four artists whose work has been shaped by mental illness


Wes Anderson’s new film, The French Dispatch, is the latest issue of a magazine specializing in feature articles on events in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of short films featuring three of the articles.

An article by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from an early age, Rosenthaler pursued the art with a relentless determination that led him to slowly lose his mind. In a fit of rage, he commits a triple homicide which leads him to prison, where, after a long time away from art, he creates his best work helped by his prison guard and muse Simone (Léa Seydoux).

Artists, like Rosenthaler, overwhelmed by too much want to live, or one tragic taste for alcohol, even intense and murderous desires, are familiar figures of cinema and fiction. In some movies art itself is demonic.

Like everything else, mental illness is understood in the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born under Saturn, art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced insanity. This has been shown by a lazy and withdrawn darkness. Such sadness was seen as both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration. It was a way to distinguish their inspiration from the simple “know-how” of the craft. A brush with madness was good PR.

This association has become so well established that if you search for “artist” in the index of the 1620 collection by writer Robert Burton The anatomy of melancholyyou will find an entrance. It is written: “ARTISTS: crazy”.

Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often involves a regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to a primitive, impulsive, or infantile state of mind. The artist in Anderson’s film is a case in point: he is loud, brash, and extravagantly insane. And it is then that he is at his “craziest” that he paints his best work.

Here, I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of ​​the ‘mad artist’ need not be tied to a loss of control but rather. to an attempt to win it. It’s not always noisy. It can be silent, very detailed or understated, as the work of these artists shows.

Richard Papa

The masterpiece of the fairy by Richard Dadd.

A parallel to Rosenthaler is the Victorian painter Richard Papa. The career of this brilliant young artist was destroyed by a nervous breakdown which today would probably be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia.

Dad killed his father, imagining him to be the devil incarnate. He was incarcerated in the insane criminals department of the Bethlem hospital. It was as a patient that he painted many of his masterpieces with obsessive detail, such as The master stroke of the harvester fairy, (1855-64). The painting contains hidden details that not everyone can see. For example, in the middle of the painting, I see a character with a pale face, wearing a purple coat and standing at a right angle to the rest of the painting.

It is the work of this period that Dadd is remembered.

Edvard munch

A less painful example can be found in the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.

Painting of a screaming person.
The Scream of Edvard Munch.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Munch’s famous work, The Scream (1893) depicts an artist’s vision of “blood and tongues of fire” rising above a fjord. In the foreground, a cadaveric figure hugs her cheeks in agony shock. A handwritten message in the upper left corner of this painting was recently shown in the artist’s hand. It reads: “Can only have been painted by a madman.” ”

Munch regarded as a sign of health the fact that he could express illness and anxiety in art, and he embraced the idea that insanity was a gift that gave him ideas denied to others.

Marie barnes

A striking example of “creative regression” can be found in the artist and the poet Marie barnes. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and refusing to take care of herself, Barnes was the first resident of Kingsley Hall, an experimental therapeutic community founded by psychiatrist RD Laing. She started taking pictures when she was there, using her feces first. Like one of them psychotherapists have described:

Mary smeared shit with the skill of a Zen calligrapher. She released more energy into one of her many natural, spontaneous, and subconscious traits than most artists express in a lifetime of work. I marveled at the elegance and eloquence of his images, while others saw only his scents.

Barnes then had a successful career as an artist.

Bright paintings with erratic brush strokes.
A later painting by Mary Barnes.

The phrase “natural, spontaneous and unconscious” is a window into the belief that expressive creativity resides in primitive regression. As the last example shows, this is certainly not necessarily the case.

Agnes Martin

American painter Agnes Martin passed by two decades of experimentation to achieve the lucid abstraction for which it is known. In his notes for a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1973, she wrote:

The work is so far from perfect because we ourselves are so far from perfect. The more often we see perfection or the more we are aware of it, the more distant it seems.

A grid.
Plate 11 from the series ‘A Clear Day’ by Agnes Martin.
Wikimedia, CC BY-NC

Martin suffered from auditory hallucinations and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. His calm and methodical paintings, such as Distant love (1999), depict abstract states of existence: innocence, happiness and the sublime. They are as much meditations as visual experiences.

“Sometimes,” she continued, “with hard work the dragon is weakened.”

Martin’s example thoughtful and dedicated life is in stark contrast to the noisy stereotype of the impulsive and primitive genius.

While the paintings of the fictional Rosenthaler and the real Martin are both very abstract, they contrast sharply with each other. Martin’s has a reserved and orderly quality while Rosenthaler is bold and unrestrained, splashing everything he uses as a canvas. Far from the romantic notions of the great artist exhibited in cinema, as these artists show, most of the arts are about winning rather than losing control.

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