Ahead of a fascinating new exhibition at Bethlem Museum of the Mind exploring a psychedelic art experiment in the 1930s, Museum Crush talks to author and cultural historian Mike Jay about mescaline, art and psychiatry
In 1936 two doctors at the Maudsley Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Camberwell, began encouraging patients suffering from schizophrenia to make art in an attempt to ‘explain themselves’. However, the psychiatrists, Dr Eric Guttman and Dr Walter Maclay, soon noted that only a minority of patients had the capacity to translate their hallucinations into pictorial form.
So they turned to the drug mescaline – and a group of willing artists from the Surrealist movement to take part in experiments involving the hallucinogen, which they believed would produce an ‘experimental psychosis’.
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The adventurous Surrealists who stepped forward for this curious experiment included Julian Trevelyan, Basil Beaumont and Herbrand Williams and the art they produced (as well as the visions they experienced) are the subject of this fascinating exhibition, which coincides with the centenary of the first experiments with mescaline and its 1919 invention in a lab in Vienna.
Co-curated by Mike Jay, author of ‘Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic’ and Kate Tiernan, the exhibition delves into the Bethlem Museum archives to explore the first era of research into psychedelics and mental states.
As well as being an expert on the history of psychedelic drugs (his many books include High Society: Mind Altering Drugs in History and Culture, and Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century) Jay was at one time a trustee of the Bethlem Museum and says he was “aware of the unusual experiment for some time”, but “had to really to dig around in the archives” to uncover what actually happened at the Maudsley in 1936.
“Guttman and Maclay were very interested in schizophrenia and psychosis and hallucinations and delusions and trying to pin down what was going on,” he says. “They had various angles but got very interested in trying to get their patients to draw what was happening to them. They realised quite quickly that most patients can’t draw particularly when they are undergoing psychotic episodes.”
Like Jay the two doctors were drawn to the Bethlem Archives, where they found a range of work already made by patients. Many examples of these are featured in the exhibition including the wonderful kaleidoscopic cats made by Louis Wain and some beautiful work that dancer Vaslav Nijinsky produced during one of his nervous breakdowns.
“They looked at all that and thought maybe the best way to proceed with this, since mescaline seems to produce hallucinations that are rather like what people undergo during psychosis, is to just get some artists in and give them mescaline?”
During the 1920s Mescaline experiments had already been used by some German psychologists, who undertook what Jay describes as “some fascinating experiments”.
“By the end of the 1920s it had become quite common for psychologists and scientists trying to prescribe mescaline for hallucinations to give some mescaline to an artist to get them to paint or draw,” he adds. “There was a kind fascinating meeting of psychology and modernism going on.”
With their interest in the unconscious mind, dreams and automatic writing the Surrealists soon presented themselves as the ideal candidates, and Guttman and Maclay duly recruited a number of figures from the quite small but tight knit British Surrealist scene, inviting them to come over to the Maudsley for a 10 am appointment. Upon arrival they were injected with mescaline and looked after for the day while drawing what they were perceiving.
From some it was an opportunity to delve into the irrational, unconscious mind to find creative inspiration. For others it was just a bad trip. But the artistic depictions of the hallucinations – which ranged from ecstatic to terrifying – were understood by the psychiatrists as illustrations of psychopathic states and used as tools for analysis and classification.
“They generated all kinds of things,” says Jay. “A couple of the artists have left accounts of the experience; one had an absolutely extraordinary mind-blowing time and learnt an enormous amount; the other one had an absolutely nightmarish experience. So you’ve got those two sides of the coin.”
Julian Trevelyan famously said of the experience. “I could not put a line wrong… Perspectives and recessions dripped off my pencil.”
“Trevelyan loved it and he went back to it a couple of times,” adds Jay, “he said that once the mescaline started working he was ‘really in the zone’ as we’d say today. Everything he did just came out absolutely perfectly.
“He gets taken down to the Maudsley cafeteria for lunch and everybody is eating but he can’t eat because he’s just staring at the cauliflower cheese and spaghetti. Everything he looked at was extraordinary and beautiful and he said: ‘On mescaline I’ve fallen in love with a sausage roll.’”
Trevelyan’s wonderfully enjoyable psychedelic experience stayed with him for the rest of his life.
“Of the work he produced while he was on it he said, ‘It means a lot to me, I know it’s not great art,’ it’s like he suddenly went to some amazing place and did the best he could and then came back again.”
Unsurprisingly Trevelyan’s artworks dominate the Bethlem’s archive of the experiment, but Basil Beaumont, who later changed his name later to Basil Ricozzi, also seems to have had quite a constructive time on the drug, producing a good haul of paintings and drawings. Other tantalising and beautiful works were produced by anonymous artists on mescaline but they remain unknown.
The doctors subsequently published a paper called Mescaline: Hallucinations and Artists, which explored and explained their findings.
“They found that there were some basic things going on here visually, grid shapes and spirals, and this must tell us something about how the eye and brain work. That sort of work of cognitive science has stood the test of time and has been elaborated on. These days we can map it much more closely to different brain regions” says Jay.
“They were also interested in the commonalities between all the work produced. What they were trying to investigate is that line which is equally interesting to artists as to psychologists: how much of a given work is dictated by the form and the circumstance and how much the individual talent and perspective shines through.”
The idea and the experiences of the individual is something that also fascinates Jay who, as well as authoring several highly-regarded books on the history of drugs, has written extensively around the history of psychiatry. He says his way into the subject has always been to explore the patients’ experience.
“Most archives on the history of mental health are the log books from asylums written by the doctors,” he explains, “so you’re always trying to fight your way through all of this medical and clinical material, often produced by people who aren’t terribly interested in the individual experience of the patient, and who are more interested in trying to fit them into some diagnostic category and go, ‘this is a typical schizophrenic’ or whatever.
“My personal interest has always been in trying to see how all this looks from the patient’s point of view and find ways in which the patients have made of it and art has always been central to that.”
As for the story of mescaline, art and psychiatry; it once again became a public sensation when the psychiatrist Sir Humphrey Osmond administered it to Aldous Huxley in the 1950s. Huxley wrote about it in his book the Doors of Perception and the pair coined the term psychedelic to describe it. But later that decade mescaline was largely replaced in scientific research by the much stronger hallucinogen LSD, and by the end of the 1960s – the psychedelic decade – both drugs had been made illegal.
“People say ‘psychedelic’ and that means taking drugs and pretty colours and things like that,” adds Jay, “but it’s very interesting to rewind before ‘the psychedelic era’ and see all the different ways that people engaged with mescaline and before that with peyote and all the different uses that they put it to, religious and artistic and scientific.”
Brilliant Visions: Mescaline, Art, Psychiatry is at Bethlem Museum of the Mind From May 1 to August 31 2019.
Discover Mike Jay’s books and explore his ideas at mikejay.net
Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Founded in 1247, Bethlem Royal Hospital is now located in Beckenham, South London, as part of the wider South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. The Archives and Museum service is dedicated to the history of mental health treatment, and includes historical and archival material as well as a large…