An unequalled collection of artwork created by patients with a psychiatric illness is helping to unravel the mysteries of mental illness.
A hospital inpatient draws a series of self-portraits. With each succeeding picture, his face distorts, contorts, and contracts a little more. Eventually, his visage becomes a rigid crate attached to a fuse (see Figures 2a to d). Some weeks later, the fuse blows – the artist, a patient with schizophrenia, suicides.
Now, years later, the drawings hang in a gallery, part of the Cunningham Dax Collection of Psychiatric Art in Melbourne, where a tall, elegant, elderly gentleman gazes into the series, his kind, thoughtful eyes pausing a moment when they reach the final pre-suicidal drawing. ‘You can see the deterioration in the patient’s mental state’, he muses. ‘The drawings are a kind of graphic temperature chart.’
The gentleman is Dr Eric Cunningham Dax, founder and curator of the collection. Both the collection and the man whose name it takes are dedicated to increasing our understanding of psychiatric disorders through the appreciation and study of artwork produced by patients with mental illness.