[Sara Gomes da Silva graduated with a Master in History of Art (New University of Lisbon; University of Lisbon) in 2013, having written her thesis on the subject of “Madness in Contemporary Art”. She is about to start a Diploma’s course in Counselling and Psychotherapy at the Center for Counselling & Psychotherapy Education of London]

Spontaneity is an essential quality of modern art.  It opens the way to the artist’s inner reality. At the turn of the 20th century, art as a way to self-knowledge converged with the interest for the art objects produced by people with psychiatric diagnoses.

The transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century marks the turning point of a profound transformation in the artistic realm. There emerged at that time a movement of protest against reason and established values. An intense desire of freedom from academic standards paved the way to deep changes in the artists’ perception of reality. In fact, distance from academic teaching – with its emphasis on the apparent and objective dimensions of reality – represents a shift in the way of seeing. Instead of focusing on the external world, the modern artist became more receptive to his/her own ways of feeling and perceiving. By getting in touch with his/her inner self, he/she gradually rediscovered dimensions of reality often neglected by the conventional artistic circuits. As the worlds we identify as «outside» and «inside» started to communicate, their boundaries began fading away.

Front row, Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung. Back row, Abraham Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. 1909 in front of Clark University, Massachusetts.
Front row, Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung. Back row, Abraham Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi.
Group photo taken 1909 in front of Clark University, Massachusetts.

This process is closely related to the investigation of unconscious phenomena that emerged in the same period. Freud and Jung – holding different perspectives about the unconscious – revolutionised our understanding of the psyche. At the turn of the twentieth century, artists, theorists of art history, and psychologists, were major actors of the collective awakening to an inner reality. Art and psychology intersected and their dialogue fostered the emergence of new ideas. While many artists looked from a psychological perspective at their creative process, psychology, in turn, recognised that art was essential to the understanding of the psyche. In this context, as we will see, spontaneity played a crucial role in both disciplines.

But what does «spontaneity» mean? The word comes from the latin sponte, «of one’s own accord». The English Dictionary of Oxford tells us that «spontaneous» means «(1) acting (…) without external cause; (2) voluntary, without external incitement; (3) (of style or manner) gracefully natural and unconstrained; (4) (of sudden movement etc.) involuntary; (5) growing natural without cultivation». These meanings can all be found in the interconnections often established between spontaneity and art.

Considered one of the most important qualities of modern art, spontaneity has been conceived from very different perspectives. Some value the absence of technique, while others recognise its role as a catalyser of creativity. Involving no planning, spontaneity is often associated to the natural impulse to create without judgment of right and wrong, or to the capacity of being in the moment instead of trying to create from pre-conceived ideas. It is also believed that when the artist does not conform to external expectations, his/her expressions are more authentic and unique…

But spontaneity is not merely a formal quality of art. It can also be conceived as a bridge for the formation of the artist’s sense of reality – a central issue at the turn of the twentieth century. It is through spontaneity that the inner world may be discovered. By knowing himself, the artist changes his perception of reality, and art is transformed accordingly. We could even say that, paradoxically, modern art conforms to the rule of acting «of one’s own accord»; the artists try their best to free their work from academic standards in order to express themselves in a more personal way.

This tendency was not always well regarded. Contrary to reason, spontaneity is often viewed as the opposite of a civilised state. According to the English Dictionary of Oxford «civilise» means «bring out of a barbarous or primitive stage of society», «enlighten; refine and educate». The associations between «primitive» and «spontaneous», on the one hand, and «refined» and «civilised», on the other, pervade the discourses of artists, art critics and art historians at the turn of the twentieth century. These polarities are also implicit to the association of modern to degenerate art.

A text about Manet, written in 1917 by Petronius Arbiter, illustrates that perspective. As opposed to the aesthetic and moral idealisation of a fine art, the painting appears to him as «vulgar and immoral». He opens the discussion with the following statement: «Manet’s Lunch on the Grass (…) must be put into the class of degenerate works of art». And he explains: «Civilisation means – a getting away from the animal. To do this we must travel towards the Ideal, the spiritual» (Arbiter, Petronius: “A Degenerate Work of Art: «Lunch on the Grass» by Manet” in The Art World, Vol 1, Nº. 4, 1917: pp. 272-275). This is the crux of the matter. An opposition is here established between the spiritual and physical worlds. Art should express the spiritual, that is, what lasts forever. Manet, on the contrary, valued the present, the instant, the impermanent – an attitude that was later at the origin of Impressionism. In Baudelaire’s view the conception of modernity includes the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent…

According to Georges Bataille, no one had achieved, in the same period, such a detachment from cultural expectations as Édouard Manet – the painter art historians often place at the origin of modernity. The scandals triggered by some of his most famous works, such as L’Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, became powerful myths of modern art. Ugliness, instability, and chaos started to be valued, revealing a concern with the limits of reason in favor of the freedom to express emotions in an individualised way.

We can appreciate the intensity of the ideological shock provoked by Manet through the unexpected reaction of the audience. As Bataille pointed out, the public often laughed uncontrollably when confronted with the strangeness of his paintings. Going beyond the conventional, his works were unlike anything that had appeared until then: «D’autres avant lui avait suscité des colères; Delacroix, Courbet, et, très classique, Ingres lui-même avaient fait rire. Mais l’Olympia est le premier chef-d’oeuvre dont la foule ait ri d’un rire immense». (Bataille, Georges. Manet – Étude biographique et critique, Genève, 1955 : p.17)

Georges Clemenceau, by Edouard Manet (1832-1883) 1879-1880, Oil on canvas Paris, musée d'Orsay
‘Georges Clemenceau’, 1870-1880, Edouard Manet, Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

A particularly significant illustration of the relation between Manet and his public is Clemenceau’s reaction when faced with his own image portrayed by the painter. Manet painted it so much in his own accord – with a very loose, intuitive and spontaneous trait – that Clemenceau was unable to recognise himself: “il me manque un œil, et j’ai le nez de travers”, he said. (Malraux, André. “Le musée imaginaire”, in Les voix du silence, Vol 1., Paris, 1965: p 46). We may therefore ask: who is portrayed on this painting – Clemenceau or Manet? The same question can be rephrased in more general terms: Does reality exist beyond the artist’s point of view? Or is it as subjective as the artist’s way of perceiving it?

When artists started to reveal themselves in their paintings – breaking with the compromise of representing the outside world solely through visual perception and reason – something completely new emerged. The boundaries between «outside» and «inside» began to dissipate: reality could no longer be reduced to exteriority. We could say that many artists of this period experimented “acting without external cause”, being “voluntary without external incitement”, “growing natural without cultivation”… However, they faced severe criticism. Petronius Arbiter’s association of modern to degenerate art is just one example.

Interested in exploring their inner world and their subjective perception of reality, contemporary artists found that the artistic works produced in psychiatric contexts were stimulating. Many believed that people with a psychiatric diagnosis, as well as children and «primitive» cultures had a special access to the unconscious – often considered at the time a major source of wisdom and creativity. The modern artist felt therefore inspired by the creative expressions of these groups.

This awakening to inner reality presupposed estrangement from Cartesian conceptions. As Foucault remarked, the basic statement je pense, donc je suis tacitly implies the exclusion of the insane: «Dans l’économie du doute, il y a un déséquilibre fondamental entre folie d’une part, rêve et erreur de l’autre. Leur situation est différente par rapport à la vérité et à celui qui cherche ; singes ou illusions sont surmontés dans la structure même de la vérité ; mais la folie est exclue par le sujet qui doute» (Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, Paris, 1972: p. 53).

Interest in the artistic works produced by patients in psychiatric contexts dates back to the early nineteenth century in some European countries. Many hospitals were collecting them with the aim of studying their affinities and to test their relevance for diagnosis. In this respect, France was a pioneer. But only at the turn of the twentieth century did the subject become a major focus of public attention. The first international exhibition of the art of the insane was held at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, London, in 1900 – significantly, the date of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Other studies followed relating psychoanalysis to art (Freud wrote about Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo in 1910 and 1914, respectively).

left: 'Le Berger Miraculeux', 1919, August Natterer, Pencil and gouache Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg right: 'Oedipus,' 1931, Max Ernst, Cover of Cahiers d'art, Paris 1937
left: ‘Le Berger Miraculeux’, 1919, August Natterer, Pencil and gouache
Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg
right: ‘Oedipus,’ 1931, Max Ernst, Cover of Cahiers d’art, Paris 1937

Among the works on this subject, published at the turn of the twentieth century, Hans Prinzhorn’s contribution should be singled out. With extensive knowledge of both history of art and psychiatry, he was invited in 1919 to study the large collection of the Heidelberg Clinic from a clinical and pathological perspective. The interest of the art historian, however, allowed him to go beyond a purely clinical focus. The interrelations he established between psychology and art – namely, the analogies suggested between the artistic expressions of the mentally ill and contemporary works of art – had a decisive influence on many modern artists. Prinzhorn stressed the extraordinary aesthetic and expressive quality of the artistic works produced in psychiatric contexts. Being an anti-academic, he valued spontaneous creativity both in expressionism and in the art of the mentally ill, children, or the so-called primitive people. Looking at works of art free from common prejudice, Prinzhorn was «[…] much more interested in those which are the bearers of positive creative values rather than in the recognition of suspicious traits». (Prinzhorn by MacGregor, John Monroe. The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, New Jersey, 1989. P. 234). He believed that the insane were in a natural state, uncorrupted by society; coming from the depths of the psyche, their art sometimes revealed ultimate truths.

In 1922, Prinzhorn published the Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Widely read, this book inspired many contemporary artists. Paul Klee stressed the extraordinary ability to see of the insane; Max Ernst, being particularly interested in exploring the psyche beyond consciousness, recognised that these deeper dimensions were easily grasped in the art of the mentally ill; André Breton developed surrealist artistic techniques that attempted to reproduce the effects of psychosis; and Jean Dubuffet saw in the art of the insane one of the most significant expressions of art brut.

left: ‘Dhôtel nuancé d’abricot’, 1947, Jean Dubuffet, Oil on Canvas right: ‘Solario’ (portrait), 1961, Jean Dubuffet
left: ‘Dhôtel nuancé d’abricot’, 1947, Jean Dubuffet, Oil on Canvas
right: ‘Solario’ (portrait), 1961, Jean Dubuffet

Prinzhorn, however, differentiated the mentally ill from the modern artist on two accounts: while the first group is genuinely free from academic knowledge, the second requires an arduous effort to bypass it; while people with psychiatric diagnosis have a natural access to the unconscious, the modern artist’s dive into the depths of the unconscious is part of an intentional plan. Spontaneity plays, in this context, a very important role: a meaningful reference in the new conception of the creative process – a gateway to the artist’s inner world –, it is considered a major tool for liberation from convention and the constraints of reason.