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Unknown and Unknowable? - a new show at London's Bethlem Gallery

— July 2011

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Anonymous painting. By kind permission of the Bethlem Art and History Collections Trus

The Bethlem Gallery is pleased to present Unknown, and Unknowable?, an exhibition of rarely seen anonymous artworks from the Bethlem Royal Hospital’s Archives and Museum's historic reserve collection, opening on Wednesday, 27th July 2011. The hospital is the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world. On display will be a selection of paintings and drawings by patients of past generations whose names are lost to posterity, and whose artistic visions survive only in their output.

Like patient data in epidemiological research or subjects in restricted legal proceedings, these artists remain unknown, but the questions their works raise are insistent. Is anonymity to be craved, or rather recognition? When we have lost our names, have we lost everything?
The name of the artist, the title of the work, and the year in which it was created are some of the essential fragments of information usually found alongside works of art. A brief description of the subject might accompany it, otherwise everything else is just an interpretation and doesn't belong on a label, does it? But what if the names of the artists and artworks were unknown? What if there was nothing to put on the labels and all we were left with was interpretation?

‘Developing Unknown, and Unknowable? has been a fascinating experience’, says Caroline Smith, co-curator of the exhibition and staff member of the Archives and Museum. “The absence of the kind of contextual information usually supplied by exhibition curators – artists’ names, titles of artworks, dates – is an invitation to reflect on the ways of seeing the world offered to us by these rarely shown works. Even if we knew the artists responsible for them, they would still be extraordinarily evocative. As it is, they are utterly compelling.’
Echoes of the context are present in the artworks themselves. The exhibition bears haunting witness to that loss of identity: to faces lost in a crowd, faces lost in thought or bereft of it, faces impervious to or turned away from people’s interrogating gaze, to figures held captive or struggling to surmount nameless opposition. Can their stories ever be told, or will they even be heeded?
The exhibition runs from its opening on 27 July to 19 August 2011, and will include a Saturday opening on 6 August, featuring a brief talk by one of its curators at 12 noon. Visitors to the gallery are also encouraged to explore the nearby Archives and Museum.

Exhibition details

Opening Event: 27 July, 3–6 p.m.

Exhibition continues: 28 July–19 August

Opening times:   Wed, Thurs, Friday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Gallery & Museum open 6 July, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

The Bethlem Gallery, Bethlem Royal Hospital, 
Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, Kent BR3 3BX

Nearest British Rail: Eden Park / East Croydon

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