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In the Frame for April 2011: Herbrand Ignouville-Williams’ Purple Finger Painting

11 April 2011

One of our volunteers has chosen to write about Herbrand Ignouville-Williams' Purple Finger Painting, and the mescaline experiments conducted by Drs Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay in the 1930s which inspired it. She writes:

In previous studies, Guttman and Maclay had noticed that although schizophrenic sufferers often wanted to create art in an attempt to 'explain themselves', only a small proportion of sufferers possessed the technical ability to translate these hallucinations into art. Therefore, like-minded professional artists such as Ignouville-Williams, who shared the doctors' interests in the unconscious and irrational, were invited to take part in these experiments exploring experimental psychosis and the results offer a revealing insight into the psychology of those involved.

Herbrand Ignouville-Williams was an active member of an art collective called The White Stag group, which he co-founded in 1934 with Kenneth Hall and Basil Rakoczi, who was to remain a close friend until Herbrand's untimely death in the 1940s. Rakoczi had a lifelong interest in gypsy law and the occult, and turned his hand to commercial art before turning his attention to painting and psychology. When they met in 1933, after recently serving in the first world war, Herbrand was a mature student of medicine at Cambridge, and in the midst of a disintegrating marriage. This world of bohemian art to which Rakoczi belonged intrigued Herbrand. He wrote in a letter to his mother; "I should be so much happier living quietly with Benny [Rakoczi], meeting artists and musicians and interesting people with ideas." Ignouville-Williams had also started to study psychology. He introduced Rakoczi to the subject and this remained a lifelong interest to him. Rokoczi's subsequent work in psychology, which was extensive, was based on his own experience in the mid 1930's with analyst Karin Stephen, with whom he underwent a "full Freudian analysis". In late 1933, Rakoczi and Ignouville-Williams set up the Society for Creative Psychology at Rakoczi's studio in London with the aim of developing the techniques of Freudian Psychological analysis.

In an attempt to avoid conscription, the members of the White Stag group based themselves in Dublin during the war, where they developed a reputation in the city as leading 'cutting edge' artists with their calendar of lectures, parties and exhibitions. In all of their exhibitions, the works were diverse in character, ranging from surrealist-inspired images to abstract, semi-representational and symbolist pieces.

The major event in the White Stag calendar in 1945 was the publication of Herbrand's book, Three Painters, which studied the work of Basil Rakoczi, Kenneth Hall and Patrick Scott, and is the definitive statement of the philosophy of Subjective Art as interpreted by the White Stag artists. In its preface, Herbert Read said 'modern art allowed greater freedom of artistic expression'. It was, he said, 'the imagination itself that... lost its shackles' and Freud was considered to be the source of that release. The group employed the method of Subjective Art where 'the theme, instead of being drawn from objects in the external world, is elaborated by the workings of the imagination turned inwards upon the memories, dreams and phantasies of the Unconscious'. To Herbrand, the unconscious, and in particular the creative power of the numen, 'the fountain-head of all artistic and cultural achievement' was the source of such activity by means of which art obtained 'its elusive, magical quality' . These observations seem to be heavily influenced by his experiences with experimental psychosis.

LDBTH82-Mescaline Painting - Purple Finger Painting (1936) b

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