Art of Darkness

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

01 October 2018
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

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.

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.