Revealing the mind’s complexity through art
The process of preserving the art created by patients in psychiatric institutions has been characterised by dilemma and struggle which goes back to the late 1940s, when psychiatrist Eric Cunningham Dax took his first steps towards amassing artworks that have become the basis of the unique and internationally renowned Dax Collection.
“Today the collection comprises over 15,000 artworks including works on paper, sculpture, photographs, textiles and multimedia created by people with an experience of mental illness or trauma,” says the Dax Centre’s Exhibitions Manager Juliette Hanson. “It represents an interaction between mental health, art and education, thereby promoting mental health and wellbeing by fostering a greater understanding of the mind, mental illness and trauma.”
Both the dilemma and the struggle punctuated Dr Cunningham Dax’s principles and practice throughout his professional life from the time he first started collecting the art “as a pleasure and a hobby” as a young psychiatrist in England.
There has been an enduring debate about the role of art and creativity in psychiatry,” says Ms Hanson, “about its efficacy in helping people rehabilitate or recover more quickly, its inherent value as an art form, and philosophical, ethical and curatorial standards which guide the exhibition of the artworks.”
This aspect of the dilemma raises questions such as: ‘Is this art, or a form of therapy?’ ‘What are the rights of the artists?’ ‘Should the work be shown?’ ‘If so, how?’
According to biographer Belinda Robson, Dr Cunningham Dax’s interest in artwork created by people experiencing mental anguish was complex and changed over time. “Dax started collecting…because of what he believed it could tell him about the personal experience of mental suffering…but [also] because he saw a value in this art,” she writes. “But his main purpose was to teach others about mental illness.”
The struggle, which also straddled Dr Cunningham Dax’s professional life, was unrelenting, ceasing only with the opening of the Dax Centre in its current location on the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus in the new, five-star Kenneth Myer Building which incidentally also houses the Melbourne Brain Centre.
The Dax Centre’s new home at the University of Melbourne follows a long and fractured history of storage and exhibition spaces that include patient files in public psychiatric institutions, a couple of rooms above Dr Cunningham Dax’s office and a school hall in Hobart, the University of Melbourne’s Old Physics Laboratory, a temporary studio in Faraday Street in Carlton and for the past 20 years, a gallery in Poplar Road, Parkville.
The new Dax Centre not only provides a permanent home with a dedicated gallery and storage space for the collection, but room both to grow the collection and develop important education programs.
“We anticipate this internationally recognised collection will increase to 20,000 works over the next five to ten years,” says Dr Eugen Koh, Dax Centre Director and Honorary Senior Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences.
“In the past, we have focused on the collection and exhibition of art by people with experience of mental illness or trauma. In recent years, in addition to the usual activities of an art institution, such as acquisition, preservation and exhibition, we have developed an education program that is more assertive and diverse than those commonly found in galleries and museums.”
“It’s not a big space,” says Ms Hanson, “but being purposely built and designed, it’s a perfect space to exhibit and store the artworks and, importantly, to provide a platform for innovative educative programs developed by our multidisciplinary team of psychoanalysts, art historians, curators and education specialists.”
A forthcoming symposium to be jointly presented by the Dax Centre and the Ian Potter Museum of Art is a case in point. Scheduled to coincide with the Dax Centre’s ‘Hide and Seek’ exhibition and a touring exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery concurrently running at the Potter called ‘Inner worlds: Portraits and Psychology’, the symposium will elaborate on themes raised by the exhibitions and draw on a number of frameworks including philosophy, ethics, psychoanalysis, history, art history, and psychology and current art practice.
“A symposium like this provides a wonderful opportunity to engage specialists and the public alike,” says Ms Hanson, “and brings curators, artist, academics and psychiatrists together to promote and foster understanding, and showcase the importance of an interdisciplinary approach.”
“Visitors to the gallery commonly comment on the powerful effect the exhibitions have on them,” says Ms Hanson. “There’s such a lot to take in and the feeling lingers and stays with you.
“It’s a wonderful space – nothing less than the works themselves deserve.”
The Psychology of Portraiture symposium will be held concurrently at The Ian Potter Museum of Art and The Dax Centre from 12–4.30 on Saturday 28 April.