This book is published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same title at the Wellcome Collection in London running from 1st April until 28th June 2009. Co-directed by Gemma Blackshaw of Plymouth University and Leslie Topp of Birkbeck College, University of London, who were also co-curators of the exhibition and co-editors of this publication, the `Madness and Modenity' project was facilitated by a research grant from the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). This seems to me also the cause of its basic problem. Despite some fascinating information and observations, it is driven by a theory - namely, that the `madness industry' in fin-de-siecle Vienna exerted a profound influence on the city's modernist art forms - in search of some evidence. Under these conditions, it can be a temptation to discover and present only information that suits the argument or twist it to fit accordingly.
In the visual arts, the claim is made that Schiele, Kokoschka, Klimt, Oppenheimer etc. opportunistically derived their contorted figurative imagery (`imaging' in artspeak) from the medical images of the diseased bodies of the asylums' inmates, in order to reinforce the artists' own image, as well as that of their intellectual patrons, as avant-garde outsiders in a bourgeois society. Well, I, for one, have got my doubts. It looks much more credible that they were essentially stylistic devices, driven by their own artistic development and derived from many contemporaneous sources. The theory that they utilised the contorted, sexually-explicit body as a career move has been covered before by Robert Jensen in his "Marketing Identity", but, in any case, this type of imagery forms only a part, in differing degrees, of these artists' work.
It goes without saying that the 1903 Secession exhibition of the 'mad' Vincent Van Gogh's paintings had a profound effect on Viennese artists and art-goers. However the artist probably most influenced by this, the precocious Richard Gerstl, doesn't rate a mention here. Could this be because his figuration, despite being the most radically `modern' of all the painters in Vienna, doesn't conform to the more stylized contortions of Kokoschka and Schiele? Gerstl took his own life just five years later but there's no evidence that he was mad in any sense of the word or wanted to be seen as such.
The links between art and madness have a longer tradition, of course, especially in vogue with the Romantics' revolt against rationalism. Prior to that, although often linked to `genius', madness was not seen as an illness to be cured. This raises another problem - cutting Vienna off from the rest of European culture and society excludes so much important material. Surely, in fin-de-siecle literature, the most significant writer on this theme is Thomas Mann (from Lubeck in north Germany). `Buddenbrooks', his first novel, charts the decline of a wealthy Hanseatic family, identifying increased aesthetic interests with nervous illness. The novella "Tristan", as well as his later magnum opus "Der Zauberberg", is almost entirely set in a sanatorium, while the radical composer Leverkuhn in "Doktor Faustus" finally descends into madness.
These sanatoria, usually for TB sufferers rather than the insane, grew up all around Europe in the early part of the century. Inevitably, it became an opportunity for architects to exercise their endemic professional belief that environment effects change on mind and body - whether the patients endorsed that view is more problematic. The sanatoria designed and furnished by Hoffmann and Otto Wagner could be virtually any other Jugendstil building; in fact it's highly arguable that their style, with its baroque love of decoration, can even be genuinely termed `modernist'. Surely the real modernist was Loos, who despised the Secessionists' ornamentation?
Mention Vienna and psychiatry to almost anybody and only one name will crop up: Sigmund Freud. Again, here he merits only a passing interest, as if even he didn't really fit in but couldn't be left out. Freud, whose investigation into the dark subconscious mind set the real tone for the art of the century, revolutionised the view of mental illness as a physical condition and opened up the inner life of his patients. The asylum and sanatorium were replaced by the couch. Charcot's photographs of the inmates of Salpetriere, supposedly borrowed by Schiele, were very much a nineteenth century product.
"Madness and Modernity" may be a fascinating snapshot of an intriguing time and place, when so many key figures of twentieth century history - Freud, Hitler, Wittgenstein, Mahler, Schiele, Loos, Schoenberg, Trotsky, to name but a few - were locked together in a couple of square miles in the melting pot that was the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire but the conclusion tries too hard to make too much of too little and oversimplifies a complex web of ideas and relationships.