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
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.

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.

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.

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