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Butterflies in the Belfry

Monday, April 23, 2012 - 09:00 AM

Aarhus, Denmark

A two-story stone building. When it first opened in 1852, it was known as the Asylum of Jutland. Today it is part of Aarhus University Hospital's psych ward.

I enter with a friend of mine, Knud, a retired Danish pastor in his 80s. Knud knows the hospital quite well; over the years, a number of his parishioners were institutionalized here. Knud has driven me to the hospital because he wants to show me something I can't see anywhere else in the world.

Apparently, in addition to housing 200 patients, this compound is home to a small museum. A small, but quite special museum.

Patient room in Ovartaci Museum

Means of patient restraint We start on the top floor. We walk through the floor plan as it existed in the 19th century - we see the beds patients slept in, the dishes they slurped soup from, the straight jackets they were belted into. A cabinet of room keys. A set of scales to measure out meds. Pretty normal stuff for a mental hospital at the time.

ECT machine On a low shelf I spot an ECT machine which meted out electroshocks to 20th century patients. Vaguely interesting, but not so impressive to look at - basically just a box with dials and buttons and gauges. I politely smile at Knud, but I've seen this kind of stuff before.

We descend down the stairs to the bottom floor. And here's where it gets interesting.

The bottom floor is … an art gallery. 

I see paintings, but also sculptures, tapestries, a few sketches. Everything on display has been created by mentally ill artists, the majority of whom were - or still are - hospitalized in this very compound. There are 850 objects on display, but that's only a fraction of the 9,000-piece collection.

Now I've vaguely heard of "art brut" or "outsider art" - a genre devoted to the artwork of mentally ill people, but I've never completely understood the appeal.  I find the assumption underpinning it - that mental patients are by default tortured artist geniuses in disguise - difficult to swallow.

What is fascinating about this collection, though, is the assemblage of individual stories it tells. These artists - the gallery is organized by artist - spent years, if not decades, locked up here, battling personal demons. And whether or not their artwork has any artistic merit, each piece tells a tale of how its maker felt about the micro-world of the hospital, and ultimately, how he or she escaped it.

Take Jan Nedergård.

Jan Nedergaard Self Portrait Unlike many of the other artists in the collection, Nedergård was a professional painter before he was hospitalized. An acute alcoholic, Nedergård cycled in and out of the institution, often against his will.

Painting by Jan NedergårdHis paintings look … well, how you'd expect the paintings of a depressed alcoholic artist to look. Dark colors, jagged lines, religious imagery, vague and cryptic nouns ("JUDGEMENT" "POVERTY" "DEATH"). Anarchic, expressive, messy, angry.

Nedergård died in 1986 at the age of 35. The description hints that he did not die of natural causes. His "early death was probably caused by the hard life he had lived." His only escape from his brutal reality was death.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Hans Heinerik Nielsen.

Heinerik King Christian X on Horseback

Near the end of the Second World War, Nielsen - who was a saboteur, working for the Danish Resistance - suffered severe head trauma. He woke up convinced that (a) he was a painter and (b) he was the son of then Danish King Christian X. While he lived in this hospital, Nielsen wrote letters and cards to (what he thought were his) royal family members. He even mailed whole paintings on royal birthdays and other special occasions.

As you might expect, his paintings were mostly on what the description calls "Royal themes," that is, he painted royal portraits.

Queen Ingrid and King Frederik IX

Unlike Nedergård's paintings, Nielsen's are done in bright colors. "He wanted to convey to spectators the joy and happiness of life," the museum description tells us. He thrived while hospitalized, based on the delusion that his confinement was just some petty misunderstanding that would be cleared up once everyone realized who he was.

At some point, Nielsen started wondering why he wasn't getting a government paycheck, like the other royals. He also received a formal letter from the "Head of the Royal Household" commanding him to stop writing to them. He reluctantly did. Apparently, he found some solace in the fact that the people close to him kept calling him "Prince Heinerik" until his death in 1985.

But the most interesting and dramatic life story exhibited here is Louis Marcussen's.

Early in his life, Marcussen was trained as a naturalistic painter. He painted vases of flowers that looked to me like the kind of boring and nondescript art you'd find in a doctor's office.Early Ovartaci painting of flowers

At the age of 31, Marcussen traveled to Argentina, hoping to make his name as an artist. After three years there, he was broke and broken. He slept outside under a tree; he couldn't afford to eat; he began to hear voices. He returned to Denmark, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found himself in this hospital in Aarhus. He would stay here for the next 56 years.

Ovartaci

So long was Marcussen lodged here that he dubbed himself "Ovartaci." The name played on the titles of the honchos at the hospital - the Head Nurse (oversygeplejerske) and the Chief Psychiatrist (overlæge). "Taci" derives from tosse, a colloquial word for a mental patient. Ovartaci, then, is a pun of overtosse, which translates to something like "the Head Fool," or "the Super Loon," or "the Crazy-in-Chief."

Ovartaci had ambivalent feelings about his half-century confinement. Early on, he clashed with hospital authorities, who tried to inhibit his expression and conduct. It didn't help that hospital life was, as the museum itself admits, filled with "isolation, prison-like social relations, [and] the constant fight for individual space." But as much as Ovartaci bucked against hospital life, he insisted that he didn't want to leave, that he belonged there.

While rooted in this building, Ovartaci - who was a Buddhist - believed that his soul migrated and reincarnated through thousands of lives - across time, across space, across gender, even across species. At one point, he was a tiger in India. At another, a butterfly in Spain. He helped build the Egyptian pyramids. His father was a blacksmith on the moon.

Ovartaci sketches of butterfly and room

It all came through in his art.

One recurring image in his work was of a thin but curvaceous cat-woman with almond-shaped eyes. Ovartaci doll Ovartaci saw himself as a woman, so much so that - about halfway through his time at the hospital - he used carpenters' tools (a wedge and a mallet, as a film in the exhibition so casually shows) to castrate himself. In the ambulance on the way to the Emergency Room, he complained of no pain. Reportedly, he never regretted the decision.

Ovartaci's Transformation

Eventually, as hospital administrations changed, so too did the living conditions. Ovartaci was given a private room, a personal set of keys to the wards, even a bicycle for short unchaperoned trips off the premises. He was allowed to self-medicate. He was given his own studio to work in full-time. They even delivered meals to him there.

That didn't stop him from drawing up elaborate escape schemes. One of them was a Leonardo da Vinci-style helicopter he designed and constructed himself.

Ovartaci helicopter sketch

Despite the effort he put into it, the helicopter never took off. It's unclear whether - deep down - he really wanted it to.

By the end of his life, Ovartaci's paintings, sculptures, and poems took on a life of their own. And despite the fact that he grew less and less sick as he grew old, he refused offers to leave the hospital to try to earn his living as a professional artist. In his mind, he didn't need to. He died at the hospital in 1985, at the age of 91.

Stuck here for unfathomable lengths of time, these patients found their own ways to escape. For Nielsen it was as tiny as a simple "Your Majesty." For Nedergård, it was as drastic and violent as suicide. For Ovartaci, it was more complex - as if he was just docking his body here, so he could satisfy this more profound spiritual wanderlust. He didn't need to escape, because he was already so very far away.

Ovartaci's The Old Main Building of the Hospital


All photos courtesy of the Ovartaci Museum.

Special thanks to the Ochsner family of Aarhus, Eddie Danielsen of the Ovartaci Museum, and Phil Loring, Curator of Psychology at London's Science Museum.

Ovartaci's The Chinese Formula
Ovartaci Museum
Ovartaci's The Chinese Formula
Ovartaci's Smoking Phantoms
Ovartaci Museum
Ovartaci's Smoking Phantoms
Exhibition case, Smoking Phantoms
Ovartaci Museum
Exhibition case, Smoking Phantoms
Early Ovartaci painting of flowers
Latif Nasser (photo taken at Ovartaci Museum)
Early Ovartaci painting of flowers
Means of patient restraint
Ovartaci Museum
Means of patient restraint
Straight jacket, Ovartaci Museum
Latif Nasser (photo taken at Ovartaci Museum)
Straight jacket, Ovartaci Museum
Files, knives, and picklocks created by patients
Ovartaci Museum
Files, knives, and picklocks created by patients
Ovartaci Puppet Theater
Ovartaci Museum
Ovartaci Puppet Theater
Plane created by patient
Ovartaci Museum
Plane created by patient
Ship created by patient
Ovartaci Museum
Ship created by patient
Room keys
Latif Nasser (photo taken at Ovartaci Museum)
Room keys

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Comments [8]

Jens from Denmark

Hi, thanks for the article on Risskov Hospital. I worked there for 3 years, before quitting my job and turning to art studies. Another interesting thing about this place is all messages carved into the hospitals building bricks! I have spent a lot of time just walking along the building, and constantly finding small messages from people long gone.

Jul. 02 2012 09:06 AM
AmyMLitt from Queens

Thank you for lifting the curtain a little bit on life inside mental institutions. I've shared the article with my aunt, who spent over a decade creating a book and museum exhibit on the uncovered possessions of patients from an insane asylum in upstate NY. (And in finding the Amazon link, I just discovered is introduced with a review from Oliver Sachs!) If anyone is interested in reading more on the subject, here's where to find her book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Lives-They-Left-Behind/dp/1934137146

Jun. 27 2012 12:07 AM
Cabin Rentals BC from canada

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Jun. 25 2012 01:03 AM
jilleduffy from New York

It would be great if Radiolab would provide readings of these posts. I come to Radiolab to listen, and while all this content looks interesting to me, I need my eyes to do other work right now and thus can't read it (and I don't want to listen to my computer's screen-reading voice either). Feature request: Add an audio file for each post, with the author reading his or her content! Thanks!

May. 02 2012 11:59 AM
Robert Downs from Minneapolis

Wonderful post, Latif. It seems like you've chosen the correct path for yourself -- the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962 sounds very interesting (albeit ridiculous).

Apr. 29 2012 01:39 PM
Lauren McMurray from Tokyo, Japan

It always amazes me how connected we are. When I came across some of the images of Louis Marcussen's artwork I was stunned. As a teenager I used to have a reoccurring nightmare of a "a thin but curvaceous cat-woman with almond-shaped eyes" I was absolutely shocked to see this figure that had haunted my dreams, staring back at me again, alive in his imagery. It was really stunning. When I told friends and family of my dreams I always described this character as one of those sleek, elongated porcelain cats that was a popular vintage, home decor. I wonder if this "cat lady" is actually one of those strange universal images that wind up in a collective of people's dreams; much like those shared dreams of falling, broken teeth, and the reoccurring "hag" that people share. Would be a great follow up for Radio lab to have a podcast on Collective Haunts.

Apr. 27 2012 12:58 AM
AJ from SoCal

Interesting as always. Ovartaci's "cat women" are gonna haunt me for a while though...

Apr. 26 2012 06:53 PM
LKS from Philly

Fantastic- great article.

Apr. 25 2012 02:10 PM

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