychiatric innovation and discourse.  This translated into a strong lay interest in issues concerning mental health and illness and initiated the building of state-of-the-art public psychiatric institutions and sanatoriums for nervous ailments across the Empire. Simultaneously, Vienna witnessed reform movements in all of the visual arts and points of contact between the practitioners of this new art and architecture and the new psychiatry were numerous. Modern architects designed asylums and sanatoriums, visual artists experimented with the imagery of mental illness and turned to Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, and psychiatrists employed engaged asylum patients in art making.

Under the leadership of Dr. Leslie Topp, Senior Lecturer in Art and Architectural History at Birkbeck College, and co-leadership of Dr. Gemma Blackshaw, Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Plymouth, this project aims to

  1. widen and deepen our current understanding of the various ways and contexts in which psychiatry, mental illness and the progressive visual arts interacted; and

  2. reconsider assumptions about the links between madness and modernity, and, by extension, about the culture of turn-of-the-century Vienna.

This project culminates in a major international exhibition at Wellcome Collection, an exhibition catalogue, several scholarly publications, and two doctoral theses.

For more details on the exhibition and forthcoming events click here

For details on the research team click here


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