Louis Marcussen was born in a small town in Jutland, Denmark in 1894, the son of a dyer. Something was not right with the family – of 10 children, several were blind and half died early in life. Louis survived, trained as a painter and decorator, and after taking Spanish lessons, embarked for a great adventure in Argentina at the age of 29.
Whatever happened in Argentina, it wasn’t good. Later Louis said the suffering he endured there had a positive value as it “toughened” him for what was to come. He stayed several years before returning home, working his way as a stoker on a coal-burning freighter. Back with the family, he was apparently difficult, and after he pointed a defective rifle at his blind brother Knud, the family contacted health officials, and one day, while he was wallpapering a room, he was jumped and hauled off to a mental hospital in the Aarhus suburb of Risskov.
He died there, 56 years later.
Aarhus – Denmark’s second largest city, with around a quarter million souls – has what is claimed to be one of four women’s museums in the world, and I encountered Louis’ work there – a pipe, apparently made of the foil from a toothpaste tube.
But Louis was not known as Louis Marcussen. He was Ovartaci, and he was no longer a man, but a woman.
The next day I trooped up to Risskov to encounter more work at a museum named after Ovartaci in the place she lived for half a century.**
It is hard to know what to make of this extraordinary life. Despite a wealth of detail provided by various psychiatric professionals and art critics, Ovartaci remains an enigma to me, and possibly everyone who runs into her.
Dear reader – you can choose between the idea that Louis Marcussen believed in reincarnation and that in all his previous lives he had been a woman, that a terrible mistake had been made, that he wished to have corrected, or you can take the “analysts'” idea that he regarded his lust for women as “dirty” and that to deal with this lust he needed to have what is now known as “gender reassignment”. Whatever, he convinced the authorities to castrate him, but when this didn’t meet his needs or expectations, and he could not persuade his minders to help, he cut off his penis. After a failed attempt using a razor blade, he succeeded with a chisel in the asylum’s carpentry workshop. Eventually authorities allowed “reassignment”, a vagina created when he was around 60, and Ovartaci died the woman she (according to me as well as to her) knew she had always been:
Here is a chart of “available” genders from the Aarhus women’s museum:
Which one, or ones, was Ovartaci?
Ovartaci’s life as a psychiatric patient is as puzzling as anything else about her. It is hard not to be suspicious of psychiatric professionals who overpowered someone while papering a room for the crime of brandishing a rifle that wouldn’t shoot, and kept that person incarcerated for more than half a century. The available details about Louis’ and Ovartaci’s behaviour are too sketchy to be really sure of the actual justification for keeping her locked up. Yet Ovartaci spent many of those years as a sort of special case, less locked up than might be assumed, able to leave the facility and wander about the city. Her keepers seemed well-disposed towards her, taking her to their homes and bringing their children to meet her in the hospital. Eventually she was allowed to buy a bicycle and travel further afield.
Ovartaci was also encouraged in art, producing at least 800 works ranging from pipes to dolls and other sculptures to paintings. Around 1960, a psychiatrist arriving at the Risskov facility recognised Ovartaci’s talent as genius, and not only encouraged it, but recorded long conversations eventually edited and published.
It is true too that by being a patient Ovartaci never needed to worry about food and lodging. If much of her work was made using whatever was to hand, she was also able to sell it, and to buy paints and other materials, and was able to decorate much of the hospital as well as her own room. She was able to study and learned Chinese and much else.
But is “not as bad as it might have been” good? Underneath all the positives there is something about Ovartaci’s life that makes me angry, and ashamed.
Before Ovartaci’s death in 1986, exhibitions outside the hospital featured her work, and after it, art as therapy led to the naming of the exhibition hall for patients’ work the Ovartaci Museum. However Ovartaci may have thought about that, I am not sure how I feel about it. Here is a painting by a later patient:
This too makes me angry and ashamed.
Here are some paintings by Ovartaci:
Ovartaci said, “I served my apprenticeship here in Aarhus.. .the orders we received were, that nature puts no colours wrongly side by side. The essential thing is to pick this up and learn from nature, as it does not put wrong colours together. That is what humans can do, these baroque and often so frightening, terrifying paintngs; they are not found in nature.”
Ovartaci made dolls that some critics say were not meant as “art objects” but as friends.*** She made them in various sizes and smaller ones went with her when she left the hospital; she could take them on her bike. She gave them names and talked with them.
While restoring one of the larger versions, a curator discovered that the head came apart. Inside was a sheaf of poems written in Spanish. Here is an English translation of one, published as “poems o the future”:
*The second post from my summer 2017 European adventure. Thanks for reading.
**Ovartaci was at the Risskov facility for 45 years; s/he spent a further 11 at another.
***Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka also made a doll of a girlfriend – Anna Mahler, ex-wife of Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius – who dumped him. Kokoschka took the doll to dinners and parties and talked to it as if it was Anna. Eventually he destroyed it.