Art of Darkness

An exhibition in a Paris hospital casts new light on a forgotten Indian painter

The Anonymous Indian’s paintings often had obscure connections to the political tensions of his time. courtesy dominique baliko / musee d’art ed d’histoire de l’hopital sainte-anne
01 October, 2018

For half a century, nearly a hundred watercolour paintings by an artist known only as the “Anonymous Indian” sat in the basement of a French psychiatric hospital, forgotten among old files and debris. Featuring scenes of nature and daily life as well as allusions to contemporary politics, the works were sent in 1950 to the Saint-Anne hospital in Paris by Ramanlal Patel, a psychoanalyst based in Bombay.

With their gentle colours and undulating lines, the paintings hardly evoke madness, let alone a case of “paranoid psychosis.” But such was Patel’s diagnosis of their creator in the partial set of observations that accompanied them. Briefly displayed, they were then left in a dank corner until a team of psychiatrists rediscovered them at the end of the twentieth century.

Founded in 1867, the Saint-Anne hospital became a centre for art-based therapies after a chance encounter during the Second World War. In 1943, Léon Schwarz-Abrys, a Jewish painter of Hungarian origin living in Paris, feared he would be sent to a Nazi extermination camp. He had himself admitted to Saint-Anne and hid there until Allied forces liberated the city a year later. Many of his fellow patients, he realised, were artists of great originality.

After leaving the hospital, Schwarz-Abrys joined a growing network of psychologists, artists and commentators who were convinced that art had a place in psychotherapy and that the art of the “mad” could offer lessons to the sane. The critic Jean Dubuffet, who coined the term art brut—“raw art”—spoke for many leaders in the French avant-garde when he celebrated the mad and other outsider artists as “unspoiled by artistic culture” and followers of “their own impulses” to make pure, original creations.

With the support of such intellectuals, Schwarz-Abrys organised an experimental exhibit in 1946, which showcased several dozen paintings by residents of Saint-Anne. Avant-garde artists such as the surrealist poet André Breton applauded their efforts and mental-health professionals around the world—including Patel—took notice. Four years later, the International Exposition of Psychopathological Art was held in Paris, with around two thousand works sent in from 16 countries, including the paintings by Patel’s Anonymous Indian.

Patel was part of a rising generation of Indian psychoanalysts who were experimenting with innovative methods and theories. India was one of the first countries outside Europe to form a professional organisation for psychoanalysts. Girindrasekhar Bose founded the Indian Psychoanalytical Society at his Calcutta residence in 1922.

The society expanded over the next three decades to include psychoanalysts from Bombay and Delhi. It heralded new trends, such as the psychoanalytic interpretation of Hindu myths and the adoption of the ideas of Melanie Klein, a British psychoanalyst who argued—against the conventional wisdom of her colleagues—that infants could be psychoanalysed. Younger practitioners such as Patel, who graduated from university in 1935, began challenging Freudian orthodoxy.

Patel’s notes only survive in the fragments he sent to Paris. He does not seem to have mentioned either the identity of the patient or his experiments with art therapy in his other writings. In later years, though, he would treat a number of famous artists, including Dilip Kumar and Kamala Das, who fondly recalled “her friend” and analyst in her memoir, A Childhood in Malabar. Patel encouraged his patients’ creativity, as he had done with the Anonymous Indian.

Although nothing is known about the patient, it seems he had artistic training and it might have been his own idea to use painting as a therapeutic tool. Patel’s notes state that he had made over four hundred paintings—often several a day—over the course of his treatment. The doctor often asked him to describe them. After painting a witch, for instance, the patient explained that she was “fearsome, unpleasant … she looks like my wife.”

Some of the paintings required a little more interpretation. Patel conducted his analysis through the year 1948, a time of political tension in the aftermath of the violence of Partition. There were obscure connections between these events and the patient’s private anxieties—Patel’s notes reveal only pieces of the story, but it seems that the patient, after an altercation with a drunk American soldier, had begun to believe that the Americans, minority communities and his wife were conspiring against him.

Patel’s chief concern seems to have been using the patient’s case to make a contribution to psychoanalytical theory. He was fascinated by Klein’s ideas on analysing infants. The paintings of an adult artist might seem strange pieces of evidence to marshal in favour of her theories, but Patel was convinced otherwise. A painting of a mound of rice, which his patient explained was an allusion to the Bengal famine of 1943, was for him evidence of “precocious sado-oral impulses” from an infantile stage of development. Klein argued that infants have an ambivalent, love-hate relationship with the mother’s breasts, which provide nourishment but can also deny it. When they begin teething, she theorised, infants express their pent-up anger by biting the breasts that feed them. Drawing on Klein’s ideas, Patel seems to have interpreted his patient’s mounds of rice as breasts, and his references to the famine as an unconscious memory of childhood sadism.

courtesy dominique baliko / musee d’art ed d’histoire de l’hopital sainte-anne

Unfortunately for Patel, the paintings he sent failed to make a splash in Paris. Nearly every French national newspaper and magazine reported on the 1950 exposition, often mocking the idea that the insane could be artists, but neither the exhibit’s critics nor its defenders took notice of the Indian paintings. “The paintings were not what people expected from a ‘mad’ artist,” Anne-Marie Dubois, head of the Saint-Anne hospital’s psychiatric art division, told me by way of explanation. Soft, calm and lovely, the paintings defy stereotypes about the mentally ill. With what Dubois called his “fine, delicate touch” marked by “sensitivity and simplicity,” the Anonymous Indian may have been too skilful for viewers in search of lurid, violent works expressing psychic torment.

The paintings were placed in storage—“Just a basement!” Dubois said with a sigh—and forgotten. The hospital continued its experiments with art therapy, but owing to the staff’s disappointment with the press coverage of the exposition, suspended its attempts to display patients’ art.

It was only in 1999 that a new group of doctors decided that the hospital’s extensive collection of artworks should be shown to the public. As they excavated thousands of paintings and drawings from the basement, the staff rediscovered the limpid, graceful watercolours of the Anonymous Indian. They dedicated one of their first exhibitions to his work, titling it “From India.”

Saint-Anne was soon hosting regular exhibitions, as well as publishing catalogues and books. With support from donors and the French government, the hospital was given the official status of a national museum in 2016. However, there is still no permanent gallery where visitors can enjoy its masterpieces—space and budget constraints mean the hospital can only stage rotating temporary exhibits. Images of some of its paintings, including a handful of watercolours by the Anonymous Indian, have been digitised. The only way to see them in person, though, is to be in Paris at the right time.

On 14 September, the hospital opened an extensive retrospective called “From Art Brut to Psychopathological Art.” It will run until 28 April next year. Tracing the history of the museum’s collection, it gives pride of place to the artists featured in the 1950 exhibition, showcasing over a dozen of the Anonymous Indian’s paintings. Dubois, the organiser of the exhibition, made no secret that the artist was one of her favourites among the artists in the show. She said that she hopes his work would attract more attention—and that some visitor would be able to shed more light on the mysterious painter. The vast majority of his paintings, after all, as well as of Patel’s notes, are still somewhere in India, awaiting discovery.

Blake Smith , a fellow at the European University Institute, is a historian of French exchange with India. His essays appear in such outlets as The Atlantic, Aeon and The Wire. He translated To Die in Benares, K Madavane’s forthcoming collection of short stories.