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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Beauford in "Psychology and Art" - Part 2


Continued from Part 1.

Dr. Robert Brubaker and the students attending the Kentucky Institute of International Studies course on Psychology and Art are living in a hostel across the street from Sainte-Anne's Hospital, where Beauford spent the last four years of his life. They will visit the hospital to learn about art therapy and view artwork created by hospital patients.

Insignia - Sainte-Anne's Hospital
© Discover Paris!

Dr. Brubaker feels very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Sainte-Anne’s Hospital as part of the Psychology of Art class since 2007. The specific agenda varies from year to year, but he and the students typically meet with Dr. Anne-Marie Dubois, Head of the Centre d’Etude de l’Expression clinic and an internationally recognized expert on art therapy. Dr. Dubois talks about the work of her clinic, its history, and about the art collection of the Museum of Art History and History (formerly called the Musée Singer-Polignac) of Sainte-Anne Hospital. She also shares some pieces from the collection - these are works created by persons with mental illness and donated to the museum (not those who are patients in the art therapy clinics).

Entrance to the Centre d’Etude de l’Expression
© Discover Paris!

The Centre d'Etude de l'Expression was formed in 1952 and has operated as a French non-profit organization since 1973. It offers therapeutic expression workshops that incorporate art (and other means of expression, such as writing) into the therapeutic process. Work produced by the workshop participants, while part of the Centre’s collection, is not shared with the public.

The museum is only open to the public during planned exhibitions, the Journées du Patrimoine, and the Nuit Européene des Musées. The collection is stored in an archives located on the hospital grounds. Catalogs from previous exhibits and reproductions (postcards) are available for purchase at the museum. Dr. Dubois has authored a four-volume series of books on the collection (De l’art des fous a l’oeuvre d’art) illustrated with numerous stunning images of many of the works.

This year, Brubaker plans to ask if there are any works by Beauford in the hospital's collection.

I asked whether Dr. Brubaker thinks Beauford's "pathology" is reflected in his work. He responded:

Well, that’s another of those controversial issues. I will preface my response with the disclaimer that I am neither a Beauford Delaney scholar nor an art historian or critic. Based on my reading of what empirical research there is on the topic, I’m certainly not convinced it is possible to look at a piece of art and determine whether the artist had a mental illness or not (except, perhaps, in cases of severe cognitive impairment). I’m also very dubious about the validity of interpreting specific elements of a painting or drawing as symbolic of internal psychological conflicts or turmoil. The data from studies of the validity of projective drawing techniques have convincingly debunked that assertion.

I suspect that such interpretations reveal more about the person doing the interpreting than it does about the artist. Paintings reflect what the artist chooses to tell us. It’s one thing if Delaney tells us, as noted in the catalog of The Color Yellow exhibit, that he believed yellow is “… the color of light, healing, and redemption.” It’s quite another if we observe his use of yellow and draw that conclusion on our own.

The Color Yellow - catalog cover
© Discover Paris!
The entirety of the artist is reflected in his/her work. I don’t think there’s any justification for according “pathology”any special status.

Brubaker does not believe there is a way to know that Beauford struggled with psychological disturbances without prior knowledge of his history. He says that if he knew nothing about Beauford Delaney and noted Beauford's extensive use of yellow in his work, he might suggest that it reflects Beauford's bright, sunny, warm-hearted personality ... or he could just as easily argue that it was a form of masking or compensating for or dealing with depression and unhappiness. He says there are no characteristics of “art of the mentally ill.”

I asked Dr. Brubaker whether he thinks there is a "common significance" for the use of the color "yellow" based on his studies of various artists. While he said that he doesn't feel qualified to offer an opinion on this question, he mentioned the "obvious parallel" between Beauford's use of the color and Van Gogh's "seeming affinity for yellow (the sunflower paintings, the yellow house in Arles), particularly at a time when Van Gogh was more hopeful about his future." He now believes he needs to explore this issue more carefully:

Given the central role the color "yellow" has played in discussions of Delaney’s paintings as well is in those of Van Gogh, particularly during the period he (Van Gogh) spent in Arles, a more careful consideration of the psychological aspects of color is warranted.

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