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Madness and modernity: Mental illness, the visual arts and architecture in fin de siecle Vienna


  • Researchers: Dr Leslie Topp, History of Art Department, Birkbeck, University of London; Dr Gemma Blackshaw, Plymouth University
  • Funded project: Arts and Humanities Research Council 2004-2008

‘Madness and Modernity: Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna 1900’ was the title of a popular, influential and highly acclaimed public exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London, UK, and the Wien Museum, Vienna, Austria, in 2009 and 2010. Dr Topp’s and Dr Blackshaw’s research uncovered previously unknown visual material and objects, including plans, drawings, therapeutic equipment, posters, medical and architectural models, many of which were included in the exhibitions.

The interdisciplinary project developed out of research on the connections between psychiatry, architecture and fine art in Vienna and Central Europe in the years around 1900. It involved partners in Plymouth, London and Vienna and contributed a new understanding of the development and role of the arts in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century. The concrete, compelling and in some cases provocative connections made by Topp and her team between mental illness, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, architecture, fine art, and visual and material culture in Vienna around 1900 resulted in a rich, original and multi-layered exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

Outputs and outcomes

The exhibition, which followed a two-day international conference ‘Journeys into Madness: Representing Mental Illness in the Arts and Sciences 1850-1930’ in October 2007, was funded by the Wellcome Trust and developed in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection. It integrated art, design, film and psychiatric therapeutic equipment in new ways, and extended public understanding of the influence and significance of innovations by modernist architects and designers in the treatment of neurosis. It also included a double-screen video immersive installation by award-winning filmmaker David Bickerstaff, of the ‘Narrenturm’, showing interiors of the eighteenth-century ‘Tower of Fools’, a cylindrical Viennese mental institution.

It attracted 44,000 visitors, and received extensive media coverage. The accompanying exhibition catalogue, Madness and Modernity: Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna 1900, was published in English and German. The images and videos from the exhibition remain on the Wellcome Collection’s website. The display of previously unexhibited art works by artist Josef-Karl Rädler led to the purchase of his work for the collection, ‘Museum of Everything’.

The chief curator of the Wellcome Collection commented that, "We know from the length of time visitors spent in the exhibition, from the volume of enquiries generated and from visitor comments collected, how engaging the exhibition proved to visitors. It is clear from the visitors’ comments recorded that a common experience was a delight both at the depth of research and also at the surprises the exhibition contained. Those with a particular interest in the visual arts enjoyed discovering about the architecture and psychiatry elements of the show. For those with an interest in mental health there were also many surprises."

In the preface to the German version of the exhibition book, the Director of Museums of the City of Vienna wrote, "The London exhibition is being shown in Vienna under the original English-language title ‘Madness and Modernity’, in order to emphasise that it offers, quite deliberately, a view from the outside on a Viennese cultural phenomenon. The exhibition, with its unfamiliar and sometimes also controversial approach to seemingly well-known themes, should inspire discussions and offer ways of transcending well-worn patterns of interpretation."