This blog post is the second of a four-part series collaboration between Inspiration Fine Arts & Magnify Wellness.
Written by: Sandhya Maddali and Evelyn Fung
Contributing author/editor: Mikaela Brewer
For as long as art has existed, artists have been using it as a method of self-expression and an outlet for mental health. Research has found a higher prevalence of mental illness among individuals who have pursued a creative career, such as writers, artists, musicians, composers, and those involved with theater, suggesting that people with mental illness may gravitate toward art to express their inner turmoil. Household names in the art world such as Judy Garland, Ludwig van Beethoven, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Woolf, and Robert Schumann have suffered from Bipolar Disorder. A study conducted by the Karolinska Institute found that writers have a higher risk of suffering from anxiety, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. They concluded that writers were 121% more likely to be bipolar, as well as 50% more likely to commit suicide. Mental illness also affects creativity and heavily impacts artistic expression, which is often visible in an artist’s work.
A very clear example of this relationship can be seen in the work of Ric Hall and Ron Schmitt, who collaboratively create pastel paintings. A common theme in their work is serious mental illness — themes like hallucinations and delusions, obsession with death, mania, and hopelessness. Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which is one of the world’s most recognizable art pieces, was apparently inspired by an evening walk where the sky began to turn blood red. Munch was trembling with anxiety as he felt an "infinite scream" through nature. Munch also exhibited vulnerability in his self-portraits, wearing little clothes while staring at the audience, revealing himself to viewers of his art with no outer layers. Each of these artists utilized dark colors like black, white, and red, alongside ghastly, dead, or serious expressions in their art. Impressionists like Van Gogh and Munch used several types of swirls as well as the stretching of the body and surroundings.
Many other artists have created art that reflects their struggles with mental illness. Louis Wain was an English illustrator well known for his illustrations of anthropomorphic cats. However, after being diagnosed with Schizophrenia, a disorder that affects not only a person’s way of thinking, but also their behavior, Wain began acting aggressively, and his work reflected a style less and less similar to his initial artworks. His cats, previously smiling and cuddly, became more geometric and colorful. Francisco de Goya, a famous Spanish painter, is speculated to have suffered from Susac Syndrome, a disease that in addition to causing hearing loss and vision, also causes brain and balance difficulty. Attacks of hallucination and delirium were also frequent during the most critical period of the painter’s illness. In his works, de Goya portrayed the gravity of human melancholy through paintings, increasingly depicting human suffering. Finally, we come to Yannoulis Chalepas, a modern Greek sculptor who spent several decades without producing anything, or else destroying his works as soon as he created them. Though his art didn’t necessarily seem influenced by his mental illness, Chalepas’ mother believed that art was responsible for her son’s mental state, so she tried to keep him away from sculpting. Only after her death in 1916 did Chalepas actually return to work. Researchers agree that in this period he began to create sculptures with more freedom and was not as attached to neoclassical ideals.
Art has always been a form of expression — a way of putting one's feelings into a more tangible form. Due to the difficulty in coping with or describing their mental disorders verbally, many find it easier to use art, because art is a freedom, with no logic or bounds. Apart from the more gruesome scenes being depicted, mental illness can also change one’s art style over time into something more abstract and attracts viewers from all backgrounds. Now that we have learned about the breeding grounds of many of these famous artworks, we have hopefully gained more insight into the struggles of the artists themselves and bring those understandings into our daily lives today.