Mental Health Day at the Barber Institute

Duncan Purslow attended Mental Health Day at the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham on Monday 10 October 2016

Perspectives on Mental Health

The day started with a tour of the picture gallery with Jen Ridding who talked about two of the eighteenth century paintings, one by Gauguin and the other by Van Gogh, both works which it is thought had been influenced by the artist’s mental condition. In Gauguin’s ‘Bathers in Tahiti’ the pallet is dark and painted on hessian and voyeuristic. Painted in 1897 and reflecting Gauguin’s philosophy on ‘where do we come from … where are we going?’ it represents a time of pre-civilisation and women as natives in a natural environment. 

Van Gogh for a time lived with Gauguin. His ‘Peasant Woman Digging’ of 1885 was painted in Holland. A study of an anonymous woman working hard digging for potatoes it is similarly painted in dark colours. Van Gogh suffered from manic depression and epilepsy. He actually admitted himself into the asylum and painted ‘the Starry Night’ from his ‘cell.’ A prolific artist, he completed seventy paintings in his last year of life. 

A third painting, a semi-abstract of Primrose Hill by Frank Auerbach, is also dark and brooding. It is one of a series of similar paintings set around London. A member of a Jewish family, Auerbach came to Britain at the age of 8, before the Second World War. This recent acquisition is from the Lucien Freud Collection and forms a contrast to other landscapes in the gallery of an earlier period but with which there are also similarities.

‘Recovery Art’ was also on display which had been done over the year by service users, chiefly lino cuts and representational work in pastels.

There were displays by some of the university’s departments, the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust and other advisory groups. There were also free massages and a cake stall in aid of ‘Mind’.

The lecture by Lisa Bortolloti (Professor of Philosophy at Birmingham) about the European funded Project PERFECT (entitled ‘Uncoupling Mental Illness from Irrationality’) was aimed at the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude and towards gaining parity of esteem of mental with physical health. She asked the question to what extent there is a distinction between mental and physical, mentioning stigma and negative connotations associated with behaviour (see for example M. Larkin on psychosis care). She argued that irrational behaviour is not only carried out by people who are mentally ill but that there are variations on a continuum. She cited Chinn and Brewer (2001) and Fiske (2000) on ‘prejudice is irrational’ and ‘unrealistic optimism’ and positive illusions (Taylor 1989).The project and above references can be followed up on the websites:;

I was pleased also to join the visit at 2 o’clock to the ‘Survivor Arts’ exhibition led by Dawn River on the seventh floor of the Muirhead Tower and to hear the progress made by that department in involving students and service users alike in work on using art (and drama) as a method of therapy to combat the effects of mental illness. The contributions from members of the group were enlightening. Work on display in the semi-permanent exhibition also includes poetry and writing by members of the ‘Suresearch’ Writers and Readers Group.