This is fairly short film, 37 minutes, screening in the Leeds International Film Festival. However it offers as much interest as many longer feature documentaries. The subject is a cache of art works by people who were committed to a long-stay hospital, Netherne in Surrey, diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia. The collection has been named after Edward Adamson who operated a studio in the hospital from 1946 until 1981. Adamson is regarded as a pioneer in the use of art for therapy.
The collection comprises over 5,000 works created by patients in the period. Some of the early works appear to have been produced by patients before the studio was opened. Items 1 to 3 were drawn by a patient on toilet tissues. At this time the regime in the hospital was extremely oppressive: the film refers to the removal of organs like teeth to assist in controlling patients. And this was a regime that seems to have denied the inmates any autonomy.
At first the studio was regarded by the psychiatrists there as a diagnostic tool. One almost surrealist-style painting was described as revealing,
‘deficit conceptual ordering of space.’
Other comments on the works tended to see the patient/artists as divorced from reality.
In the 1950s a more liberal regime appears to have developed. Adamson was able to develop the studio for therapeutic purposes and to allow a degree of self-expression for the patients. Over the life of the studio some 100,000 art works were created. These were stored but when the hospital closed in 1993 many were dumped and only the 5,000 or so housed by the Welcome Trust survive.
These do not appear to be a selection of the best, just the fortunate survivors. The items used in the film are really impressive. The illustration at the head reminds me of the work of Salvador Dali on Hitchcock’s film Spellbound (1945). Among these works are paintings, portraits, landscapes, sculptures and artefacts – they are imaginative, often technically impressive, sometimes derivative and sometimes approaching a surrealist response to ‘reality’. Some of the work was by artists who were committed to the hospital, but some was by apparently untrained eyes and hands.
The film combines footage shot at hospital, stills, examples of the art work and more recent film. There are also interviews, including briefly Adamson himself, and some earlier film of patients and more recent interviews and comments. The film uses recurring voice-overs, both from recordings and by a commentative voice. Visually the film relies on skilled editing, cutting between the artefacts, found footage and illustrative film. Some flaring on the images appears to be technique for highlighting the content.
The film, scripted and directed by Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson, manages to provide a narrative of the work at the hospital: to suggest something of the oppressive regime that operated, at least for a time; and to give some voice to the creators behind the work. Later in the film there is footage of an exhibition of the work in Paris: there is no sign of an equivalent in the UK. The collection is now housed in the Welcome Trust Library and by SLaM Arts.
The is documentary is accompanied by a short experimental or avant-garde film, Exquisite Corpus (2015). This is by the Austrian director Peter Tscherkassky. It is on 35mm, in black and white, academy ratio and runs for 19 minutes. The film is
‘based on various erotic films and advertising rushes. I play on the “cadavre exquis” technique used by the Surrealists, drawing disparate body parts constellating magical creatures. Myriad fragments are melted into a single sensuous, humorous, gruesome, and ecstatic dream.’
The film makes extensive use of fast editing, superimpositions and dissolves as well as reverse imaging. The soundtrack is equally experimental. This is one of the experimental work that appears to have a strong subjective focus. Its purpose is experimental and – I am not sure. It is adult material. It also appears to include footage from feature films as well as ‘the erotic’. I recognised a clip, in black and white, from Tony Richardson’s film of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1963). Whilst it accompanies the Adamson documentary I think it is actually of a different order of art. Abandoned Goods is 12A but Exquisite Corpus is 18.
Note, the screening only lasts an hour and is on again at 2.30 p.m. this Sunday [Nov. 8th] at the Hyde Park Picture House – really worth fitting in.