A lesser known history of psychedelics

Alina Ivan visits the 'Brilliant Visions – Art, Mescaline, Psychiatry' exhibition at the Museum of the Mind.

Almost a century ago, a hallucinogenic drug derived from the peyote cactus became the subject of fascinating psychiatric experiments. Known as mescaline and the subject of Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, it seemingly has a profound effect on the human psyche. Its effects can be seen at the new exhibition Brilliant Visions – Art, Mescaline, Psychiatry at the Museum of the Mind. Both visually satisfying and bemusing, it invites visitors on a vivid incursion through the mescaline experience and the scientific practice of the striking experiments with surrealist artists, writers and philosophers that began in the 1930s.

Co-created by Mike Jay, historian and author of Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic, and artist Kate Tiernan, the collection offers rich visual and written accounts of the psychiatrists Guttman and Maclay’s experiments at the Maudsley Hospital in South London and studies further afield. The works on display include those of Basil Beaumont, Julian Trevelyan and Herbrand Williams, together with rarely-seen but beautiful and attention-demanding artwork from anonymous artists.

The hallucinations triggered by the drug resembled episodes of psychosis, and so Guttman and Maclay aimed to better understand what patients with psychosis experienced during their episodes. At the time, patients were increasingly encouraged to use spontaneous drawings to understand their symptoms. However, they were not always able to materialise their inner experiences through this means of expression.

The drawings showcased are a riot of colour and curious lines. Illustrator Louis Wain’s kaleidoscopic cat depictions are a pertinent example: over the four drawings displayed, the carefully detailed image of the cat loses precision as the drug takes effect, eventually dissolving into colourful patterns. Other works such as those of Beaumont and the Romanian painter Michăilescu take the viewer to even more abstract territories inspired by the psychedelic trip.

For surrealists, the mescaline experiments provided an opportunity to tap into the creative power of the unconscious mind. ‘I could not put a line wrong… Perspectives and recessions dripped off my pencil’, artist Julian Trevelyan famously wrote when describing his experience. Yet, some paintings are filled with a sense of unease. ‘Lots of artists found it rather difficult and unpleasant – they felt like they were treated like guinea pigs. They were given this drug that was a rather mechanistic way of producing hallucinations or changing their state of perception and consciousness and were told to draw. Where is the agency? Where is the intention?’, Jay concedes. Perhaps the research raised more questions than they answered, considering today's stringent ethical approvals.

Harmonically bridging the arts with science and psychiatry, Brilliant Visions prompts visitors to reflect upon the workings of the mind through altered states. In the wake of promising results from psychedelic drugs such as magic mushrooms in treating depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, it brings context to today’s psychedelic renaissance, revealing a history unfolding before the word psychedelic was even coined.

The exhibition is on at the Museum of the Mind until 31 August 2019.

- Reviewed by Alina Ivan, King’s College London

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