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A Beautiful Mind—Schizophrenia’s Influence on Art


The history of mental illness and that of art can be best described as two tendrils that intermittently intersect across time’s canvas, often to produce awe-inspiring masterpieces. The delicate relationship between art and schizophrenia, in particular, is a prominent nodal point of that symbiosis.

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The focal point of Edvard Munch’s renowned artwork “The Scream”

What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia refers to a spectrum of mental health disorders that involve a disconnection from reality and a lack of coordination between emotions, thoughts, and actions. A person suffering from it experiences hallucinations, delusions, psychomotor incapacitation, catatonic depression, emotive inhibition, and speech defects, amongst other symptoms. 

There is no objective diagnostic test for Schizophrenia; diagnosis is based on observed behaviour, a history that includes the person’s reported experiences, and that of others familiar with the person. Usually, with the correct diagnosis and treatment, most schizophrenics can live fulfilling happy lives, but historically, it hasn’t always been easy or accessible. For artists, it has had interesting intersections; some were tempered in its furnace, while some were lost to it. Perhaps, the same could be said about their art.

These artists chose to challenge their disorientations by etching them in their work as reflections of their mental state perhaps to confront them better. Unfortunately, mainstream stigmatisation and demonisation, coupled with struggles with their affliction, gradually distanced most of them from any audience. Today, multitudes of original experiences remain buried beneath languid brushstrokes, left to the interpretation of less colourful minds than those that created them.

The Enigma of Paranoid Dementia

When Francisco de Goya was born in 1746, Schizophrenia was a mystery disease. De Goya was trained as a court painter in Spain and gradually rose to fame in Spain due to the delicate tonalities he employed in his works. Somewhere between 1792 and 1793, Goya suffered from an undiagnosed illness that left him deaf. This was the tipping in his life as subsequently he became increasingly withdrawn, experienced hallucinations, and developed partial paralysis. It was termed paranoid dementia by his doctors, and it would go on to remain untreatable throughout his lifetime. Goya’s seemingly constant suffering was marked by a shift in his palette as well as themes, both of which took on a dark, gory turn. In his later works like ‘Saturn devouring his son,’ a stark dearth of animation in Goya’s life is visibly reflected. The intricate details of his former paintings gave way to a blunt noisy frame, probably as a form of catharsis to the renowned painter.

“Saturn Devouring His Son”—The most famous of Francisco de Goya’s Black Paintings.

Early Stages of Understanding—Secondary Dementia

A century passed by; the term secondary dementia was now the popular choice to describe Schizophrenia. It further aroused multiple discussions when Vincent van Gogh admitted himself to a mental hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France. The artist had started painting at the age of twenty-seven, sponsored by his brother Theo, and a contemporary French artist he met, Paul Gaugin. After a brief stint, he had a fallout with Gaugin, following which he cut off his ear and offered it to his beloved. Sources state Vincent took cognizance of his mental state because he couldn’t remember anything about his missing ear the following day and voluntarily admitted himself to the asylum. Intense psychological distress, like auditory hallucinations, intrusive thoughts, and manic episodes dotted the remainder of his short life. Despite that, during his rehabilitation, ‘Starry Night’, ‘Sunflowers’, and most of his renowned works came to fruition. Notwithstanding, his social life took a toll, and most of his works remain unappreciated and unrecognised. Despite the diagnosis and regular sessions with his doctor at Arles, van Gogh ultimately died by suicide. 

File:Vincent van Gogh Starry Night.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Dutch maestro Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night”—oil on canvas, 1889

Premature Mental Deterioration—Dementia Praecox

By the 1880s, Schizophrenia had acquired a new form- dementia praecox, or premature mental deterioration.  Popular illustrator Louis Wain, known widely for his now famous painting ‘Flower Eyes’ that featured in Bojack Horseman, was struck with it in 1887. Initially, he was well-established, and Wain married his sister’s governess Emily Richardson, but soon after, his wife died.  With its early onset, Schizophrenia manifested in a gradual progression for Wain. At first, his erratic behaviour ensured that he descended into poverty, then his hallucinations became more recurrent, and finally, violent outbursts cut him off from society. At this point his mood swings remained untraced to dementia praecox, being grouped under split personality disorder instead. In any case, it was only during his treatment at Napsbury that he found himself surrounded by cats that prowled the asylum grounds. With treatment, Louis stabilised enough and went on to create some of his best artworks involving felines. 

                                                                              A portrait dubbed “Flower Eyes” by prominent Belgian artist, Louis Wain

Tragic Tidings & The Split Mind

The tragedy of Schizophrenia can’t be illustrated better than through the life of Camille Claudel. The muse and lover of Auguste Rodin, Claudel was an extraordinary sculptor whose genetic predisposition towards psycho-social disorders was triggered by her fallout with Rodin. Her brother Paul, jealous of her ingenuity, took advantage of this. As soon as her father died, she was forcibly sent to a mental asylum where doctors concurred that she was suffering from Schizophrenia-now known by its present name. Her absence from mainstream society resulted in most of her works being recreated and copied many times over, by sculptors including Rodin, without her receiving any credit for the same. As a result, Camille’s work was largely unrecognised in her lifetime, as her condition worsened due to inadequate care. Eventually, she died at the age of seventy-three in confinement unworthy of an artist of her stature. This was perhaps the worst impact of Schizophrenia in the recorded history of artists. 

Camille Claudel in 5 Famous Sculptures

Sculpture “Mature Age”—Camille Claudel, commissioned by the French Government in 1895

A Silver Lining Into the 20th Century

The beginning of the twentieth century saw increased awareness and a better understanding of mental disorders. Stigmas had steadily started receding into the shadows when Agnes Martin (born 1912) was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in her 40s. For almost the entire duration of her life, Agnes managed to keep her schizophrenia diagnosis a secret. Perhaps, in this list, she’s the only artist whose personal life didn’t suffer a significant hit. The advancement in the understanding of psychology and psychiatry was an additional bonus. It was later found that her case file classified it as a psychotic anxiety disorder, which was treatable. Her art, on the other hand, through its strictly ordered abstractions, paints a picture of how she tried to make sense of the chaotic influx of disorganised thoughts. It was her belief, and that of those around her that her iconic and organised minimalism was a signature of her tryst with the illness.

The Islands, Agnes Martin, 1961

Sifting through the lives of the above artists leaves us with a crucial question—on the scales of balance, on which side are the artists better off? And if there was a choice between a world where they were untouched by the effects of schizophrenia or one like ours where it shaped their art, which one would they choose? Perhaps to us, the former is objectively the only rational answer, but for an artist, it may be far from it. Edvard Munch famously chose the latter, going on to remark, “My sufferings are a part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Image credits: Wikipedia;  

Featured Image Credits: Talkspace


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