In many aspects, art tells the story of life, the pursuit of freedom, and the acts of rebellion against an oppressive society, metaphorically. Take mental health, for example, a common symptom of society and its pressures. The pressure to look a certain way, think a certain way, and to be a certain way. As far as time is recorded, there are those who are ‘different’ or ‘outcasts’ of society. They simply process life differently and their creativity is sparked in different ways, either through their sorrow or their own “personal hell” as Edvard Munch depicted in 1896—mental health has impacted the creativity of artists for hundreds of years.
Vincent Van Gogh
It is rumored that one of the world’s most famous artists, Vincent Van Gogh, suffered from Bipolar Disorder or Manic Depression Disorder. The biggest myth of all is that he was “mad” or “insane.” Mental disorders are more understood in recent times, but in the nineteenth century, they were a way to separate those who were misunderstood from society—making them outcasts.
It is widely speculated by art critics and historians that Wheatfield with Crows was Van Gogh's last painting, and while there is no evidence to substantiate this, it is understood to be a piece that landmarks his mental wellbeing toward the end of this life, like an epitaph to his depression. While this piece could give clues to the innermost feelings of Vincent Van Gogh, it certainly was not the piece representing the breaking point of his mental health. Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889) is prefaced by a manic episode Van Gogh experienced during his stay at an insane asylum, where he mutilated his ear with a razor. The episode was caused by tensions between him and his contemporary, Paul Gauguin. His health revealed itself, in which he suffered hallucinations, thus prompting him to cut off his ear. The piece has haunting hues of green, orange, and blue, with a white bandage wrapped from either side of his head. Eerily enough, green can often represent rebirth or renewal, for which, after suffering his self-inflicted injury, Van Gogh’s self-portrait presents an autonomy of resilience. The portrait is rather dignified, for which the cold bandage wrapped against his mutilated ear shows willingness to get back to work—highly disturbing considering the mutilation of his ear two weeks prior to painting the masterpiece. This could lead one to believe that people don’t really want to die, they just don’t know how much longer they can deal with their pain. This can be broken down in the distant gaze Van Gogh gives himself, it is almost as if he is not there. And in juxtaposition with his swirling orange beard, it could be concluded that he was ‘letting himself go,’ no longer giving thought to his appearance, a common side effect of major depressive disorder. Van Gogh’s emotions even seep into the precise and vertical strokes used throughout the piece. They are layered upon one another making Van Gogh look stiff—this suggests lots of anxiety or tension within himself. At the same time, the colors in this self-portrait also could represent a rebirth or a renewal within Van Gogh after he mutilated himself. Maybe these colors were a way of Van Gogh understanding himself while no one else did.
In a way, the only time that Vincent Van Gogh was understood was in his own self-portraits—he was able to dictate the narrative surrounding him. He was not the cliche of a “starving artist,” in fact, Van Gogh was wealthier than most in his community and was well known in avantgarde social circles in Paris, The Hague, and many other booming cities in the late nineteenth century.
Van Gogh’s struggle with mental illness surrounds much of his work, which is why it is so relatable in modern times, yet so isolating when he was alive. The concept of “insanity” and mental ailments were not well understood, and the only way for Van Gogh to deal with this was through creativity and the portrayal of his mental state on a canvas. Vincent once recounted that
“I shouldn't precisely have chosen madness if there had been any choice, but once such a thing has taken hold of you, you can't very well get out of it.”
Appreciating people for who they are as human beings and understanding them on a familiar level is an impactful experience of the human condition. Painter Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), was rumored to have suffered from a nervous breakdown shortly after completing ten masterpieces known as the Portraits of the Insane, encapsulating the romantic era in art as he had an affinity “to themes of violence, horror, and madness, as noted in “The Art Museum” by Phaidon. While only five of the ten original have survived the test of time, these portraits are a testament to the depiction of mental health in the nineteenth century. Each of the sitters in these realist portraits is unnamed, and more impressively, Gericault was able to portray their illnesses into the pieces vividly, as if they were photographed in the middle of a mania. During this time in France, asylums were becoming vastly popular as people were starting to become seen as citizens of France rather than subjects of a Monarchy.
In these paintings, there is an immediate feeling of unease as the subjects are not making eye contact with the audience—this can be explained as a representation of their own mental state; maybe they're in a delusion or not completely in the present. In particular, The Madwoman Afflicted with Envy breaks the rules of portraiture, much like the other five pieces of this series. Originally named Monomanie de l’envie, the woman portrays a mouth twisted in dismay, but the impact of the painting lies in the expression of her eyes. She is leaned forward and not looking through the front of the canvas, but off to the side, giving the audience a feeling of uneasiness. The darkness of the background makes the woman seem cold yet oddly familiar, as if there is a spotlight shining onto her. Gericault makes his subjects humans with mental disorders, and not just their disorders. This could be simplified as Gericault having a deeper understanding of his subjects not just as an artist, but as someone who has gone through the traumas of being mentally ill in the nineteenth century in France himself.
The reasons for the commission of these pieces are widely argued about, as they could have been done as propaganda for diagnosing patients solely based on their outward appearances, or they could just represent Gericault’s affinity of the idea of madness. The other reason could have been that Theodore Gericault lost both his father and grandfather, as they “,died insane.” Either way, the Portraits of the Insane greatly characterized the way people with mental ailments were portrayed in artwork for years to come.
In her lifetime, Frida Kahlo suffered many injuries, some physical and others emotional. At the age of twenty-five, Frida was involved in a trolley accident that left one of her legs completelycrippled, an impaled pelvis, and several other injuries that would make Frida’s quality of life miserable for a time. She was incapable of child bearing, unable to walk with both legs, and Frida could not even hold her body up on her own without a corset. This adversity threw Frida into a deep depression, driving Frida to immerse herself in her artwork, presumably as a cathartic release, becoming one with the canvas.
In Kahlo's The Two Frida's, she exemplifies her divided-self through the juxtaposing portraiture. The nature of the oil painting represents the internal disturbance, as expressed through her two selves dressed in culturally adhered regalia. The costume contrasts suggest Frida's identity dysfunction, atoned to her Tehuana-heritage, Mexican self on the right, and on the left, her "unlovable" European half. The two Frida’s are married by a thin vein that connects their superimposed hearts. Phaidon’s “The Art Museum” explores the anatomical analysis, offering that the “anatomically vivid hearts are superimposed on both Frida’s, linked by a vein that runs from a cameo of Diego Rivera in the left hand of the Mexican Frida to the skirt of the European Frida, where it is abruptly cut off by a pair of surgical scissors” (Phaidon, 2011). Internal depression and confusion can be inferred by the elusive dark sky, in which her European dress drips with fresh blood, as if it ornaments a sense of self-loathing and loneliness. This portrait also shows the uncertainty of Frida’s identity—being biracial in a primary one-culture society. Not knowing who she was or what she should have been is emotionally exhausting, piled on to her husband's affair with her sister.
Frida was said to struggle from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bi-Polar Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. In addition to her physical injuries affecting her for the rest of her life, Frida became depressed and even attempted suicide various times before her death in 1954. Her work was a collection of her suffering throughout her life. It transcended art itself—the perfect representation of beauty in pain.
Sylvia Plath measured her life in decades, three of them to be exact. The first time she almost died was in her first ten years of life, and it was an accident. Her life after this spiraled into trauma at a young age by the death of her father, being in an abusive marriage, and living a life she never wanted. In her second decade, she failed at her attempt at suicide, ultimately putting her in a mental institution ten years before her successful attempt at death.
Most of all, Sylvia Plath was one of the most misunderstood and tortured writers of her generation. Misunderstood in that no one ever took her for her word. In several of her poems, she expressed how she did not want to be alive, and in her journals she wrote about her extremely abusive marriage to poet Ted Hughes.In her work, Tulips, Sylvia Plath symbolizes these beautiful red flowers as a link to the outside world that is only filled with pain, commotion, and reminders of her dreary life rather than inside the hospital, where it is quiet. Part of Plath wants to remain in the hospital and not get better because there seems to be something so peaceful and liberating about death—she would welcome it like a restful numbness. These tulips delivered to her represent an unwelcome “explosion” disrupting her peaceful daydream of death, like a reawakening to reality.
This poem is a memorandum of how much depression affected Sylvia’s life, how badly she no longer wants to be alive, yet no one took this seriously. Sylvia Plath is the core idea of art imitating art, but because her words are so beautiful, no one really understood the consequences of them. Instead, there came the romanticization of her death—that even when taking her own life, Sylvia left out milk for her children—not how horribly she suffered in her very short life.
More recently, photography has become a big medium for portraying the human condition. It can pick up details a brush and oil paints never could. Melissa Spitz, in particular, is spending her career studying the condition of her mother. When Melissa was seven years old, her mother was institutionalized for the first time, and officially diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, and alcoholism—a genetic disease that can also be caused by traumatic experience during childhood, as defined by the DSM-V.
In the collection titled, “You Have Nothing to Worry About.”, Melissa Spitz photographs her mother at different times in her life suffering from various mental disorders, much of which are titled as phrases her mother has said during those bouts. For example, “I fell down and broke my jaw,” an image capturing her mother with a deep cut on her eyebrow accompanied by a bruise on her chin. These photographs are a direct representation of the type of delusional life Melissa’s mother has been living in. From trying on her high school cheerleading costume, to holding up her hands and praying in a hospital bed, to covering the walls outside of Melissa’s room with notes—her mother lives in a form of escapism, a deception of reality that allows her to cope in ways that others may not understand.. The reality of mental disorders is that they affect not only those who suffer from them, but their friends, family, or children. It is not only a struggle from within, but a struggle for everyone.
Modernity in society does not always mean an understanding from those suffering from psychological disorders. Substance Abuse Disorder is highly stigmatized in the twenty-first century. Kaveh Akbar suffers from alcoholism, a disease many believe that sufferers have control over, that they can make the choice to continue or to stop at any time, but this is false. In his book composed of poetry, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Akbar gives his addiction a name, Wolf, in hopes that naming it would give him control over alcoholism. Addiction is the ground that his poetry grows its roots—his recovery and the reckoning of his addiction.
In this chapbook, he writes several different portraits of himself including: Portrait of an Alcoholic, Portrait of an Alcoholic with Withdrawal, Portrait of an Alcoholic With Home Invader and Housefly, among others. These all express a hunger for life, to be free of Kaveh’s demons, and the longing for raw human experiences. Much like many of the artists spoken about before, Kaveh’s disease is hidden; it’s not something he wears on his face for all to see. It’s invisible, just like heart disease or diabetes, but it still lives among the people the disease takes root in.
Kaveh Akbar wants his readers to understand just this; to be able to know that addiction is not a choice—it’s hereditary, it works as a part of one’s brain. Just how the brain tells the body to breathe, it was the same organ that told him to drink. Calling a Wolf a Wolf describes the self-affliction of addiction and the repercussions of this mental disorder—it doesn’t discriminate and it is not a choice.
Suffering and art are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they can be. Yet both together create awareness and a sense of relatability. Van Gogh didn’t just go mad when he decided to cut part of his left ear off, he was misunderstood, an outcast of society. Sylvia Plath did not just have a morbid fascination with death, she wanted to live with her heart, but the brain often overpowers our will to live. Theodore Gericault was able to connect with the patients in asylums because he had a mutual understanding of their ailments, painting them as human, not their disorder. While Frida Kahlo was traumatized by her accident that left her barren and perturbed as she grappled with her layers of identity, her artwork is a testament to expression and a desire to be understood. Melissa Spitz, on the other hand, was able to cope with her mother’s schizophrenia and other mental disorders through art, as it allowed her to form a relationship with her mother instead of categorizing her as her disease. And Kaveh Akbar gave his addiction a name so that he objectify it, look it in the eyes, and come to terms with it. Disease, no matter what, is a wolf—it takes and it takes and it eats away at the soul until there is nothing left. The intersectionality of art and mental illness is a decrepit line to walk, but it is also one that has been portrayed on canvases for centuries and it will continue to do so as artists all over the world learn to adapt and live with their emotional scars. This is the ultimate truth.
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