The Tortured Artist, the Relationship Between Mental Health and Creativity

The Tortured Artist, the Relationship Between Mental Health and Creativity

The idea of the ‘tortured artist’ has been romanticised and proliferated since at least the Renaissance period, when post-enlightenment, humanist thought became more widespread and topical. This change in cultural climate coincided with the increased status and to some extent, newfound celebrity of artists. Whilst those involved in the arts were previously seen as mere craftsmen, artists began to be recognised as ‘geniuses,’ celebrated for their unique and insightful perspectives on the world. Over the centuries the story of artistic genius has developed into one of a double-edged sword; with the gift of insight comes too, the great gilded gift of suffering; or so says the story of art.

The list of examples is longstanding and diverse; Picasso restricted his palette to hues of blue when he sunk into a three year period of dark depression; Munch painted The Scream after suffering an anxiety attack which he described as “an infinite scream passing through nature”; Milton wrote Paradise Lost after losing his wife, daughter, and his eyesight; Hemingway’s ongoing relationship with depression and schizophrenia – which is discernible in his direct and detached writing style- and resulted in his alcoholism and eventual suicide; Sylvia Plath’s unremitting battle with mental illness and trauma, crudely and frankly chronicled in The Bell Jar. That’s not to mention the fabled and mythologised ‘27-club’ of exceptional musicians, prematurely lost to depression and drugs, who have gone down in cult history as heroic legends: Cobain, Joplin, Winehouse, Hendrix and Morrison– to list but a few.

In my mind, the connection between artistic talent and suffering is due to two factors: the artistic process necessitates a certain introspection, reflection and sensitivity, both on existential world-issues and personal emotional conflicts, and secondly, the often tense and fraught process of artistic creation and the subsequent projection of that work into the public realm- opening it up for criticism from all angles- must surely, always feel painfully personal. Most importantly however, what we can really learn from art is that mental illness is a part of the human condition, one that can be fulfilling and inspiring, and art itself is a means for healing. Plato called it when he philosophised that poetic ecstasy is the only source of divine truth, “madness is a gift from the gods,”.

“I do not believe in the art which is not the compulsive result of humanity’s urge to open its heart.” Edvard Munch

When people ask why I’m so obsessed with fine art, I most often respond by saying that viewing Art is a magical, spiritual experience, a ‘good’ piece of art (of course, good art is entirely subjective) will transcend time and relate to the viewer the essential, universal and ubiquitous nature of being human. I’m not religious, but give me a good Pieta and I can fully relate to- feel even- the Madonna’s grief and sense of anguish.

I always cite my first interaction with the majestic emotional gravitas of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals, enclosed in a chapel-like space within the hallowed halls of the Tate Modern. Rothko was originally commissioned to create the works for an upscale New York restaurant, but upon their completion felt that the wealthy diners of the Four Seasons wouldn’t appreciate the complexity of the paintings; they deserve and require the viewers full-bodily contemplation. The paintings are dark, all encompassing and sublimely terrifying, “lovely in their oppression, erotic in their cruelty.” He ended up bequeathing them to the Tate, where they arrived, rather symbolically on the morning of his suicide. Hang around long enough in the Seagram room and you’ll probably catch someone (quite possibly me) shedding a tear. Poignantly powerful, they strike at humanity’s core, complex in the same confusing and clouded way feelings of sadness ensnare one. Rothko laid himself bare and basically allows or encourages us to feel.

“Making art is hard.”- Richard Prince

In 1514 German artist, Albrecht Durer created an allegorical engraving depicting a specific form of artistic depression, referred to at the time as- Melencolia I.’ Humanist writer, Corenelius Agrippa had discerned three diverse forms of depressive states of mind and ‘Melencolia Imaginativa’ was the one which Durer was most taken by, as it was held by artistic types, who Agrippa argued were specifically subject to their ‘imagination’ predominating over ‘mind’ and ‘reason.’ Within the image there are a variety of symbolic references relating to creative inertness, the despondent winged-figure being an allegorical figure of ‘Genius’ itself. The discarded tools, the hourglass running out, the emaciated dog, the mystical magic square and the truncated rhombohedra with a faint memento mori skull on one side, are all symbolic of  unfulfilled artistic potential. So much so, that many Art Historians have argued convincingly that Melencollia I, is actually a self-portrait of Durer, created shortly after he noted in his diary- “what is beautiful I do not know.”

This piece is not unique, countless artists have dedicated work to the notion of the torment of creation. The trajectory of creating a work of art is fraught with emotion and inner-arguments of self-worth; failure is an inevitable part of the process- and a necessary learning device. “I am distressed, almost discouraged, and fatigued to the point of feeling slightly ill. What I am doing is no good, and in spite of your confidence, I am very much afraid that my efforts will all lead to nothing,” said Claude Monet. Moreover, each element of an artistic work is personal and subjective, and holds worth and value to the artist. Therefore, once the artwork in question is then accessible in the public domain, available and open to a critical reception, the artist can be left vulnerable, insecure and embittered.

“That terrible mood of depression of whether it’s any good or not is what is known as ‘The Artist’s Reward’.” – Ernest Hemmingway.

The artists ‘ego’ is an interesting trope in itself, heavily mythologised- a delicate balancing game between humility and hubris- leaving many artists to be characterised as narcissistic or pompous. Narcissistic enough to dedicate their working hours to a deep scrutiny of the human condition, in order to make that body of work available for public consumption! A noble act if you ask me. Art critic, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe argued that the artist’s ego must be inflated, “Bravado aside, ego must still prevail: For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.”   

“Artists make themselves very vulnerable. And I find that super heroic.”- Elizabeth Peyton

Ultimately, whilst the process of creation may often perpetuate some forms of depression, it can simultaneously encourage and inform a process of personal healing for the artist. Clinical research into art itself as a form of therapy is still very much in its infancy, but initial studies have found that patients with mild forms of mental health conditions tend to respond well to treatment involving artistic exercises as the tactile and cognitive process of putting pencil to paper is thought to unlock the unconscious and aid expression. Moreover, the psychic process of simply viewing art is seen to be beneficial for mental health issues; a study conducted in Australia argues that those who dedicated 100 or more hours per year of arts engagement (about two  hours a week) reported significantly better mental wellbeing than those with lower levels of engagement.

24 year-old London artist Alice Joiner found expression and a sense of understanding for her mental-health condition via her photographic output. Alice suffered from eating disorders from the age of 13 and began documenting her journey through photography, more as a visual diary than a preconceived artistic endeavour. Meanwhile as the complicated illness took over Alice’s psyche her artistic output began to suffer; she was training as a painter, but said she felt ‘lost as an artist’ and confined and limited by the medium. It wasn’t until she began studying at the Slade, after her recovery, where she was taught the value of photography within the artistic hierarchy, that she gained awareness of how powerful and beneficial the series of photographs could be if she was willing to express to an audience the narrative and struggle inscribed within the images. Alice talks of the sense of isolation, fear, confusion and intense depression present within the images that she only became aware of with the benefit and space of hindsight. “I had essentially been depicting my slow death,” she says.

Photography became a way out from the eating disorders and her artistic struggles, as she was able to emancipate herself from her formal obsession with the line and technique. With her camera, she gained the freedom to move and connect with the world again. It was at the Slade too, where Alice found a sense of validation in the work of contemporary documentary photographer, Nan Goldin, who is celebrated for her authentic, visceral, and often, dark work, which in a similar way explores the mental health issues and trauma associated with Goldin’s closest circle. Alice now presents this series under the title, ‘An Emergence of Being’ and uses the images in a meditation session she runs for others recovering from eating disorders. For Alice, the work is an acknowledgement of eating disorders as a form of mental illness, an awareness that is severely lacking within the media and our education system.

“Art has always been the raft on to which we climb to save our sanity.”- Dorothea Tanning

The relationship between art and mental health issues is a fraught and complicated one; it is hard to separate cause and effect and discern whether mental illness informs the artwork or if the process of artistic creation heightens such difficulties. However, the power of art lies in its ability to express the inexpressible and explore the depth of human emotions. The art world accepted, and even celebrated, ‘mental illness’ as real, long before the advent of modern psychology, and in doing so, gave countless viewers a sense of security and a space of sanctuary for when they’ve felt misunderstood and alone.


Written by Charlie Siddick


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