Brazilian Arthur Bispo do Rosário was 29 when he had a vision of Christ accompanied by seven blue angels, and found his calling as an envoy of God, specially tasked with presenting the world to heaven on Judgement Day. Found wandering around the religious institutions of the Federal District of Rio, he was promptly arrested and spent the last fifty years of his life hospitalised in various psychiatric units as a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. But locked away, Bispo resolved to express his visions by producing spectacularly elaborate embroidery and sculpture using only the discarded materials found around his asylum, amassing a huge collection of strange works over his lifetime and eventually becoming one of Brazil's most recognised artists. Now the subject of a small V&A exhibition, his work naturally draws attention, if not for his personal story, for the serious, obsessive nature of his creations.
Clinically insane and having never recieved any formal artistic training, Bispo's work is an example of perhaps the most fascinating type of outsider art. The idea of those who create artwork out of a personal need, rather than to compete in the established art world, lends itself to the troubled mind, offering the possibility of a glimpse into a disturbance that cannot be fully understood with plain words, and the chance to be unnerved.
And Bispo's work is intense. Having used only the materials he could find in his hospital, such as sheets and uniforms, nearly everything is in shades of brown and yellow. Large sand-coloured tapestries hang down from the ceiling, heavily embroidered with complex city scenes and writing, and placed opposite carefully constructed miniature wooden ships and gymnasiums, reflective of Bispo's early life as a boxer and a sailor. These works recall the celebratory banners that might be produced for a traditional Brazilian procession for the Virgin Mary, yet they represent Bispo's own purposeful and symbolic preparation of the world for Judgement Day.
There is only a small selection of works on display here, with examples of his garments, banners and sculpture, all borrowed from the Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporânea in Rio. As a result, it is perhaps difficult to fully comprehend Bispo's vision, and the works are displayed with brief descriptions that often invite more questions. We are told that a series of small banners are dedicated to the contestants of the Miss World contest, which Bispo viewed as a very positive expression of beauty, but no larger explanation is given as to his wider logic and beliefs. Arguably, the focus is left on the pieces themselves as works of art and things of beauty, yet part of their intrigue is their part in Bispo's elaborate worldview, and the seriousness with which these tapestries and wooden boats were created. Maybe his visions were so complex and confused that they would be hard to explicate in two small rooms of the V&A, but still it would have been good to be able to read Portuguese, in order to transcribe some of his embroidered ramblings.
An old documentary, produced by a government employee sent to investigate conditions in Rio's asylums, plays in one corner of the gallery. The producer allegedly discovered Bispo and his work and made him the subject of the film instead, fascinated by what he had produced out of the limited materials around him. Bispo is shown arguing like a rational person, describing his experiences and opinions on being hospitalised and declared mad, describing his visions as completely logical. In this way perhaps his creations are all the more haunting, for eluding complete comprehension, and for the great sincerity with which Bispo went to work, closed off from the world for fifty years.