A Girl Mad As Birds*

bird |bərd| (noun) – a warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings, and a beak and (typically) by being able to fly.

There is the history that has been deemed important and there is the history overlooked with, ironically, an important lesson to teach us. In 19th century psychiatry there existed the commonly held belief that women were predisposed to madness. Often referring to their tendency to cry, women were defined as overly emotional and prone to lose their minds. Women could be sent to an asylum for what today would be considered a common health problem or something as innocent as having an intense enjoyment of reading. Asylums easily became storage grounds for troublesome women and especially those in the working class with treatment of “illnesses” often brutal and bizarre. The rigid expectations of the Victorian woman put demands on her to never complain no matter how oppressed or fatigued. Should her character be a disappointment she was thought to suffer from  “moral insanity” as any diversion from what was expected could be labeled as mental illness – no proof was even necessary. Once admitted to the asylum, she often languished and died there, invisible and powerless. If she was not ill upon entering, confinement along with bizarre and cruel “cures” could make her so. She was alone, isolated and rendered mute.

According to Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, the new art form of photography was a means of recording the facial features of female patients that then revealed her mental condition, thus enabling the doctor to make the “correct” diagnosis. “Physiognomy” was a pseudoscience based on the premise that a person’s mental state is reflected in the face. He claimed this to be a way to better understand insanity and that the photographs could also be used to teach the woman to see herself outside of what he considered to be the distorted image of herself that she possessed as a result of her illness. Despite good intentions, his ideas were eventually discredited: he is now best known for his photography.

This work in progress barely scratches the surface in exploring the history of women confined to asylums and I admit to being fascinated by the idea of madness as an attempt to escape from unbearable circumstances. As an artist I have been drawn to lesser-known women’s history – working to open a window to at least let in some light. Many of these portraits are inspired by archival photographs of female patients taken by Dr. Diamond. I chose an interpretation that questions the diagnosis of madness and imagines the urgency the women must have felt to escape from tragic misinterpretation. Often the asylums accepted visitors who paid to view patients in a circus-like exhibit. As I have always loved to paint the human face, I have chosen to exhibit the women’s features as they are engaging  to me as an artist, not as evidence for a diagnosis used to then cage her in an institution and put her on display. I have chosen a portrayal meant to come closer to this woman in all of her human complexity – a woman who may have been very much like me, for: “A stranger has come To share my room in the house not right in the head, A girl mad as birds.”

* The quoted text and title of this exhibition are from the poem, “Love in the Asylum” by Dylan Thomas.

Cheryl Parry All Rights Reserved. © 2018