Identity and the ever-changing everyday

Two new Bethlem exhibitions: The Four Ages of Woman, and Transitions.

The new year will see Bethlem Museum of the Mind and Bethlem Gallery present The Four Ages of Woman and Transitions, two exhibitions exploring historical and contemporary artistic perspectives on women and mental health, from the 19th century to the present day.

The Four Ages of Woman at Bethlem Museum of the Mind presents extraordinarily diverse representations of women’s mental health and life experiences across childhood, youth, middle age and old age. The exhibition includes over 30 works by 19 artists including Madge Gill, Anna Kavan, Bibi Herrera, Imma Maddox and Cynthia Pell, selected from the Museum’s extensive collection, and key works on loan.
At Bethlem Gallery, contemporary artists Esther Maxwell-Orumbie and Sarah Carpenter have been working with service users and staff of the Mother and Baby Unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital on Transitions, an exhibition looking at identity and the everyday, framed by the complex challenges experienced during the transition to motherhood.

The Four Ages of Woman is punctuated by a series of illustrations of women suffering and recovering from mental illness at different life stages, commissioned by the Victorian physician Sir Alexander Morison. Appointed to Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1835, Morison believed that it was possible to diagnose mental illness by reference to facial features, expressions and body language, which he organised into four broad categories: Mania, Monomania, Dementia and Idiocy. Contemporary versions of Morison’s male gaze are represented in works by Stanley Lench (1934-2000), including Marlene Dietrich with Skull (1975), which scrutinise the psychological pressure on women to retain their youth; and in an installation of popular women’s magazines promoting ways of achieving perfection in various spheres of life.

Most of the works in The Four Ages of Woman run counter to these reductionist perspectives, and are the product of the creative vision of female artists whose wellbeing has been severely affected by adverse life experiences. The work of Marion Patrick (1940-1993) explores the extremes of emotion experienced by children through the prism of her own mental health, and the stark images of Maureen Scott (b.1940) mediate the resilience of motherhood within the constraints of modern peri-natal care. The acutely observed drawings of life in a large psychiatric institution by Cynthia Pell (1933-1977) derive from her personal experience of mental ill health and hospitalization, as do the paintings of Charlotte Johnson (b.1942), which reference her experiences of hospitalization and being away from her children. Poet-potter Bibi Herrera (b.1956) creates ceramic works and poems in response to her experience of torture under General Pinochet’s regime in Chile, and subsequent mental ill-health.

At Bethlem Gallery, artists Esther Maxwell-Orumbie and Sarah Carpenter are working with the Mother and Baby Unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital on Transitions, creating lino and mono prints, textile works, and writings inspired by the ordinary artefacts and occupations of individuals’ past and present lives. Maxwell-Orumbie’s work is strongly influenced by the ups and downs of motherhood and West African culture. Carpenter’s photo-montages and other artwork incorporates the processes of deconstruction, reconstruction and recycling of ideas drawn from her experiences of mental illness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The Mother and Baby Unit supports and treats women experiencing a wide variety of mental health issues in the perinatal period, including post-natal depression and post-natal psychosis.

Transitions and Four Ages of Woman at Bethlem Gallery and Bethlem Museum of the Mind are two independent yet connected exhibitions presented on one site at Bethlem Royal Hospital. Each institution produces and presents a unique programme whilst occasionally collaborating on exhibitions to explore subjects of common interest, from contemporary and historic perspectives.

- Both exhibitions run from 8 January to 25 April. Find out more about the exhibitions and associated events on the Bethlem Gallery and Bethlem Museum of the Mind websites.

Image: Maureen Scott: Mother and Child at Breaking Point (1970)

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