by Kaira M. Cabañas. University of Chicago Press, October 2018. 240 p. ill. ISBN 97802265562284 (h/c), $45.00.
Reviewed March 2019
Learning from Madness: Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art, by Kaira M. Cabañas, is the first English language monograph about Brazilian art and mental illness, as well as Brazilian outsider art. It is an important text for not only the study of art and psychology, but for that of Latin American art and its place in canonical western art history. Cabañas has at once written an English-language history of “patient-artists” in Brazilian art history while also making a critical examination of the western art world and Brazil’s place within it and outside of it.
The art of patient-artists was legitimized in Brazil much earlier than it was in other countries, having been recognized as an art form since the 1920s. Cabañas points out that modern art in Brazil was interlinked with the art therapy that was being used as treatment for the mentally ill. The author adeptly describes the major individuals and unique collaborations that helped to bring about this aspect of Brazilian modernism. Cabañas devotes a full chapter to artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário. He is one of the most well-known artists of this genre, though there seems to have been very little written about him in English, prior to the publication of Learning from Madness. Each chapter is preceded by a short primary source text—the transcript of an interview or the account of a patient or doctor’s experience—that provides human context to the words that follow.
Learning from Madness is a clearly written and fascinating read. It will certainly generate interest in this period of Brazilian art history and, hopefully, more English language research on the topic. The book is relatively well-illustrated, though the images are all in black and white. Extensive notes accompany the text. The volume is recommended for libraries in colleges and universities that teach art history at the graduate level.