Obra de Emygdio de Barros, um dos pacientes mais ilustres do Engenho de Dentro (Foto: Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente)
Art and health

Art and mental health: a historical relationship in Brazil

Yasmin Abdalla
27 Mar 2020, 5:37 pm

In addition to the concern with maintaining physical integrity – individual and collective -, another question arises in times of global pandemic: how to keep a healthy mind during quarantine? The free expression of feelings and the unconscious through artistic and corporal practices can be part of the solution.

At least that was what psychiatrist and therapist Nise da Silveira discovered in the mid 1940s. The only woman in her medical class at Faculdade da Bahia, the Alagoas born was a pioneer in the use of artistic and musical activities as a method of psychiatric treatment. At the time, electroshocks and brain surgeries were used for patients with serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When she started working at the Pedro II National Psychiatric Center (now the Nise da Silveira Municipal Institute), in the neighborhood of Engenho de Dentro, Rio de Janeiro, the doctor refused to apply such treatments and, therefore, she was transferred to a sector until then without prestige within the hospital: occupational therapy. Her work involving artistic practices revolutionized the area and, in 1946, Nise officially founded the Occupational Therapy Section, at Engenho de Dentro.

“When Nise da Silveira arrives at Pedro II Center, she is very moved by the situation of those people. And in a very sensitive way, she perceives in her patients’ gestures and body behavior a desire to communicate with the rest of the world. From there, she offers brushes, paints and clays to give materiality to those individual expressions. This showed that everyone had something to express, including patients with more complex cases,” tells us Eliane Dias Castro, occupational therapist, master of arts and professor in the Graduate Program in Interunits in Aesthetics and Art History at the University of Sao Paulo.

Above: Work by Emygdio de Barros, one of the most illustrious patients of Engenho de Dentro (Photo: Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente)

Faculdade de Medicina da Bahia, 1921-1926 (Foto: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

Bahia Medical School, 1921-1926 (Photo: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

Obra de Emygdio de Barros (Foto: Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente)

Work by Emygdio de Barros (Photo: Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente)

Emydgio de Barros pintando no jardim do Centro Psiquiátrico (Foto: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)
Nise da Silveira no Engenho de Dentro (Foto: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

Emydgio de Barros painting the garden of the Psychiatric Center i(Foto: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

Nise da Silveira at Engenho de Dentro (Photo: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

With the help of artists and art critics of the time, such as Almir Mavignier – who also worked at Engenho de Dentro, Abraham Palatnik, and Mário Pedrosa, she organizes painting and sculpture workshops at the Psychiatric Center, a research group to reflect on the meanings of that symbolic production, and starts to catalog the works that become more and more abundant. The more her patients felt confident, the more they produced. In this process, Nise makes an important dialogue between the artistic theories and the psychoanalytic concepts of Carl Jung, with whom she corresponded.

With so much artistic production in hand, Nise and her collaborators decided to exhibit them. In 1946, the therapist promoted the first exhibition with works by her patients, at the Psychiatric Center itself. In 1947, the artists of Engenho de Dentro won their first external exhibition, at the headquarters of the Ministry of Education and Culture, in Rio. Mário Pedrosa, then a critic of the newspaper “Correio da Manhã”, when coming across the works displayed there, said: “The images of the unconscious are just a symbolic language that the psychiatrist must decipher. But nobody prevents these images and signs from being, moreover, harmonious, seductive, dramatic, vivid or beautiful, in short constituting in themselves true works of art”.

Sem título (1848), Raphael Domingues (Foto: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)
Capa do catálogo da exposição "9 artistas de Engenho de Dentro do Rio de Janeiro", em outubro de 1949 (Foto: Fundação Bienal)

Untitled (1848), Raphael Domingues (Photo: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

Catalog cover of the exhibition "9 artistas de Engenho de Dentro do Rio de Janeiro" [9 artists of Engenho de Dentro in Rio de Janeiro], in October 1949 (Photo: Fundação Bienal)

Fotos da exposição "9 Artistas de Engenho de Dentro", em 1949, no Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (Foto: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

Photos of the exhibition "9 artistas de Engenho de Dentro" [9 artists of Engenho de Dentro], at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (Photo: Fundação Bienal)

Sem título (1953), Adelina Gomes (Foto: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

Untitled (1953), Adelina Gomes (Photo: Arquivo Nise da Silveira)

It is worth remembering that the expression of the unconscious is something that already interested the art system at that time, especially due to the influence of Freudian theories and movements such as Surrealism. Mário Pedrosa himself was curious about the topic and wrote an article on Gestalt techniques, the study of human perception in relation to forms. This context allowed the works produced by artist-patients to reach institutionalized art spaces. In 1949, the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MAM-SP) organizes “9 artists from Engenho de Dentro do Rio de Janeiro” [9 Artists from Engenho de Dentro in Rio de Janeiro], which exhibits, among other patients’ works, the works by Emydgio de Barros, who gains prominence in the artistic scene and is now sided by Pedrosa and Palatnik, even after leaving the hospital. Two years later, in 1952, the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente [Museum of Images of the Unconscious] was born, consolidating all the artistic production of Engenho de Dentro and helping further develop the discoveries made by Nise da Silveira.

In the late 1950s, a change in Brazilian production and the consolidation of artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica bring new questions about the relationship between art and the expression of the self. “It is important to note that Nise da Silveira, as well as the works resulting from her practice, are more articulated with a certain modernism in Brazil, while these artists start to contemplate the contemporary in the country,” says professor Eliane Dias Castro.

Lygia Clark’s case is emblematic in this context. If Dr. Nise da Silveira was a master at moving the clinic to the field of the arts, the artist knew how to promote a shift from art to the field of the clinic. “They are two displacements that have affinities, as they disturb the order of current thinking, sensitivity and expression, but they are different paths,” formulates the teacher.

"Ping-pong" (1966), Lygia Clark (Foto: Associação Cultural O Mundo de Lygia Clark)

"Ping-pong" (1966), Lygia Clark (Photo: Associação Cultural O Mundo de Lygia Clark)

Da série "Bichos" (1960) (Foto: Divulgação)
A artista Lygia Clark em seu ateliê no Rio de Janeiro (Foto: Associação Cultural O Mundo de Lygia Clark)

From the series "Bichos" (1960) (Photo: Publicity)

Artist Lygia Clark in her Rio de Janeiro studio (Photo: Associação Cultural O Mundo de Lygia Clark)

Born in Belo Horizonte, Clark studies art in Paris, is part of Grupo Frente and is one of the founders of the neo-concrete movement, which intended to revolutionize some of the current concepts of the time – especially with regard to the corporeality of the work of art. In this formative process, she abandoned painting, until then her main form of production, to create three-dimensional sculptures, such as the series “Bichos” (1960) and “Trepantes” (1963).

The series “Caminhando” (1964) is also a milestone in this paradigm shift in the artist’s production. The work consists of a sensory proposal: the viewer abandons a passive position and becomes an active agent in the development of the work by cutting a Möbius strip longitudinally, until all possible trajectories are exhausted. The materiality of the work becomes of secondary importance, and the act of the participant becomes indispensable in the formative process of the work. “The meaning of the object starts to depend entirely on experimentation, which prevents the object from being simply exposed, and the receiver from consuming it, without affecting it. The object loses its autonomy, ‘it is only a potentiality’, updated or not by the recipient,” says psychoanalyst and art critic Suely Rolnik in the essay “Lygia Clark and the hybrid art/clinic”.

This sensory proposition leads Lygia to develop other formats of work such as the installation “A casa é o corpo” [The House is the Body] (1968), in which a symbolic experience is offered. The visitor penetrates a structure of eight meters in length, and walks through different environments that symbolize the different phases of the conception of life, such as “penetration”, “ovulation”, “germination” and “expulsion”. In the 1970s, Lygia returned to Paris and began teaching at the Faculté d’Arts Plastiques St. Charles, at the Sorbonne, where she continued to experiment with techniques that moved across fine arts and therapy.

Lygia Clark veste a "Máscara Abismo com Tapa-Olhos" (Foto: Associação Cultural O Mundo de Lygia Clark)

Lygia Clark wears the "Máscara Abismo com Tapa-Olhos" [Abyss Mask with Eye Patch] (Photo: Associação Cultural O Mundo de Lygia Clark)

In the mid-1970s, this experimentation by Clark resulted in a therapeutic method of its own, the “Structuring of the self”. In this process, the artist works with common objects, such as plastic or cloth bags, filled with air; rubber tubes, cardboard tubes, socks, etc., called “relational objects”. The patient, through different weights, textures, temperatures, develops a connection with that object, which comes into existence and has corporeality only through that relationship with the subject of the action. The proposal of the method is, through the materiality of the object, to relive certain sensations recorded in the memory of the participant’s body.

“Why self? Why not structuring the id? […] The self is the mind plus the body, while the id has an evidently psychological, purely mental instance. This concept of self is not only active in the phase from 1976 until her death in 1988, but is already potentially present in all works that directly involve the body. She is not interested in the body itself, in body art, she is interested in the whole being. The self is the whole being, and it is what is being refined in its poetic potential when the person gets involved with one of Lygia Clark’s propositions.”, affirms in a video curator Paulo Sergio Duarte, one of the people responsible for the exhibition “Lygia Clark: a retrospective”, presented at Itaú Cultural in 2012.

Nise and Lygia, each with their own perspective, reinforce the therapeutic power of the artistic process. “Nise was a scientist, she elaborates her work from this perspective, intersecting issues of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, but she has a vision of a scientist, an observer. Lygia is an artist and her creative process is part of the theoretical reflection she proposes. For both, the process is important, but Nise is the one who observes, who takes care of the integrity of that method. In Lygia’s case, it is her driving force, which mobilizes her,” says Eliane.

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Yasmin Abdalla holds a degree in Journalism and Social Sciences from the University of São Paulo (USP), with a specialization in Cultural Management (SESC-SP). She has worked for several journalistic media outlets and, since 2016, focuses on communication and production of cultural projects.

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