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Learning from Madness

Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art

Throughout the history of European modernism, philosophers and artists have been fascinated by madness. Something different happened in Brazil, however, with the “art of the insane” that flourished within the modernist movements there. From the 1920s to the 1960s, the direction and creation of art by the mentally ill was actively encouraged by prominent figures in both medicine and art criticism, which led to a much wider appreciation among the curators of major institutions of modern art in Brazil, where pieces are included in important exhibitions and collections.
Kaira M. Cabañas shows that at the center of this advocacy stood such significant proponents as psychiatrists Osório César and Nise da Silveira, who championed treatments that included painting and drawing studios; and the art critic Mário Pedrosa, who penned Gestaltist theses on aesthetic response. Cabañas examines the lasting influence of this unique era of Brazilian modernism, and how the afterlife of this “outsider art” continues to raise important questions. How do we respect the experiences of the mad as their work is viewed through the lens of global art? Why is this art reappearing now that definitions of global contemporary art are being contested?

Learning from Madness offers an invigorating series of case studies that track the parallels between psychiatric patients’ work in Western Europe and its reception by influential artists there, to an analogous but altogether distinct situation in Brazil.

240 pages | 61 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2018

Art: American Art, Art Criticism

History: Latin American History

Latin American Studies

Psychology: General Psychology


"Eloquently argued. . . . Cabañas demonstrates the uniqueness of Brazilian interactions with the art of psychiatric patients, and in the process challenges both long-held assumptions about outsider art in its various critical manifestations and recent constructions of a contemporary global art. Recommended."


"Cabañas’s Learning from Madness: Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art, in turn, examines the influence of the art of psychiatric patients on emergent theories and institutions of modern art in Brazil from the 1920s to the 1960s. Brazil’s singular impulse to position the art of the insane not as expressions of pure alterity but as internal to a local discourse of modernism provides a cogent model of provincial specificity by which Cabañas rethinks notions of 'inclusion' as they play out in the 'global' contemporary."

Art Journal

"Backed by historical analysis, the final two chapters raise a much needed and welcome critique today . . . . To escape a paradoxical repetition of the effects of domination, which Cabañas associates with the comparisons between globalized contemporary art productions and that of others that escape Western canons from near and far—a phenomenon which she elegantly calls monolingualism of the global, echoing Derrida—, she proposes ways of doing that mine the gap between the distanced/situated and take part in actual co-creation, where psychiatric patients are producers together with those who approach them or want to show their work."

Baptiste Brun | Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, No. 152, Summer 2020 (translated)

"Kaira Cabañas’s study is an efficient antidote to what she calls the ‘monolingualism of the global’—the current tendency in modern and contemporary art institutions to welcome the art of the ‘other’ but only as framed by Western cultural codes. Warning against the fraudulence of this new universalism, she focuses on the extraordinary case of Brazil, where from the early 20th-century on the reactionary discourse of degeneration plummeted, works of art produced by psychiatric patients were given a status similar to those of professional artists, and the very concept of an ‘outsider artist’ was cast off. Goethe’s motto, ‘What is inside, is outside,’ as quoted by Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa, is the Ariadne’s thread linking the five case studies examined in this brilliant book."

Yve-Alain Bois, Institute for Advanced Study

Learning from Madness is at once a fresh history of mid-twentieth century Brazilian art history that will reverberate in the area of Latin American studies, and a necessary reflection on the condition of global contemporary art at a moment when global art history is very topical. As the first English-language book that focuses exclusively on the relationship between Brazilian modern art and the artistic creativity of individuals institutionalized in psychiatric institutions, Kaira Cabañas approaches each chapter thoroughly, responsibly, and impressively, and the originality of the synthesis she creates is remarkable.”

Alexander Alberro, Columbia University

"[Learning from Madness] 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 'patientartists' 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. . . . 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."

Art Libraries Society of North America

"Skillfully written, Learning from Madness presents original research to the fields of Brazilian art, transnational art, curatorial studies, and to the history of modernism. By arguing that the production of art in and around psychiatric settings plays a vital part in the general constitution of Brazilian modernism, Cabañas breaks new ground in its field not only in terms of the subjects her book addresses, but also, and more crucially, by offering a methodological blueprint for critical art-histories aiming to engage in debates over alternative readings of modernism, transnational perspectives on art, and the emergence of the notion of global art."

Sérgio B. Martins, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro

"[Learning from Madness] make[s] strong contributions to the growing body of scholarship on modernism, both Latin American and global...Cabañas presents a history of patient art little‐known outside Brazil and argues for how it disrupts conventional definitions of ‘outsider art’. In this context, creative production by the mentally ill was in continuous dialogue with the development of modern art, thus denying its oppositional status, while at the same time spotlighting its specific site of production and discursive frame."

Art History

"By placing her attention on the Brazilian art world's adoption of patients' art as constitutive of their notion of modern art, Cabañas compellingly exposes how European modern art was framed as intrinsically different from forms of art made by so-called others, be they patients, children, or people from other parts of the world, making this book necessary reading for scholars of European modernity as well."

Latin American Research Review

Table of Contents

Introduction: Toward Discomfort
1 Clinical-Artistic Tableaux
2 Common Creativities
3 Physiognomic Gestalt
4 Bispo’s Contemporaneity
5 Monolingualism of the Global
Notes on the Text
Illustration Credits


Association for Latin American Art: ALAA-Arvey Foundation Book Award
Honorable Mention

Modernist Studies Association: Modernist Studies Book Prize

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