Luiz Camillo Osorio, curator of the PIPA Institute, visited the exhibition “Tosquelles: like a sewing machine in a wheat field”, at the Reina Sofia Museum, in Spain, and developed this text in which he comments on the trajectory of Francesc Tosquelles, a revolutionary psychiatrist Catalan who spent many years at the Hospital de Saint-Alban, in France. The exhibition at Reina Sofia was on display from September 2022 until March 2023. It now goes to the American Folk Art Museum, in New York, from June 12 until October 23, 2023. It has already been in the museums Les Abattoirs, Musee – FRAC Occitanie and Center de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona – CCCB.
The text is a continuation of the podcast recorded with Carles Guerra, curator of the show, in 2022. Listen to the episode here.
“Tosquelles: as a sewing machine in a wheat field”, an exhibition jointly curated by Carles Guerra and Joana Masó, at Madrid’s Reina Sofia, brings to light the fundamental work of Catalan psychiatrist Francesc Tosquelles between the decades of 1940 and 1960. As a refugee in France after the defeat in the Spanish civil war, he revolutionized psychiatry and psychiatric institutions through his work at the Saint-Alban hospital, starting in 1940. Last year PIPA hosted a podcast with Carles, in which this exhibition’s project and the complex debate on relationships between art, madness, care and facilities were discussed. Now, after visiting the exhibition, the fascination with Tosquelles has only grown.
A project such as this involves many challenges. How can the work performed within a psychiatric facility be relocated to a contemporary museum-like institution? How can the adversities of the context of war be updated to converse with the present? How can one deal with creation in the psychiatric environment without idealizing madness? All these questions relate to the work of the curators in developing this research and curatorial project. The title for the exhibition, which refers to an appropriation by Tosquelles of a phrase by Lautreamont adopted by surrealists, places the sewing machine not by an umbrella and a dissection table, but by a wheat field, the challenge of labor and production. This displacement says much about his artistic and political references and his role in the refiguration of the psychiatric institution.
As written in the exhibition’s catalogue by Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona [Contemporary culture center of Barcelona]’s director Judit Carrera and Reina Sofia’s director Manuel Borja-Villel, “Tosquelle’s political agenda is that of a pragmatic utopia and the defense of a school of freedom which may challenge all those involved, since ‘unpragmatism is an invitation to fascism’”. Making the elaboration of an institutional psychotherapy the focus of the exhibition – healing not madness, but the psychiatric institution – can be of great value in hoping to transform artistic institutions from within. These institutions could be spaces that value different kinds of practices, workshops that help redefine the manners of inserting madness (and art) into life, through everyday dynamics which are often separated from psychiatric and artistic institutions. Evidently, the museum and the psychiatric hospital are distinct institutions, carrying its different challenges, but there is much to be learned in this effectively transdisciplinary exchange.
Tosquelles’ formation as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst alongside anarchist and worker’s movements in Catalonia throughout the 1920s and 1930s granted him a unique insight into the conflicting democratic interactions within collectives and its horizontal decision processes. The inclusion of posters and activities from BOC (Bloc Obrer I Camperol) and POUM (Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista) in the exhibition allowed for the understanding of a confluence between political activism and cultural share in both movements. Their creative interactions and collective practices, involving the considerable presence of women, provide a hint of what would later be developed within the context of the psychiatric hospital, with its film clubs, reading groups, music and painting workshops, together with the constant and lively interaction between patients, medical staff, peasants and nuns. Even prostitutes were invited to help as long as there was no sex involved. All those who participated in Saint-Alban Hospital’s activities were people who could deal with the complexity of human life. This was the only psychiatric hospital in occupied France where no patients died of malnourishment, facing the fascist politics of “sweet extermination” which led the misfits to die of hunger.
Another aspect that becomes clear when watching Tosquelles’ films and interviews is the fact he’s always lived in between languages – Spanish, Catalan and French –, expressing himself when faced with the urgency of adversity, appropriating gestures, interjections and mannerisms to come over as eloquent and persuasive. This freedom of expression composes an immense collage, a living experiment of translation, between theory and practice, between psychoanalysis, psychiatry, political activism, institutional management, artistic experimentation, constantly pushed by the concrete confrontation with reality, without idealizations and with significant empirical attention to difference.
“Contrary to antipsychiatry, which denied the effectiveness of hospitals and psychiatric institutions, Tosquelles upholds the need for an open, lively, expanded institution, which inserts itself in its community and is transformed continuously through constant work and movement”, state Carrera and Borja-Villel. It is with that will to transform institutions from within, perceiving their potential to gather the inherent demands of the context they’re inserted in that the experience of Saint-Alban reverberates in the present and in challenges of rearticulating art, life and society without exaggerated idealism. Opening a parenthesis, it is worth mentioning I saw this exhibition in the same week as ARCO in Madrid. I mention this as to note, with no misplaced moralism, that it was good realizing there are plenty of escape lines to be reappropriated and reinvented beyond the sheer commercialization of art.
The way Tosquelles came to integrate, in the context of war and nazi occupation of France, artistic practice within the hospital, is worth pointing out. These types of workshops already existed since the 1920s, mainly in Prinzhorn’s experiments in Germany, and, in Saint Alban, held an original perspective: it wasn’t just about contributing to the understanding of the subconscious in patients with psychic pathologies or demonstrating a creative potential inherent to humans which couldn’t be captured by cultural agreements. For Tosquelles, artistic activities were a mean to socially integrate individuals alienated by madness. In sharing their experiences, patients felt free from the pragmatic intent of communication. That is the reason behind the valuable interactions between the patients and surrealist artists in Saint-Alban, more specifically Paul Eluard and Tristan Tzara, who were sheltered by the hospital. It is worth highlighting, in the exhibition, Tzara’s poem Parler Seul, written in the months the poet spent in the hospital, later illustrated by Miró over 72 litographs.
Soon after the war ended, Dubuffet went to Saint-Alban hoping to map what had been produced there, already tasked with collecting a broad material of Art Brut [Outsider Art]. As Kayra Cabanas’ catalogue text suggests, Dubuffet, at least at first, wasn’t well received by Tosquelles, who didn’t take interest in the opposition between outsider art and cultural art. His emphasis was on analyzing the way in which the work of psychiatric institutions – that of caring, providing a space for exchanges of experience and productive activation – could encourage the patients’ creative endeavors. That, evidently, doesn’t take away from the relevance of Dubuffet’s work, but they are distinct experiences. In Tosquelles’ work, whether something could be considered art or not, whether they were authentic creations, were not questions he intended to answer. In fact, the fact that art could be something else, that it was able to foster a solidary space of inventive and affective experiences was what mattered the most when facing the purpose of confronting the pain of psychic alienation.
In this aspect, the visits of Georges Canguilhem and Frantz Fanon to Saint-Alban in the 1940s and 1950s shows that the transdisciplinary debate was at the core of this project, as opposed to the specificities of a singular field of knowledge. What mattered most, as Canguilhem would also do, was to establish the hospital as a place for interaction, intellectual exchanges, empiric observation and perception of the context in which all of it transpired, as to redefine the parameters of what would be considered Normal or Pathological, piercing the history of madness with the madness of history. For Fanon, who was an intern at Saint-Alban during his studies of psychiatry between the years of 1952 and 1953, the conviviality in the hospital contributed significantly to displace his theoretical thinking on the colonial issue and terms on which to approach the decolonial struggle. In Jean Kalfa’s piece in the catalogue, Decolonializing Madness, there is a targeted analysis of these interactions, with its intersections and subsequent disparities, which underlines the fact that “Saint-Alban’s sociotherapeutic experience allowed Fanon to think of colonial oppression as a pathogen and national fight as disalienation”. All these intellectual interactions, just as Félix Guattari’s visit to Saint-Alban in later years, are deserving of a deeper analysis which, unfortunately, won’t fit in this piece.
It is important, however, to highlight how much these knowledge exchanges that took place inside a psychiatric hospital were able to expand such rich theoretical and practical landscapes. At the same time, it shows how museums can, even today, hold debates that aren’t restricted to the artistic field, but that rely on the experimental devices introduced by art. The fact that art, since the beginning of the 20th century, has been constantly questioning itself, refusing the means by which it traditionally affirmed itself as art, culminating on Duchamp’s synthesis on whether one can “make works that are not ‘of art’”, contributed and remains contributing to the insertion of various forms of knowledge into exhibition spaces.
The point is not to turn everything into art, but to make use of art’s ontological indetermination as a platform for conceptual displacements. In a long interview featured in the exhibition, Tosquelles states that the psychiatrist “must pretend to be a foreigner”, meaning one who does not feel at home anywhere, not in language, not in society, nor in culture. Expressionism and surrealism appealed to that foreignness, and therefore it made complete sense to bring these works closer to the hospital’s artistic manifestations. These relations are carefully constructed by the curators, establishing dialogues between the artworks of Karel Appel, Dubuffet, Leon Schwarz-Abris and Peter Weiss, as well as Michaud’s drawings, Brassai’s photography, the delirious and harrowing tracings in Dubuffet’s Art Brut collection (a monumental wall of reproductions) and the graphic experiments of Fernand Deligny. In the sculptures of Forestier, a patient in Saint Alban, all these expressive, delirious elements converge. A remarkable artist.
The exhibition is a huge labyrinthic stroll along documents, posters, photographs, texts, drawings, paintings, films etc. A large gathering of psychiatric, artistic and political material in which these fields collide and feed off each other. The panels and educational programs are essential to avoid that the exhibition isolates itself in the art world. At the end, we realize the institutional psychotherapy presented by Tosquelles was – and still is – a broad experimental exercise that aims to conspire from within, disarraying preestablished conventions, redefining the relation between pathological and normal, art and life, politics and affections, complicity and conflict. That is, a constant metabolization of adversities within processes of collective invention.
 Originally, in Spanish, “Tosquelles: como una máquina de coser en un campo de trigo”.