When Jan van Herwijnen (1889-1965) started portraying psychiatric patients in 1918, he did not do so as an outsider. He himself had recently “flown apart again” and had been admitted to a psychiatric neurological clinic. Ever since he left home when he was eleven — alcoholic father, mother absent a lot — he’d been through too much as a roaming street kid. During such a recording in “hell’s fairground” he noticed that drawing helped. When he was outside again, he approached the Willem Arntsz Huis in Utrecht, a psychiatric medical institute, with the question whether he could portray the patients there. That was allowed. This resulted in 32 nearly life-sized drawings, all of which can now be seen in Museum More. And guess what: they are masterfully drawn. Van Herwijnen had no art training, he had only had some primary school, but man, he could draw.
Just take your hands. Almost all patients sit in the same pose on the same chair, and do so resignedly, sadly, despairingly, suspiciously – and this can be read from just the hands. The faces tell endlessly more. The traces of their suffering can be seen in the empty or, on the contrary, fiery eyes, the dark bags under the eyes, the way the bodies sink into the clothes, wasted away, slowly becoming invisible to the outside world from which they are closed, but not invisible. for him, who looked until he saw the person behind the diagnosis again.
One is hunted, the other mellowed, another is trapped in a childhood that has eluded her, overtaken by the years without being able to develop maturity. It’s because of one’s state of mind, or because of a system that locks people up and doesn’t help much.
Men and women separated
In Museum More, the portraits of the men hang on one side of the room, the women on the other, just as they were segregated in the institution on the basis of sex and social class – you couldn’t imagine that they were having fun, for example. would have with each other. But Van Herwijnen identified with the patients and approached them with attention and respect. “You shouldn’t talk to them, but you should fuck a bunch of love from your thunder at them,” he said, and you can see it.
They also saw this in the art circles of that time, where social awareness was high. Psychiatric care was criticized and Van Herwijnen’s drawings of ‘pity-worthy and often repulsive human wrecks’ were interpreted as highly socially critical – that remains to be seen, but it did signify a successful start to an art career in which he treated sick, poor and outcasts continued to portray.
He was going to do that in paint, but this first series is in charcoal and shades of gray, which fit so well with the gray lives of these colorful people. One young woman in such a colorless bag has a tulip on her lap. She’d been pregnant out of wedlock and her child had been taken from her, grief piling up in shadows under her eyes. With his graphic drawing style, inspired by fellow outsider Van Gogh, Van Herwijnen literally shows her marked by life. But he also shows that she still has hope and energy. She sits there as if she could start moving at any moment, although she still holds that tulip firmly against her lap. Because they won’t take them away from her.
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