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In the Frame for January 2014: Philip O’Connor’s ‘Fools 1’

Ldbth185 Fools I C 1936 A

Our first 'In the Frame' of 2014 comes from our newly retired Conservation Officer. After 38 years at the Archives and Museum, he will be greatly missed and we wish him all the best in his retirement!

Fools 1 is just one out of a total of twenty-nine drawings in the collection by the artist Philip O’Connor. O’Connor was admitted to hospital in 1936 at the request of a friend after displaying ‘peculiar behaviour’. At the time he was described by doctors as ‘a schizoid psychopath with surrealist tendencies’, and while there can be no doubt that he was unwell, it is worth remembering that for some people at this time, the concepts of surrealism and mental delusion were virtually synonymous.

Although abstract in form, the drawing resembles a face, and by viewing it from different angles a number of smaller faces can be observed. In a similar work from the collection, the artist has inscribed his drawing with a plethora of apparently unconnected phrases; but here, he uses just one word, repeated obsessively, to make his point: Fools.

Quite who this visual outburst was directed at is unknown. Maybe at the psychiatrists who he considered incapable of understanding him, or at society in general, to whom he was an outsider. The alienation he felt towards society is expressed in part of a rather long and somewhat confusing poem he penned while in hospital:

Where is the reality in which I can rest? Where is the reality I do not have to bargain with? Where is the reality that will relieve me from the confused pain of being what the world in conspiracy calls me?

Surrealist, schizophrenic, peculiar - he had been called all of these. But maybe the pain he feels has less to do with him being different, than with society’s obsession with normality that has made him an outsider. And, from his own perspective, it is that which makes them fools.