THE MANDEVILLE CASE
-some psychological aspects
by Gabriella Håkansson
On a frosty November morning almost thirty years ago, the aged cleaner, Jacob Mandeville, was found in the garden outside the Groningen Natural History Museum in the Netherlands. He was busy burying fossils in a flower bed. On one of them, he had carved the initials of the museum's curator, Gert de Vries. He claimed that these fossils were the remains of petrified sinners.
The cleaner, collector and philanthropist Jacob Mandeville is one of the 20th century's most eccentric figures. He spent several decades travelling around Europe with his wife, Helga. He worked at a number of different museums and is thought periodically to have suffered from severe psychological delusions, even if he was never admitted to any mental institution. In 1971, he disappeared without trace, leaving behind a number of cardboard boxes containing notepads, drawings, diagrams, natural history specimens and photographs which, divided into five strange diaries, span the period 1957-1971. This is unique material bearing witness to a human story that is both fascinating and deeply tragic – about a man who went to extremes to create some form of coherence between his own inner imaginary world and external reality. When Albin Biblom, in the exhibition entitled "The Journals of Jacob Mandeville", takes on the task of collating this material, the result is as strange as it is thought provoking. Using the few biographical facts that have been obtained, Biblom attempts to reconstruct Mandeville's life.
Jacob Mandeville was born in York in 1926. His father was an alcoholic bookbinder, while his mother was a well-known prostitute. His wife and companion of many years, Helga, was the daughter of one of his mother's colleagues and, during a number of conversations with Biblom, she has described their sometimes chaotic life together.
Thanks to a relative, Mandeville had a job during the 1950s at the Department of Geology at the University of Würzburg. A decade later, he was working as a window cleaner at the Swedish Consulate General in Berlin. From the material he left behind, it appears that, during his first period in Berlin, which lasted from 1962 to 1966, Mandeville conducted a silent yet persistent campaign to persuade the city's then mayor to divest all the imported animals at the zoo. Mandeville wanted instead to turn the park into a natural habitat for squirrels and other domestic species. In a number of forged letters, masquerading as the Swedish General Counsel Sten Lindbeck, he encouraged the Director of the Berlin Zoo "either to close the Zoo or reform it". These forged letters resulted in a minor scandal and Mandeville was once again obliged to look for another job. Very little is known about his last years. Fragmentary notes indicate that, after the letter scandal in 1967, he spent a short period working in Groningen in the Netherlands. In the following year, he had returned Berlin, where he obtained a job as a cleaner at the Museum für Naturkunde. Mandeville's final diary, "The Vegetation", covers the period until 1971 and is a confused mixture of dogmatic notes and overheated biblical allusions. According to his friend Anne Marie Vogelsong, Jacob Mandeville drowned the following year in the Landwehrkanal, but his body was never recovered and, according to German records, he is still registered as "missing".
In this exhibition – which is largely made up of photographs, letters and natural history specimens which were presumably stolen from the different institutions at which Mandeville worked – we meet a man who appears to be in the midst of a constant mental conflict. The bizarre installations reflect a world in which the internal has coalesced with the external and every individual object conceals some secret meaning. Behind the mental machinery, one senses religiously coloured notions in which good and evil, heaven and hell, punishment and reward set the course. The grainy, dark, photomontages are accompanied by hand-written extracts from Mandeville's diaries. The handwriting is childishly rounded, like that of a man who has never really grown up, and the distorted motifs in the photographs have often been taken from the world of flora and fauna. The fact is that, apart from the people he came into conflict with, who were, without exception, what Freud called "substitute father figures", in other words, men in positions of authority, Jacob Mandeville seldom reproduces pictures of people. Instead, he focuses on nature, which is distorted and manipulated to match his own imaginary world more effectively. The enormous number of photographs he left behind him also illustrate a highly developed obsession with repetition. Mandeville appears to have been a creature of habit who could often take the same walk several times a day and who, with monomaniac frenzy, reproduced the same motif over and over again from slightly different angles. From the tins that were found in the basement at his last address on Adalbertstrasse, which contained photographs of various animals, it is clear that this obsession with repetition emanated from an abnormal desire for control. His large-scale kleptomania points in the same direction, as it is generally known that kleptomaniacs often steal to relieve a feeling of anxiety and insecurity. By first reproducing (or stealing), then organising and systematising and finally enclosing his objects, he felt that he had more control of what was otherwise an insecure existence. In this exhibition, there are several examples of this curious habit of enclosing things in order to control them more effectively. In a small red notebook, Mandeville has enclosed a picture of the ladder he used as a window cleaner here in Berlin, under the glass in his mirror in the bathroom he has arranged a picture of his wife, Helga, and inside a syringe (apparently stolen) a minimal crucifix has been inserted. It is clear that glass as a material was very important to Jacob Mandeville. It encloses and surrounds while giving maximum visibility to the controlled object. It is definitely no coincidence that here in Berlin he chose to work as a window cleaner and, in some of his notes in his diaries, he made it clear in a roundabout way that he actually took the job in order to be able more closely to observe the secretary, Ann Marie Vogelsang, with whom he had fallen in love and who was working on the second floor of the consulate at that time. However, Jacob Mandeville was not simply tormented by this abnormal desire for control. A closer study of his personality and imaginary world reveals that he suffered from what is known in the world of psychiatry as "inverted megalomania". It expresses itself in a reverse view of the world, our accepted norms and, first and foremost, oneself. Low becomes high and high becomes low. In Mandeville's case, it expressed itself on several levels. As far as Jacob Mandeville was concerned, stealing was not a sin but a way of releasing things from their enforced existence. As Mandeville saw it, the artefacts at our museums were just as incarcerated and lacking in freedom as the animals at a zoo. According to the same reverse logic, he could identify people in high positions as sinners and "war criminals", while he, in his modest role as a window cleaner, a person who was involved with the lowest of the low – dust and dirt – was free of guilt and sin. There is every reason to suppose that, as a result of his low rank, Mandeville also regarded himself as a more morally sophisticated creature than other human beings: a position that created a false sense of power and control but also imposed obligations. The desire, on the one hand, to free the imprisoned and, on the other, to punish those responsible cannot therefore have been particularly enjoyable. It should instead be interpreted as the expression of an inner compulsion. A compulsion which is normally attributed in the world of psychology to repressed sadomasochistic tendencies – tendencies that are also indicated by his desire for control and strange enclosure mania. It is clear that these megalomaniac and kleptomaniac characteristics became increasing strong over the years. Mandeville appears secretly to have »freed« European museums from a significant number of exhibits and his ambition to transform the Berlin Zoo also assumed increasingly aggressive forms. When, after enormous effort, he failed to obtain any support for his ideas, his collecting, stealing and bizarre behaviour began to assume tragic dimensions. It is not particularly easy to draw a line between truth and lies, between insight and insanity. What is certain is that, at some time in his life, Jacob Mandeville crossed that line and quite simply began fabricating the proof for his theories. One of the most interesting examples of this behaviour are the so-called »Paradise photographs«.
»On the morning of October 4th, I ventured out in my aeroplane to search for possible gates to paradise,« Mandeville writes in his Berlin diary. »I saw how my companions on the ground grew ever more small. How hopeful I was to find evidence of the gates and bring it back!« The gates to which he refers are the gates of Paradise and the incident that is described is the frosty autumn morning on which Jacob, in a aircraft he had built himself, set off from Grünewald to map the world. After having been lost without trace for several months, he returned with what he claimed was »photographic evidence of the existence of Paradise«. In the aerial photographs, which are shown in boxes on the floor, the camera sweeps inquisitively over a black-and-white landscape. Mountains and rock formations pass. Crevices and hollows resemble a powdered lunar landscape. What he actually photographed is unclear. »I was embraced by its sacredness,« Mandeville writes in his diary. He told his friends that he had seen the Garden of Eden and tried in vain to have an article about this sensational »discovery« published.t was also after the aircraft incident that Mandeville's previous obsession with fossils started to assume new, worrying forms. In the earlier journals, he wrote that, during his time in Würzburg, he found a small object buried in the soil. In his mind, this object was swiftly transformed into a petrified sinner. »Here, before my very eyes, I was witnessing one who was responsible for the Deluge!« He named this fossil »Homo Deluvi Testis« - freely translated, »the Man who witnessed the Deluge». He showed his discovery to Sebastian Zanger, the curator of the Würzburg Zoo, and explained that fossils were sinners who had been denied entry to heaven and had therefore been thrown back to earth. When Zanger failed to take him seriously, he called him a »war criminal, a pimp and profiteer« and tried to to burn down his house. »He has in a perverted way fabricated his perception of the world via a taste for money, phantasmagorias and unnatural acts with earthly delights! One day he will be haunted by memories of an artificial kingdom lost – I cannot help myself smiling to myself; purgatory after all varies in its beauty!«
So we are all sinners in Mandeville's confused universe. All of us who have exploited, captured and stuffed nature in carefully labelled specimen cabinets or locked them in barred cages. The only problem is that, at this point, Mandeville was also in the process of assuming the guise of a sinner. His desire for control – which had developed at the same rate as his rejection of peculiar ideas about petrified sinners and the gates of paradise – forced him to make increasingly extravagant expeditions. He spent many hours at zoos, photographing animals, he stole ruthlessly from natural history collections and he spent his nights arranging his photographs and collections in different ways. After a protracted crisis in the autumn of 1964 – had he already begun to realise that he was ill? He travelled without any advance warning to Turkey, where, according to a letter to Anne Marie Vogelsang, he searched for fossils. After he returned home, it appears that his mental condition deteriorated. His thefts assumed almost manic proportions. He had a part-time job as a cleaner at Museum fur Naturkunde to earn some extra money. According to his colleagues, he was extremely conscientious and quiet during this final year, but it was eventually found that a large number of the institution's rarest butterflies, birds and
fossils had disappeared.
The »posthumous« material that Albin Biblom has examined contains a large number of late observations that leads the reader to suspect that Jacob Mandeville had started to understand that he was ill. The results of his efforts assumed unexpected, if not grotesque, proportions. In his basement on Adalbertstrasse 16, in Berlin, Mandeville unconsciously
re-created the same kind of collections as those at the museums and institutions he so deeply despised. His »released« objects were displayed in boxes and on shelves or enclosed in glass. His photographs were in albums or piles, bearing witness to his failed attempts to »re-establish the natural order«. Remember the accusation he hurled at Sebastian Zanger in Würzburg: »He has in a perverted way fabricated his perception of the world via a taste for money, phantasmagorias and unnatural acts with earthly delights! One day he will be haunted by memories of an artificial kingdom lost – I cannot help myself smiling to myself; purgatory after all varies in its beauty!«.
Had Jacob Mandeville begun to be tormented by the artificial kingdom he had created in his basement? Had he become the victim of his own logic and started to regard himself as the greatest of sinners? We can only speculate about the form his final days took. According to his own cosmology, a star appeared in the sky every time someone died.
If that person was a sinner, his or her soul was cast back to earth, into the depths of
the sea, where it assumed the form of a starfish. The sea, water – so like glass in its ability to enclose – was Mandeville's image of hell. Was it purely a coincidence that his life ended in one of the canals in Berlin? Ann Marie Vogelsang's account of the tragic drowning accident leaves many questions unanswered. We will never know the truth about Jacob Mandeville. However, everything he has left behind bears witness to his fascinating life
Gabriella Håkansson, 2005..