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Tosquelles, the forgotten subversive psychiatrist

Professor Joana Masó at the Faculty of Philology and Communication

Professor Joana Masó at the Faculty of Philology and Communication

Professor Joana Masó with the book on Francesc Tosquelles

Professor Joana Masó with the book on Francesc Tosquelles

Book cover

Book cover



Joana Masó, lecturer of French Studies, recovers the Francesc Tosquelles’ work and its figure, the psychiatrist of the Republic who suggested “healing institutions”

Joana Masó, lecturer at the Faculty of Philology and Communication, has edited Tosquelles. Curar les institucions (Arcàdia, 2021), a fundamental document for the history of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and culture in our country. This work results from the research project by the UB Group ADHUC “El llegat oblidat de Francesc Tosquelles”, coordinated by Masó since 2017 and funded by Mir-Puig Foundation.

An exhibition on Francesc Tosquelles is expected by April 2022 in the Barcelona Contemporary Culture Centre (CCCB). The exhibition will have been previously offered in Toulouse, where it has received the National Interest Award, given by the French Ministry of Culture. Then, it will be moved to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and in New York, in the American Folk Art Museum. In addition, a film about Tosquelles is being filmed and will premier in the Loop Festival in November in Arts Santa Monica, in Barcelona. 

“We need to stress that this study results from the collaboration between the public and private sectors, a reliable demonstration of the meaning of research studies on humanities and mostly, an example of knowledge transfer to society”, notes Masó. The first thing that may shock us is that a psychiatrist has been the object of study in Philology: “Tosquelles is not only a doctor, a psychiatrist, but a transverse heterodox in which many paths and disciplines meet: medicine, theatre, poetry, cinema, politics… culture, in one word. And that’s what we used to get closer to his study”, stresses Masó. “Note that when he had to validate his degree on Medicine in France in 1947, Tosquelles presented a thesis on the poet Gérard de Nerval. With this, you can figure out the size of who we are talking about”, she says.  

The book, which is almost 400 pages, is an object itself: “It covers a great amount of written and graphic documents, many of them unpublished, as well as the translations, for the first time into Catalan ─by the anthropologist and writer Adrià Pujol─, of the texts by Tosquelles”, adds Masó. “The editorial has worked hard when managing more than a hundred permits on images that were in personal and family files. The design sketch took half a year of work”, adds the expert. Through this wide selection of texts, documents and photographs of the time, the project presents a journey that gives life to a collective memory that goes beyond the history of psychiatry and its institutions, to mark the path through an unknown and essential side of our own history.

Masó believes Tosquelles is a man of the Republic: “He studies during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, and during the Republic and the War he puts his knowledge in practice”.  Treating ill soldiers near the front, for instance. He does not think they should go to rear hospitals but they should be taken care of in the same environment where it happens, because apart from the soldiers, doctors and nurses need care too. Tosquelles heals the “structure” of war. Or commanding farmhouses near Reus in order to treat autistic children. “It is politics in the Republican era that enable him to carry out such avant-garde structures. And he takes this experience to France and puts it in practice in Saint Alban”, highlights Masó.  

Tosquelles is part of the retreat and exiles in France, after passing through the field of Sètfons, but he does never abandon his political militancy and will collaborate with the Resistance, hiding a series of illustrious figures, such as Paul Éluard, linked to surrealism and communism. “This is a mythical moment in French culture ─says Masó─, where the confluence of medicine, culture and politics creates an experience with tools that transform reality”.

“He distinguished between establishments, places governed by bureaucracy and administration, which were not worth the attention, and institutions, the entities that needed transformation, healing ─notes Masó─, and this is Tosquelles’ essential lucidity: in order to heal the ill, we need to heal the institutions that take care of them”. Therefore, once he was in France, Tosquelles, put the bases of what we know as antipsychiatry: creating ties between the sanatorium and its environment at a social and economic level, and through surrealism ─he loved films by Buñuel, for instance─ and putting culture, poetry, theatre and cinema at the center, as tools that enabled transforming reality. In fact, according to Masó, Tosquelles is telling us that reality is broken, not the people who we consider ill. It is a radical change. 

One of the core focus of the method is language use, an almost Derridian way, one of the knowledge fields Masó is an expert on. Tosquelles has many radical quotes, such as “I spoke Spanish too. But almost as poorly or worse than the French I speak now. Like Arabs. When you have been in an occupied country, you speak the language of the oppressor, but you deform it”. Masó specifies: “Any bilingualism is a domination tool, since Catalans cannot fully exist in Catalan in our land. This is similar to what Derrida says in Monolingualism of the other, on French in Algeria”. Tosquelles made a transgressor step in this field and he used language as a therapeutic tool. He imitated his accent in French and in Spanish, full of Catalanisms, in order to get the attention of the ill person, and bring him or her to his side. He used language, deforming it, making it a therapeutic and political tool.

He is an eccentric person, related to other Catalan geniuses such as Dalí, Pujols, Gaudí and Cerdà. “This ends up shaping a problem for our culture ─says Masó─. Instead of having cultural genealogies, we have separated individual masterminds. I tried to link it in order to save this isolation”.

“When I started working on this study ─notes the researcher─, I did not know about Tosquelles. It was when I was working on my thesis in France when I first heard about him. And with more information, I started the study in 2017. These four years have changed me intellectually. I learnt more about the Catalan culture and the Republic with this than what I did during my previous student years. Essential and unknown details such as the meeting held by Dalí in BOC in 1930, the existence of surrealists that took part in the Resistance to the Nazi occupation in France, or what we know as Extermination Douce (sweet extermination), when more than 40,000 ill people were left to die in the hospitals in the occupied France. I entered history through Tosquelles”.  

Francesc Tosquelles (Reus, 1912 - Granges d’Òlt, 1994) studied Medicine and Psychiatry in Barcelona, and received medical training, among others, by the psychiatrist Emili Mira. He worked in the Pere Mata Institute before the Civil War. A Catalan nationalist allied to the Bloc Obrer i Camperol (BOC) and the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), in July 1936 he left to the front in Aragon, where he assisted combatants with mental diseases they got in the trenches. Exiled in France by the end of the Civil War, he settled in Saint-Alban until the sixties, where he carried out a transforming practice that responded not only to therapeutic needs but also cultural and political, in a process that involved the healthcare institution.
The opening of hospitals in the environment, the link to the landscape, exploration of cooperative managing systems with the patients, the work inside and outside the centers, crafts and theatre, cinema and writing as collective practices were some of his proposals to the service of care and humanization of life. By the late sixties, the Manager Office of the Pere Mata Institute in Reus hired him as the director and he led the reform of the institution until his death. 

Joana Masó (Barcelona, 1978) graduated in Modern Languages at the Paris Diderot University and in Classical Arts at the Paris-Sorbonne University, she is a lecturer at the Faculty of Philology and Communication of the UB and researcher at ADHUC - Center for Research Theory, Gender, Sexuality and the UNESCO Chair Women, Development and Cultures. Commissioner of exhibitions and translator of several French essay and cinema books, she is also a literary critic and her work focuses on crossroads in literature, contemporary art and thought. She edited in several languages Hélène Cixous’ books (Poetas en pintura. Escritos sobre arte: de Rembrant a Nancy Spero) and texts on aesthetics and architecture by Jaques Derrida (Arts de lo visible [1979-2004] and Les arts de l’espace). Since 2017, she has been coordinating the research project “El llegat oblidat de Francesc Tosquelles”.

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