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In the Frame for January 2013: Nadia Chomyn

There are over 200 drawings by Nadia Chomyn in the Bethlem Archives, covering scraps of paper that include receipts, lined pages from notebooks and slips torn from illustrated children’s books.

Lines, drawn invariably with a ball-point pen, are repeated and repeated again. As in the image below, they usually build up - almost sculpturally - images of horsemen, horses and, occasionally, chickens or roosters. There’s an obsessive quality to the unvaried subject matter - as if the artist wants to perfect her horses and horsemen - but they’re all drawn with the same loose, vivid style, the lines overlapping and interrupting each other in a manner chaotic, yet purposeful.

The repetition of themes across Nadia’s work made me think of an otherwise very different artist - Gwen John (1876 - 1939), who felt compelled to repeat the same painting with small variations many times over. But Nadia’s story is an extraordinary one. She drew all the pictures we have in the archives before her tenth birthday. Her drawing ability first manifested itself around the age of three - when she started drawing all over the walls - and the image below was produced at the age of five and a half. Her point of reference was a picture book she had, whose illustrations she would study and - several days afterwards - reproduce from memory. She drew by herself with no reference to others (always refusing to draw to order) and she showed no interest whatsoever in what others thought of her work.

Yet in other areas of her life, Nadia demonstrated ‘lethargy and impassivity’, slow and poorly co-ordinated movements, extreme clumsiness, bad motor control, a passion for arrangement (she would become distressed if her toys were not arranged as she wanted them) and obsessive behaviour. She was unable to do up buckles or use a knife and fork. At the age of six, her vocabulary consisted of about ten single-word utterances. She was diagnosed with autism around this time, which - the 1970s - was the same period that Bethlem began working with children.

Lorna Selfe, Normal and Anomalous Representational Drawing Ability in Children (London: Academic Press, 1983)

These drawings and Nadia’s history have naturally been of interest to psychologists, since children’s drawings have played a major part in assessing their intellectual development and intelligence going back to the early twentieth century. Indeed, asking a child to ‘draw a man’ and studying the competence of the result has in many cases been used as a standard IQ test. Perhaps Nadia’s case proves this reliance on standardised representational development misplaced.

Educational psychologist Lorna Selfe wrote a case study on Nadia in 1977, followed by a wider study on ‘normal and anomalous’ drawing ability in children in the eighties. She suggests that Nadia’s ability to draw so well - her tendency to ‘photographic realism’ - may have been the result of her inability to ‘conceptualise’ what she was drawing (the standard approach of ‘normal’ children).Nadia’s story gives some context to the many images we have by her in the collection. I suppose the question is: is that context necessary? What does it tell us? Many artists at Bethlem have drawn as a result of mental illness or distress; others were drawing long before they became ill. But the natural temptation for any visitor to the museum is to look for the context - the illness as ‘explanation’ for the work. Nadia’s work has been offered as evidence of her emotional state, her desire for self-expression, even as a response to an (unproven) early trauma. Selfe dismisses much of this. I think - whatever their provenance - they’re intrinsically interesting to look at.