Museum of Images from the Unconscious in Rio de Janeiro - Gallery, Archive, Research Center


(Image: Mandala by Carlos Pertuiss, n.d., Archives of the Museum of Images from the Unconscious, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Interested in art brut, “outsider art” and, at that time, self-taught artists in Brazil, I first heard about the mysterious Museum of Images from the Unconscious in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1990’s. So one day I went there,  and I kept returning. As I had to rely on public transportation it took me half a day to make the trip from Copacabana and involved countless buses and a Metro ride. Eventually I wrote an article for Raw Vision Magazine about this extraordinary facility inside a psychiatric hospital in the unfashionable North Zone of Rio. (My co-author was a Jungian psychoanalyst who worked there, Mariarosa Soci.) It was published in Raw Vison issue #20.


A final draft of the article appears below





                          by Beate Echols and Mariarosa Soci


"The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him", C.G. Jung wrote in 1930. (1) Since then we have learned to look at art in radically different ways.


Around the time when in Europe Jean Dubuffet first defined 'art brut' as the creative issue of individuals innocent of and untouched by culture, including what was to be called 'psychotic art' by some, a new notion emerged in Rio de Janeiro - images from the unconscious. It has its origins in the pioneering work of a psychiatrist and Jungian scholar from Brazil's Northeast - one of the first women ever to be admitted to the Faculty of Medicine of Bahia in the 1920's.


The young woman, Dr. Nise da Silveira, went to work in Rio in the early 1940's. Looking for radically new ways to understand and treat mental illness she started to work with patients of the Centro Psiquiatrico Pedro II, a closed institution for the treatment of schizophrenia. Her refusal to apply insuline and electroshock treatment methods provoked clashes with the established medical team. After initial internal opposition she transformed the institution's Occupational Therapy Section and set up painting, drawing and sculpting studios for its confined population. She handpicked her staff, deliberately choosing people without formal psychiatric training. 


"One of the least difficult ways I found to gain access to the inner world of the schizophrenic was to give him the opportunity to draw, paint or sculpt with total freedom. In the images thus created we find self-portraits of a psychological situation, images that are often fragmented and extravagant but which remain captured on paper, canvas, or in clay. We will always be able to study them again." (2) In her daily work she found an unsuspected wealth of creativity which persisted even after many years of mental illness. 


The painting studio soon acquired special scientific and artistic significance, gaining international attention. The growing volume of images it produced soon transformed the medical staff's cafeteria into a picture gallery. In 1952, the 'Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente' (Museum of Images from the Unconscious) was inaugurated within the hospital walls. It lent a new meaning to the word 'museum'. Unique not only in Brazil but worldwide, it provided a public exhibition space for the haunting and deeply moving images produced by the hospital patients. Its purpose was to document the study of specific psychological situations and show the therapeutic value of creative activity. Today it is a living center of study and research. 


Its literature emphasizes that "[t]he pictorial production of schizophrenics is very rich in symbols and images which condense profound meanings and constitute an archaic language whose roots are universal. Though archaic, however, this is not a dead language. Symbolic language unfolds into various keys and times, changes and generates change." (3)


When Brazil's leading art critic, Mario Pedrosa, came across the drawings and paintings from the Centro Psiquiatrico in the 1950's he called them 'virgin art' - art which surpasses or discards conventions or established rules. (It was Pedrosa who first put Dra. Nise, as she is generally called,  in touch with his friend Dubuffet, which resulted in exchanges of letters and documents between the young doctor and the artist.)


Today the creative output of mental patients is typically viewed as an art form. The terms 'art brut', 'outsider', 'intuitive' or 'visionary art' have become household words among art lovers, scholars, collectors and dealers worldwide. Dra. Nise's work, however, has focused on such spontaneous creativity as an integral part of the analytical and, moreover, curative process. Rejecting the widely accepted term 'art therapy' as too charged with connotations of value and esthetics she emphasizes the need to provide a new language in which internal traumas and deep emotions can be expressed. 


Art is not the point, the point is finding connections between images emerging from the unconscious and an emotional situation experienced by the individual - making the invisible visible. Yet her daily work presented challenges which "often made it necessary to look for help outside the field of psychiatry - in art, myths, religion, literature, where forms of expression always cross the deepest human emotions." (4) 


Dra. Nise observed the schizophrenic's need to cut off contact with the outside world in order to live fully in his 'inner world', populated by both sympathetic and threatening images from the unconscious. Of all external interferences visual perception is the most disturbing since it continues to confirm the realities of the outside. It compels the individual to maintain close contacts with it - a demand at odds with his need.


Raphael, one of the original patients whose creativity blossomed in the studios, resolved this dilemma by drawing figures and faces whose eyes were not directed at the outside but looked down, or were closed, sealed, or covered by ornamental designs. Incidentally, Dubuffet documented a similar expression of such 'schizophrenic autism' in the case of the Swiss patient Aloyse whose painted figures have eyes covered by "'two enormous blue almonds'" - again obstructing the view of the external world. (5)


Today, more than forty years after its creation the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente is known to and visited by only a curious few among Rio residents. Tucked away inside the psychiatric institution for the poor on the edges of the industrial zone of Engenho de Dentro in the forbidding parts of North Rio, it is hardly if ever a destination for tourists or the casual wanderer. 


The trip from Rio's center or the relative safety of its affluent South Zone is long, with its zigzag itinerary leading through districts both unfamiliar and grim. The visitor is finally dropped on a rundown block dominated by a massive complex of buildings partly hidden by high fences and gates - almost evocative of Dickens. It takes time and confidence to navigate the gloomy maze of structures which make up the Centro Psiquiatrico, and to reach the museum.


The character of the neighborhood and the dilapidated institutional surroundings, evidence of persistent poverty, leave the visitor unprepared for the esthetically and emotionally challenging experience any trip to this museum entails. The gallery of changing exhibits may feature the serial work of a particular patient, or focus on specific recurring images in the works of several individuals. The pieces displayed are accompanied by captions informing about their authors' psychic histories or obsessions with certain themes or symbols. The texts also explain connections to mythology and point out archetypal imagery. Yet the pictures speak for themselves. It seems, in fact, as if they can be heard and felt as well as seen. 


Still under the spell of this powerful visual confrontation the viewer then enters the museum archives. These are rooms densely packed with shelves full of canvases, works on cardboard, drawings. The Centro Psiquiatrico Pedro II is a public hospital under the jurisdiction of the Brazilian Ministry of Health - its patients are poor and completely lacking in formal education or artistic knowledge. Their output over the past forty-eight years is all the more astonishing in its creative quality, emotional content, unconscious communality of themes, and sheer volume. It bears witness to the inner tragedies and dramas endured by these patients. 


Lucio was admitted to the Centro Psiquiatrico in 1947 and started participating in the programs of the Occupational Therapy Section the following year. A diagnosed schizophrenic, he suffered from acute anxiety and felt himself physically invaded by powerful enemies. His speech was incoherent, he responded to questions never asked. While showing no interest in the bookbinding workshop in which he had been put he suddenly demanded to visit the modeling and sculpting studio. He worked consistently, and with visible pleasure, holding his inner tormenters at bay. His vivid plaster sculptures represent mother figures or legendary warrier types engaged in the battle of good against evil, their strong faces expressing powerful emotions. 


Although Lucio's symptoms gradually abated, and despite Dra. Nise's strong objections, he was subjected to a then popular form of psychosurgery - lobotomy. The idea was to separate his thinking capacity from his emotional impulses. After the surgery Lucio, now generally apathetic, showed no inclination to return to sculpting. The few pieces he reluctantly produced at the prompting by the occupational therapy staff are featureless and devoid of emotion. One sculpture made shortly after the lobotomy depicts a rounded shape of sponge-like matter dissected by a serpent - the brain divided. Lucio remained hospitalized for over thirty more years.


Carlos was first committed to the Centro Psiquiatrico at age 29. He was to spend his remaining 38 years in the institution, obsessed with cosmic visions and rituals involving mythical imagery like fertility, fire, and snakes. According to Dra. Nise the last image represented Carlos' ongoing struggle to tame dangerous or evil impulses from his unconscious, expressed by men in white (priests) confronting the black snakes (danger).


Adelina, a shy peasant girl, was first hospitalized in 1937. An unsuccessful adolescent rebellion against her domineering mother over a passionate first love affair had led to her diagnosis as a non-communicative, aggressive schizophrenic, and to her subsequent institutionalization. She was one of the earliest users of the occupational therapy studios. For the remainder of her life she pictorially repeated matriarchal themes, reaffirming her conflicting ties to the mother who had stifled her youthful instincts. Re-enacting the 'Great Mother' myth was her way of resolving her dilemma, expressing both devouring and nourishing mother images. These images evolved over time from extremely negative ones to those stretching out open arms and baring the heart. 


Fernando is another of the center's original patients. A prolific painter, he once described a dream: "I moved into the world of images. The soul moved into something else. The images take over your soul." (6) This formulation eerily recalls Jung's thesis that "[a]rt is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument." (7) Almost half a century later Fernando is still there, painting. By now he has produced over 25,000 paintings. 


Although chronically underfunded, the museum continues to accumulate more works. Today its archives house over 300,000 pieces, varying from abstract to representational and including paintings, drawings, and sculptures. They are carefully catalogued according to a system based on the Bild Archiv of the Jung Institute in Zurich. The  contents are chronologically ordered by author, often spanning years or decades. The idea of documenting sequences of images by a particular patient is to show that while isolated images often appear meaningless, a series of paintings can connect distinct psychic events symbolically expressed, and thus provide insight into specific psychological processes and experiences. 


Some selections in the archives group together coinciding or repeating themes or symbols including phantasy animals, 'mandalas', and mythological, ritualistic or metamorphic depictions - imagery confirming Jung's archetypes. The most frequently recurring image is a universal, transcultural one which is believed to have an instinctive ordering function against psychic chaos - the circle (mandala) - the ancient Eastern symbol of the universe. It contradicts the prevailing view that a schizophrenic's visual imagery reflects psychic disintegration.


The archives are open to researchers and the general public. Since 1968 the museum has run a weekly interdisciplinary study group which permits ongoing exchanges between clinical experimentaion and theoretical findings in the fields of psychiatry and phychology, cultural anthropology, history, art and education. The available research material includes several books by Dra. Nise, papers, films and audio-visual productions - the results of many years of study.


Aside from its in-house exhibits the museum draws on its vast reservoir of images to mount external exhibitions throughout Brazil and abroad. The first was at the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Culture in 1947, to be followed by a 1949 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Sao Paulo. The most recent one, 'Archeology of the Psyche', took place at the Casa Franca-Brasil in Rio de Janeiro in 1993. Most important among the international showings was the museum's exhibit at the Second International Congress of Psychiatry in Zurich in 1957. It was opened by C.G. Jung. The most recent exhibitions were in Frankfurt, Germany, and in Portugal (1994).


In 1956 Dra. Nise opened the Casa das Palmeiras, an unexpected oasis of tranquility now located on a quiet street wedged in between busy, polluted avenues in Rio's central Botafogo section. Its function and activities were to complement those of the Centro Psiquiatrico. Unlike the Centro the Casa das Palmeiras is a day facility.


It is a bridge between the psychiatric hospital with its non-individualized, intimidating treatment regimes and the often traumatic reintegration of the patient into a post-institutional living situation. The Casa das Palmeira eases this transition, preventing potential new stressful or psychotic episodes. One participant once admitted that his greatest fear was to go out alone and "meet himself" at a deserted street corner.


As in Engenho de Dentro the principal treatment method here is based on creative therapy activities. The volunteer staff, while lending affective support, does not interfere with the activities. There are no pressures generating anxieties or demands exceeding the capacities of response on the part of the participants. Their creative self-expression often reveals the psyche's self-healing forces which instinctively probe different paths out of a chaotic psychic situation and into consciousness. 


On any given day the place bustles with people bent over cardboard, paper, canvas or modeling clay to give shape to an urgent impulse or a heretofore unexpressed emotion. Their evident engagement in their tasks defies the visible signs of scarce funds - leaking ceilings and crumbling walls. The Casa is in a chronic state of financial hardship, having opted for poverty and freedom from constraints that institutional or government sponsorship would impose. Its frequenters, mostly poor, come from many walks of life - from a residential neighborhood a busride away, a housing project in a different part of Rio, or, in many cases, from the nearby shantytowns. The doors and windows of the building are always open. 


The deliberate absence of institutional clothing or 'hospital coats' make staff and users barely distinguishable. The atmosphere is that of a living, breathing organism of individuals pursuing their various tasks while ignoring the rest - and island of freedom for those within, keeping out the external world. It is not uncommon for a participant to enter, and kiss or hug everyone in the room. There is no outside interference.


During its four decades the Casa das Palmeiras has succeeded in its mission to break the vicious cycle of reinstitutionalization and release which for many of its users had been a frightening way of life. Most of its frequenters never return to a mental hospital. 


The archives, although private, could provide a dedicated researcher with unfathomed opportunities to trace the often turbulent psychic history of a particular individual over time. Like the museum of the Centro Psiquiatrico the Casa has generated a wealth of material that is both artistically intriguing and emotionally compelling. Its most recent public exhibition was in Rio de Janeiro's Museum of Fine Arts.


Today Dra. Nise is a spirited woman of 88, mentally astute, passionate and engaging, albeit physically frail. She still lives in Rio de Janeiro. No longer an active staff member of the Centro Psiquiatrico, she remains one of Brazil's leading voices in psychiatry and Jungian analytical psychology. An outspoken critic of mainstream treatment methods of mental illness in the 'factories of madness', she specifically attacks the increasing use of intensive psycho-drug therapy, the 'chemical straightjacket' which inhibits any creative impulse. Her work and writings are invariably at odds with the conventional wisdom that schizophrenia is unknowable and incurable. 


Throughout her career she was deeply influenced by C.G. Jung with whom she began to correspond in the 1950's. She first met him in 1957 when she spent some days at his country house. "I went there, and there he was, planting potatoes. He was a simple man", she recalls today. It was Jung who urged her to study mythology in order to better understand the works of her patients.


She admires him, she says, "because in my opinion he provides....the understanding that not only the body but the soul as well has a history. He clarifies the surprise one feels regarding an illiterate person, locked up in public hospitals, with generally no great familiarity with the history of civilizations or religions, who can shape images which mirror images painted millenniums ago. Jung gave me the chance to better understand the psychic life." (8)


While learning about schizophrenia in the 'living school', as she puts it, of her creative studios, Dra. Nise has spent her life promoting the acceptance and understanding of non-verbal mental processes and expressions. She likens the understanding of images to following threads through a labyrinth. Her patients found their own visual languages. Deciphering them requires such acceptance and understanding. In the words of her patient Octavio, painter of mythological winged creatures, "it is necessary to have a greater knowledge to understand this painting. It's not just a matter of seeing. One has to know how to see." (9) 





(1) C.G. Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, p. 101

               Princeton University Press, 1966


(2) Nise da Silveira, O Mundo das Imagens, p. 93

               Editoria Atica S.A., Sao Paulo, S.P. 1992


(3) The World of Images, published by the Museu de Imagens    

               do Inconsciente (undated), p. 3


(4) Nise da Silveira, Imagens do Inconsciente, p. 11

               Editora Alhambra Ltda, Brasilia, D.F. 1981


(5) Jean Dubuffet, Aloyse - Publications de la Campaigne de

               l'Art Brut, p.7, Paris 1966 (quoted in O

               Mundo das Imagens, p. 35)


(6) Nise da Silveira, O Mundo das Imagens, p.13


(7) C.G. Jung, The Spirit of Man, Art and Literature, p. 101


(8) Interview: Os Documentos Vivos do Inconsciente, Revista

               Brasileira de Saude Mental, Ano II Nos. 2 e    

               3, Vol. 2


(9) Nise da Silveira, Imagens do Inconsciente, p. 297




In addition to the sources cited above this article is based on personal interviews with Dra. Nise da Silveira and on research material provided by Luiz Carlos Mello ("Lula"), Dra. Nise's principal assistant at the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente.