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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.

Author Information

Kaira M. Cabañas is associate professor in global modern and contemporary art history at the University of Florida, Gainesville.


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

"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

"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

Audience: Professional and scholarly;