Just Your Average Mental Breakdown: The Fairy-Feller's Master Stroke

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Just Your Average Mental Breakdown

Artists Losing It
Curated by Drew Bierwirth

Richard Dadd, The Fairy-Feller's Master Stroke, 1855-64

While in a criminal asylum, where he created all of his most celebrated pieces, Dadd painted this piece over nine years, inspiring his cryptic poetic commentary of it. The poem itself is extensive (and inspired a Queen song), though its end lines seem to represent Dadd's mental state well. His piece completely reflects the chaos in his mind, even with the amount of detail he put in. Using a miniature layering technique, some of the piece seems three-dimensional, exemplifying his rather impressive skill as a miniaturist. He deemed the piece unfinished, with the lower left corner only sketched in. The poem has even been viewed as a description of the split second where Dadd decided to attack his father and seal both of their fates.

"What here I’ve said from fancy’s wing
A sense supporting of my need
You may deny – say – no such thing

’Tis all wrong every bit indeed.

Well! to your judgment I must bow
Freely it’s exercise allow
You perhaps to such are more inured.
Your notions may be more endured
But whether it be or be not so
You can afford to let this go
For nought as nothing it explains
And nothing from nothing nothing gains."

He entered this asylum shortly after an interesting sequence of events. While on a trip in Egypt, Dadd took a boat down the Nile and had a fit of sorts (now believed to be caused by sunstroke) and became violent. He believed he was under the mental control of the Egyptian god Osiris. Upon his arrival home, he was diagnosed with an unsound mind and went with his family to the countryside to recover. His diagnosis was proved all too true when he decided his father was the Devil in disguise and stabbed him to death. Then he fled to France and, en route to Paris, tried to kill another tourist with a razor. Which is when they put him in the criminal ward of the Bethlem psychiatric hospital - it was probably time. After 20 years there, he was moved to the Broadmoor asylum where he later died.

The piece depicts a tense scene between the forest folk, with the Fairy Feller (woodcutter) raising his axe to split a tree in honor of serving the forest folk queen. The Patriarch, who Dadd identified as himself, is raising his hand in a gesture for the woodcutter to bow to his new queen. Dadd was incredibly fond of Shakespeare's fairy descriptions, even putting Oberon and Titania in the midst of all of this chaos all too reminiscent of his own life.

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