When I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see their show of the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosario, the nice ladies on the information desk had no idea what I was talking about. It took some searching to find the rooms dedicated to this visionary Brazilian artist. You won’t find him on Wikipedia either. Maybe his obscurity is because Bispo do Rosario spent fifty years of his life on a Rio de Janeiro psychiatric ward, and did not even think of himself as an artist.
Even his origins are uncertain. He was born, probably, in 1909, in Japaratuba on the east coast of Brazil, the descendent of African slaves. He grew up exposed to a strongly religious culture and to the hybrid traditions of folk art, which is usually defined as work produced by peasants or workers, with decorative rather than aesthetic intentions. Bispo do Rosario worked as a cabin boy, as a signaler in the navy (he was thrown out for insubordination in 1933), and then as a boxer, before finally ending up in Rio as an odd job man.
In 1938, he had a vision of angels bathed in light. He believed that he was Jesus Christ, and that the Virgin Mary had given him a mission. His task was to recreate the universe in visual form, in preparation for presenting it to God on the Day of Judgement. He believed that he had been brought by seven angels to the yard where he lived in Sao Clemente Street. That same year, he was first arrested and then hospitalized for treatment for paranoid schizophrenia. He was to spend the rest of his life in the hospital of Colonia Juliano Moreira in Rio de Janeiro.
In an attic of the hospital Bispo do Rosario began his work creating an inventory of the universe. For the next fifty years he spent up to 20 hours a day working obsessively, creating more than 800 sculptures, objects, garments and banners that began to spread across the entire building. In 2012, eighty of the pieces were loaned to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the exhibition where I first encountered this fascinating artist. I remember a wall of Miss Universe sceptres, his tributes to female beauty. I remember there were a lot of embroideries, as well as numerous model boats. Many of the pieces were recycled from scrap and everyday objects. Like Marcel Duchamp, he takes an everyday object – a bicycle, a bed – and made it into something cosmic. Like Duchamp, he mounts a bicycle wheel on a wooden frame.
Recyling is also evident in the way that the imagery of Bispo do Rosario’s artwork draws on memories and fragments from his past. For example, images of boxing, ships and other aspects of his life are recuperated and integrated into his work. Brazilian coastal scenes are meticulously rendered, complete with little ships dangling silver anchor chains. But religion is the central theme.
Back in Japaratuba, it was men’s work to stitch the banners for the religious processions, so Bispo do Rosario was working within his cultural tradition. He stitched religious messages and all sorts of other texts on his fabric creations
Language is key to the work, with embroidered texts including poems, current affairs updates, romantic quests, adverts for bibles – with the poignant words “even with the bible, in the psychiatric ward one is abandoned”.
A huge amount of effort went into these creations. The ornamental embroidered texts have been compared to illuminated manuscripts. For a British audience, there is an inevitable comparison with the recent production of Tracy Emin, only that the Brazilian artist is oriented not to this world, but to the next.
Words also flow onto paper, card and wooden boards. In the V&A exhibition, it seemed that everything had writing on it. As if cataloguing his own life, Bispo do Rosario created lists of names, columns of numbers. For example, he made a list of everyone he ever met. He also collected things – examples of hats, of shoes, of tin mugs. I absolutely love his wall of objects – ladders, shears, tools of all kinds. It’s almost as if he was Noah, gathering items for an ark. We talk now of mental illness in terms of distress, but these productions do not seem like expressions of pathology. Art has become a way of coming to terms with the world. Ironically, despite this monumental act of curation, many aspect of his biography remain mysterious, including his exact date of birth or the identity of his parents.
This making was a spiritual, not an artistic task. After all, he saw it as his duty to prepare for the Last Judgement. When visitors came to see him at the hospital, he would carefully dress himself in his ceremonial Annunciation Garment robes. When people came to see him, he would test them with a riddle: “What is the colour of my aura?”. He carefully controlled who was allowed to see his creations. Photographs were permitted, but only under his strict instructions. He enjoyed authority and respect at the psychiatric hospital. Patients, staff and visitors were all recruited to further his work. He said:
“The mentally ill are like hummingbirds: they never land, they always hover two meters from the ground.”
I’ve also read All Dogs Are Blue, an autobiographical novel by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, which describes the terrors of being confined to a mental hospital in Rio de Janeiro. But for Bispo do Rosario, the institution was a shelter and refuge, rather than the place of fear and abuse that these places have often been for others. Apparently, he was the only patient with his own key to the asylum, perhaps because he was the only one who had no desire to leave the place where he had found fulfillment.
His work has an extraordinary intricacy, complexity and impact. It reminds me of surrealism, of the fabric creations of Louise Bourgeois, of the collages and constructions of Kurt Schwitters. Above all, there is the spirit of Dada in this complex and lunatic creation. This creative achievement is all the more extraordinary in that Bispo do Rosario was entirely self-taught, worked in an artistic vacuum, and generated all this extraordinary art through his own originality and imagination. He did not attend art therapy classes or have contact with other artists. He did not care about recognition and respect, just as long as he was left to do his spiritual work.
In the 1980s, psychiatric reform in Brazil, as in many countries, led to de-institutionalization of some people with mental illness. In 1982, the Museo do Bispo Rosario was created, to look after the work he was making at the hospital. The first exhibition of his artwork was held in 1989, just months after Arthur Bispo do Rosario died of cancer. This was followed by shows at the Venice Biennale, in Paris, and now in London. Today, more and more people in the art world venerate Artur Bispo do Rosario, for his authenticity and originality, even though he never saw anything he did as art. His treasury of 802 works is now designated as part of the national heritage of Brazil, and his museum runs art workshops for people with mental illness and members of the public. In his hometown of Japaratuba there is a statue of him, wearing his Annunciation cloak.
The term Outsider art is used for creators outside the mainstream culture like Bispo do Rosario. Outsider Art is hard to evaluate. How do you judge a creative work produced by someone who never saw himself as an artist? How much does intention matter? Talking about her fascination with it, critic Terry Castle describes outsider art as a “gorgeous, disorienting, sometimes repellent phenomenon”. Schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses have often been associated with original creative thought, as well as with religiosity. Should it make any difference that these activities are generated by extreme and unusual brain states? Is there any significant difference between the work of Bispo do Rosario and that of the Netherlandish Renaissance master Hieronymus Bosch, who painted extraordinary visions of heaven and hell? Many artists and writers, after all, have experienced mental illness, which gives them a different perspective on the world, and perhaps a burning need to express themselves.
Indeed, Arthur Bispo do Rosario is only one of many people with mental illness who have achieved fame for their original artistic vision. Adolf Wolffli was one of the first to be recognized as an artist from within the Swiss asylum where he was incarcerated in the early decades of the twentieth century. At the same time as Bispo do Rosario, there was the Mexican artist Martin Ramirez, who insisted that the work he made should be destroyed at the end of each day. In Poland, Edmund Moniel was another person with schizophrenia who thought he was on a mission from God, and for him, making art had a therapeutic role, in alleviating his symptoms. It may be that it was the same for Arthur Bispo do Rosario, that his furious activity was a way of silencing the voices and visions. After all, he said “I do it because they tell me to, if they didn’t make me do it, I wouldn’t do any of it.”
Even though Outsider art has something of the weirdness of contemporary art, it also holds out a great democratic hope, that the possibility of creation lies within every one of us. You don’t need special materials or equipment. Critic Roger Cardinal points out that “almost all Outsider Art has to do with the projection of deep meaning into shapes and materials which everyday living discounts as being of negligible value”. Your medium could be scrap paper, cardboard boxes, nylon tights or even toothpaste.
Perhaps the key is disinhibition. Dr Hans Prinzhorn, who created a pioneering collection of Outsider art in Germany, wrote that “a primal creative urge belongs to all human beings, but has been submerged by the development of civilization.” Art by people with mental illness has sometimes been compared to that of children, but I think there are real differences. Someone like Arthur Bispo do Rosario bought all his life experiences to bear. His artwork was deeply considered and intended, not random or idiosyncratic. Above all, his creation was not something external to him, it was the world in which he lived.
We’d like to think we could achieve something like the Outsider art of Arthur Bispo do Rosario, but I think we’d be mistaken. Most of us suppress our dreams and fantasies. We are too self-conscious. We worry about what others might think, or seek approbation from the art world. With someone Arthur Bispo do Rosario, you have unrestricted access to the recesses of the imagination, what curator Victor Musgrave once called “an exultant pilgrimage into the unexpected.”
Alongside the handful of people with mental illness who have been recognized as great artists, there are thousands more who are making art in their bedrooms, or in art therapy or occupational therapy sessions. The vast majority of this art is as banal and uninteresting, as the work which you or I would create in our evening class – which is not to say that it is unimportant or useless, but to acknowledge that simply having a mental illness does not make you an artist, let alone a Van Gogh.
However, the association between mental illness and art is ancient. Plato thought of creativity as a “divine madness… a gift from the gods”. William Shakespeare wrote “the lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.” More recent research by Kay Redfield Jamison shows how a very high proportion of eminent creative people, from Hans Christian Anderson to Jackson Pollock had mood disorders – for example manic depression. In many cases, their artistic work saved their lives. When people are manic, they experience quickening of thought processes, fluency and flexibility of thought and intensified sensation. At Harvard, Professor Albert Rothenberg has studied the connection of creativity to psychosis. Translogical thinking, in other words being able to bring together different ideas and cross boundaries, is often key to original work in the arts. However, as the lives of Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath and many others demonstrate demonstrate, there can be a thin line between creation and destruction.
Whether prophets, poets or painters, people with schizophrenia and manic depression have contributed hugely to our culture. From the world of theatre, it seems appropriate to bring the thoughts of Antonin Artaud to bear. After all, he spent time in mental institutions himself, and knew of what he spoke when he said “This is why a tainted society has invented psychiatry to defend itself against the investigations of certain superior intellects whose faculties of divination would be troublesome.” For Artaud, the work of someone like Van Gogh was a way of “seriously upsetting the spectral conformity of the bourgeoisie”. But the difference between Artaud and Arthur Bispo do Rosario is that the Bispo do Rosario did not consider the hospital a prison. Nor was he in revolt against it. Instead, he subverted it to his own ends. Only in hospital could he have been recognized as Jesus Christ. Artaud said “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.” But Arthur Bispo do Rosario was different. He did all his wonderful work in order to get into heaven.
Extract from The Prisoner of Passage