A museum whose mission is “to question the distinction between normal and abnormal”? You know I’ve got to write a post about that! Just the name itself, the Dr. Guislain Museum, intrigues. Never mind the fact that the guidebooks don’t mention this museum as one of the reasons one might consider visiting picturesque Ghent, Belgium. It is this unique museum that put Belgium on my itinerary a couple years ago.
I had noticed that several of the European outsider artists I follow had work in the collection of the Dr. Guislain Museum, and curious about the museum’s name in relationship to its collection I looked it up. Turns out, not only was Dr. Guislain a real doctor, he was an early proponent of humane care for psychiatric patients. He headed up the first insane asylum in Belgium which became known later, as the Dr. Guislain Hospital.
Following in the enlightened footsteps of the hospital’s founder, the modern day (and current) director, Dr. Rene Stockman, pursued the provocative idea of converting a large part of the hospital into a museum. At the heart of this vision was the belief that light needed to be shed onto the dark history of psychiatry in order to normalize society’s relationship to the mentally ill. Rather than hiding away the array of objects and photographs that the hospital had in its possession, the director put them on display.
So that’s one part of the museum: the history of psychiatry. There are two other components to the museum: temporary exhibits (mainly contemporary art) that relate in some way to the theme of mental health (There was a great show up when I visited entitled “Nervous Women”, which examined illnesses historically and culturally linked to women, such as hysteria and anorexia). The third section of the museum–the section that drew me to Ghent in the first place– is their major collection of art made by artists with mental illness or intellectual disability.
The Dr. Guislain Museum has the largest holdings of Netherlands’s most celebrated outsider artist (one of my all time favorites): Willem Van Genk
Van Genk, who died fairly recently, (2005) drew, painted and sculpted the subject matter he was obsessed with: urban landscapes with a particular emphasis on transportation systems, and most with references to his other obsession–Russian communism.
At the end of his life, Van Genk turned almost exclusively to sculpture. The Dr. Guislain Museum has installed his work as it had been set up in Van Genk’s own home:
The raincoats, by the way, were a major part of Van Genk’s oeuvre, as is the library of books upon which his massive train station sits.
Another extraordinary room-sized installation of the little known outsider, Hans Langner, is testament in and of itself what an unusual institution the Dr. Guislain Museum is.
Can you think of any other venue that has given such a difficult, idiosyncratic work this amount of space and this level of respect?
A similarly sprawling cityscape (I neglected to take a note of the artist’s name) occupies another room. Ah! a little edit here: Dutch outsider art logger extraordinaire, Henk Van Es
just emailed me to identify this artist–fellow Dutchman, Bertus Jonkers. Read Henk’s very interesting post here
And then there’s many, many stellar works by both well known and obscure outsider artists.
Oh, I wish I had taken note of this artist’s name. If by chance you know, tell me and I’ll gratefully add in the info.
Henk Van Es to the rescue again! He helped me identify the maker of this submarine: another Dutchman, Gerard van Lankveld
Well, I could go on–I probably photographed the whole collection. Hopefully I’ve enticed you enough that should you find yourself in Brussels, you’ll hop on the train for the hour-long ride to Ghent. And drink in this treasure for yourself!
Hat’s off (er, I mean–on!) to my fabulous travel partner, and coincidentally my husband, who was thoughtful enough to wear clothing that matched this very photogenic facade.
Should none of this interest you, I am certain, that at the very least you will find solace in Ghent chocolate (It is Belgium, after all!) served to you by this chocolatier:
I get the sense he was put off by the leopard skin coat of this customer. I know you will not wear a similar coat–so do not worry–he will be more friendly to you.