Mental Illness And Art
Mental illness has affected the way artists work and has been portrayed in art for many years. In many ways, it could be said that art has led the way in seeing mental illness not as alien or shameful, but as part of life, sometimes even as a positive and useful experience. In this study, I present the ways that artists portray mental illnesses through art, and how artists with mental illnesses show the effects of the disorder they suffer from through their artwork. With my study, I have split the artists I’m studying into two groups; artists who portray a mental illness through art, and artists with mental illnesses who show the effects of the disorder they suffer from through their artwork without intention. Many of my artists are categorized into the last group as they suffered from a mental illness, such as Vincent Van Gogh. The main focus of my personal project is to explore how mental health impacts artists and their artwork, and to try to explore, in my own style, the artwork they produce. I will also try to analyze and explain the different meanings and representations in their artwork.
I have chosen to study mental illness because I find it interesting that an artist’s personal life can majorly affect their art. For example, Van Gogh’s mental state highly affected his work and it reflects his mental health. Van Gogh’s work shows changes in style and colors, which correlate with his life and his mental health, such as Starry Night and the Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, which I further analyze in my study. It’s also inspired me to explore how society responds to mental illnesses, and artwork relating to mental health.
There are many famous artists that suffered from mental illnesses, such as Edvard Munch. Many suffered silently, and it was only recently that psychologists began to study how the personal lives of artists affected and changed their style of work. It’s also been recent that psychologists have been using new technology for people to use art to present their own experiences with their mental illness, for example, a BBC documentary on people using VR to express their experiences with their mental illness, which was my main inspiration for my personal project.
Mental illness has been explored throughout history in all types of art, music, and literature. From Vittore Carpaccio’s The Healing of the Possessed Man at the Rialto (1496), to Shawn Coss’s Inktober drawings of mental illness (2016). The idea of a link between creativity and mental illnesses has been studied by psychologists for years, creativity has also been linked to mental illnesses such as; depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Other studies have shown links between creative professions and people with mental illnesses, some studies support the idea that mental illnesses can impact or aid creativity, but it’s agreed that someone can still be creative if they don’t have a mental illness.
For many years, the creative arts have been used in therapy. A study conducted by Swedish researchers reported a number of links between creative professions and mental illnesses. They stated that “writers had a higher risk of developing anxiety, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice more likely than the general population to kill themselves”. They further stated that “dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder”. Educational psychologist Arthur Jensen stated that the relationship between creativity and mental disorder ‘has been well researched and is proven to be a fact’, writing that schizothymic characteristics is more frequent in philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists than in the general population. In a 2015 study, Icelandic scientists found that people in creative professions are 25% more likely to have gene variants that increase the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The co-founder of deCODE Genetics, Kári Stefánsson, stated, ‘Often when people are creating something new, they end up straddling between sanity and insanity. I think these results support the concept of the mad genius.’
The links between mental illness and creativity encouraged me to explore artists that suffered from mental illnesses and their work, and how other artists present mental illness within art. I believe that mental illness has been perceived negatively by society, yet mental illness can be a factor to be creative and produce remarkable work, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows (July 1890), which was Van Gogh’s final painting before he committed suicide in the same month.
Within my study, I was greatly inspired by Vincent Van Gogh. In 1880, at the age of 27, Van Gogh decided to become an artist. He moved to different cities and countries, teaching himself to draw and paint and receiving financial support from Theo, Van Gogh’s brother who was an art dealer. Van Gogh’s style changed significantly under the influence of Impressionism, becoming lighter and brighter. In just over a decade he created about 2,100 artworks, most of them in the last few years of his life. They include landscapes, still lives, portraits of himself and others. Although Van Gogh worried about his mental stability, he often neglected his health by not eating properly and drinking heavily. His friendship with Gauguin ended after he severed part of his left ear with a razor in a rage. Van Gogh then began to switch between fits of madness and lucidness and was sent to the asylum in Saint-Remy for treatment. In May 1890, after a couple of years at the asylum, he went to live in Auvers-Sur-Oise with Dr. Gachet. Two months later, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a gun and died two days later. There are many mental illnesses that van Gogh suffered from, such as; seizures, bipolar disorder, hallucinations, insomnia, acute intermittent porphyria, and Ménière’s disease. In this study, I will analyze three pieces of Van Gogh’s artwork on how his paintings reflect his mental state at the time.
An example of Van Gogh’s work that has greatly inspired the art world through his use of brush strokes and the influence of his emotions is Starry Night. Unlike most of his artwork, Starry Night was painted from memory and indoors. The swirling, wild depiction of the sky is a radical change from his previous, more natural landscapes. Starry Night shows a glimpse of Van Gogh’s asylum room’s view of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence while in isolation. ‘Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure,’ he wrote in May 1889, ‘above which in the morning I see the sunrise in its glory.’ One interpretation of Starry Night is that it depicts hope; Van Gogh seems to be suggesting that there is always light for guidance, such as the light from the houses or from the sky, which portrays the heavens opening up, suggesting that Van Gogh is seeing the positive side to things. Whilst creating this painting, Van Gogh may have found peace with death from the portrayal of the night sky, and as he killed himself two months later. Shown in his radical change in style compared to his previous landscapes, and portrayal of the night sky, it seems that Van Gogh was being cured and had essentially found his heaven, either whilst being alive or in death.
The second painting I studied was the Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. After cutting off a part of his ear in a rage while in Arles, Van Gogh painted Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear while recovering. It is understood that Van Gogh believed that the act of painting would help restore balance to his life. The loose and expressive brushstrokes typical of Van Gogh are clearly visible; the markings are both choppy and graceful, at times becoming soft and drawn-out. Van Gogh used a technique called impasto; the repeated layering of wet paint to develop a thick textured surface. Every mark he made on the canvas is clearly visible and you can see the thickness of each dollop of paint. This gives the portrait a shocking immediacy, as if he wanted to paint himself, but was ashamed of his rage-induced injury, as he has never mutilated himself before, and didn’t want to look at his reflection for longer than needed. This self-portrait is raw with Van Gogh’s horror and acceptance of what he has done to himself, it also shows the blunt manner in which the artist portrays his self-inflicted injury as well as the way he presents the scene. Van Gogh shows the bandage on his ear, his facial expression almost scowling but melancholic, showing his acceptance and shame of what he has done. In all his paintings you can often see the canvas just below the brushwork, pigment builds up in rough piles, but always there is the sense of the space between strokes. In this painting, the abstract repetition of dense, straight brushstrokes is alarming as he normally paints with smooth curved movements, in this painting, they seem rushed and repetitive. Van Gogh’s coat is composed of overpowering dark lines, the sickly lime wall behind him has the same repetitious straight lines, and the color palette Van Gogh has used in this painting is very restricted; mainly of green and yellow tones, which tend to be associated with sickness. – Possibly displaying Van Gogh’s disgust in himself, or his mental illnesses affecting him.
The final painting I studied is Van Gogh’s final painting of his life; Wheat Field with Crows. This painting is also one of the most dramatic and haunting paintings Van Gogh produced. Van Gogh has used a large amount of black for an artist who almost never uses black paint; he tends to use dark shades of blue or purple rather than black. This gives the painting an ominous feeling to the viewer due to the change in Van Gogh’s general color palette. The painting further portrays the ominous feeling due to the lack of clarity of what the painting is; Van Gogh’s work is always painted in a clear style that you can easily tell what the painting is of. In this case, the painting takes longer to recognize what it is. For example, the sky isn’t as recognizable, making it difficult to recognize the clouds, and the fields aren’t as detailed as some of his previous work. This presents the idea of Van Gogh having a lack of focus during this painting, possibly focussing on his mental instability. The use of crows in this painting further points towards Van Gogh’s focus on his mental instability as crows is typically associated with bad omen and death. The dark cloudy sky can represent Van Gogh having clouded thoughts and judgments and that he is struggling with his mental health; representing that he is in a ‘dark place’. We know this to be true as he killed himself the same month that he created this painting. The cut-off path seems to ominously point to the artist’s end.
Another artist that I was greatly inspired by was Zdzisław Beksiński. Beksiński is a Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor, creating artworks that depict dystopian visions. Beksiński claimed, ‘I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams. His paintings were mainly created using oil paint on hardboard panels which he prepared. Beksiński created his paintings and drawings in what he called either a ‘Baroque’ or a ‘Gothic’ manner. Despite the grim overtones, Beksiński claimed some of his works were misunderstood; in his opinion, they were rather optimistic or even humorous. For the most part, Beksiński was adamant that he didn’t know the meaning of his work and was uninterested in possible interpretations; he also refused to provide titles for any of his drawings or paintings.
Before moving to Warsaw in 1977, he burned a selection of his artwork in his garden, without leaving any documentation about them. He later claimed that some of those works were ‘too personal’, while others were unsatisfactory, and he didn’t want people to see them. He almost never visited museums or exhibitions, due to obsessive-compulsive disorder which he had since his childhood. Beksiński stated “my life is dominated by neurotic diarrhea, and that’s it. Hence my reluctance to travel and it remains indifferent whether the journey concerns deportation to Siberia or yacht trips around the world … Everything that separates me from the base exposes me to a specific conditioned nervous tension”. For this reason, he tried to avoid any changes, travels, unannounced visits, or unexpected events as often as possible. Beksiński avoided concrete analysis of the content of his work, saying ‘I cannot conceive of a sensible statement on painting’.
Although Beksiński didn’t suffer from mental illnesses which my other chosen artists did, his work portrays the feeling of anxiety and discomfort to the viewer by creating gruesome and gory paintings such as; torn doll faces, faces erased or obscured by bandages wrapped around the portrait, faces bleeding, and bodies covered in scars or bandages. Which gives the viewer a small glimpse into someone’s life who suffers from a mental illness. Beksiński’s work inspired me to explore how other artists and myself can portray emotions through artwork to the viewer.
I find all of my artists to be greatly inspiring and link to my personal project tremendously. Studying these artists, I have experimented and developed my artistic skills and further developed myself as an artist to become more experimental and expressive. I have experimented with different mediums such as charcoal with Indian ink and watercolor paint. By studying mental illness within art, I have learned in-depth how mental illnesses can impact artists and their work, and how the art world recognizes artists with mental illnesses. For the final piece of my personal project, I have produced a trio of acrylic paintings of landscapes that portray groups of emotions. I have expressed these groups of emotions by changing the color themes and changing the style and texture of the painting.
In the first painting, I have made the sky look like eyes as if they’re looming over the landscape and to make the viewer feel unsettled when looking at the painting. I have also made the sky and ground have a lot of different colors and textures to make it seem busy and full, and harsh to look at. I have done this so that the emotion portrayed to the viewer is anxiety, stress, and paranoia. Many people with mental illnesses feel as if everyone is looming over them and being constantly watched. In this painting, I hope to give the viewer the same feeling. In the second painting, I have made the sky a light blue with softer markings in the sky and on the ground, and I have chosen a softer color palette that is easier to look at. I have done this so that the emotion portrayed to the viewer is peace, calmness, and tranquillity. Many people with mental illnesses struggle to find peace, I hope to give the viewer the feeling of relaxation. In the third painting, I have made the color palette darker and duller, and the markings more straight and repetitive. I have done this so that the emotions portrayed to the viewer are anger, rage, and aggression. Many people with mental illnesses often tend to feel angry at either themselves or others for not understanding how they feel or what they’re trying to discuss, I hope to give the viewer the feeling of aggression and frustration.
If I was to continue studying my personal project, I would continue studying more artists which suffer from mental illnesses and possibly start looking into how mental illnesses are understood and are now being recognized in the society like it is in the art world.