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Mental Health in Modern and Contemporary Art

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a non-entity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person, somebody who has no position in society and will never have. In short, the lowest of the low,” wrote Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1882. 

He continued: “All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”

Many consider the life of Van Gogh a tragedy, which seemed like an irony since he is one of the most celebrated artists in history. Van Gogh took his life in 1890 when he was only thirty-seven years old. He was said to have suffered from mania and depression — conditions that were not unnoticed by his community. 

In the years that preceded his death, he had completed beautiful, influential artworks; hundreds of them. Among these was the iconic Starry Night, which he painted during his confinement at an asylum in 1889.

“Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me,” he’d written to Theo.

Van Gogh was not the only artist who’d suffered from mental illness. In fact, there’s a long list of them, from his lifetime to the current era: Edvard Munch, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, to name a few. The “tortured artist” persona has become a popular trope in modern and postmodern media and all forms of art. It’s a term coined for creatives who constantly draw inspiration from emotional turmoil or mental illness. 

Some believe that sadness and misery are prerequisites of great artistry, or that these two things are correlated. To this day, the discourse continues whether there is an ounce of truth to this claim, or if it is dangerous because of its implications. 

Still, healthily addressing mental health and neurodivergence was novel during the dawn of modern art in the 20th century; there was no proper way to go about the matter without either demonizing or romanticizing it. Thankfully, the world is far more open about these conversations today.

It’s also been proven that art can be of great help to those dealing with such conditions. Vincent Van Gogh himself was a testament to that: his artworks were made out of a genuine desire to create — “to show what such an eccentric has in his heart.” 

Art and Its ‘Healing’ Properties

The surge of reported mental illnesses has exponentially gone up just last year, when the pandemic gripped the world and its systems. The pandemic itself, subsequent economic failure, and even protocols that mandate isolation have taken a toll on individuals, bringing about a sense of loneliness and anxiety.

(READ: How Spiritual Art Helps People Cope During the Crisis)

People are finding ways to deal with such conditions, and art is among the simplest and most accessible hobbies there is. It is also among the most meditative. While it’s neither magic nor medicine, it helps: some psychologists even engage their patients in creative activities to improve their mental and emotional health. Art has become more than a hobby — it is a form of therapy.

Art therapy (which requires licensure and certification) traces its beginnings back to the 1940s, but the practice of creative activity being integrated into psychology has existed long before that. When Carl Jung learned about the mandala from Buddhism around the mid-1910s, he drew his own patterns in his notebook. Believing that there is something to be inferred in his patients’ psyches, he asked his patients to sketch their own. 

Jung said that the mandala “compensates the disorder of the psychic state — namely through the construction of a central point to which everything is related.”

The similar principle of ‘compensating the disorder’ goes for other creative processes and outputs in art therapy. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) listed the advantages of the practice, among which included “fostering self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivating emotional resilience, and promoting insight.”

They also said that art is a form of communication in itself, expressing emotions and ideas that language could not. “Visual and symbolic expression gives voice to experience and empowers individual, communal, and societal transformation,” AATA added.

Art therapy is offered not only to those with mental conditions, but to just about anyone who might need a boost in spirit. In 2018, a study published by the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology reported that most vulnerable groups who practiced art therapy — cancer patients, prison inmates, and the elderly, among others — had their quality of life improved. 

How Mental Health is Explored in Art

Starry Night was not the only piece that Van Gogh created during his most mentally unstable years. The famous Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) was created when Van Gogh mutilated his own ear after a harrowing seizure and violent fight with Paul Gauguin. Gaining lucidity after the incident, he wrote a letter of apology to Gauguin.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Vincent Van Gogh (1889) (Source)

Gauguin himself is no stranger to such health conditions. Another one who fit the “tortured artist” archetype, Gauguin — painter of the controversial The Yellow Christ (1889) — had survived a suicide attempt where he swallowed a copious amount of arsenic. The Post-Impressionist artist was believed to be dealing with depression.

The Scream, Edvard Munch (1893) (Source)

These two tumultuous friends are a part of the long list of artists with mental illnesses. Another one is Edvard Munch, the artist behind the very well-known The Scream. The work is considered one of self-expression: based on his journal entries, Munch was likely suffering from bipolar disorder and psychosis. He’d written of the piece: 

“I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy. I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue-black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.”

The piece was no doubt inspired by a hallucination, but Munch was able to channel the distressing experience into his artistic imagination. Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry Albert Rothenberg, M.D. describes Munch’s creative process and work as “healthy and transformative.”

“Although the artwork began with the psychotic experience of a visual hallucination, it was necessary for the artist to transform his initial image in work and thought over the period of more than a year to produce a creative work of art,” Rothenberg wrote in Psychology Today. “The creative homospatial process involving superimposition of images is a conscious, intentional healthy form of cognition and not a product of the pathological condition.”

Today, stories of artists dealing with mental health struggles aren’t as “grand” as Van Gogh’s or Gauguin’s. But it doesn’t make the situation any less real or invalid. Perhaps the lack of novelty is a healthy thing — it’s high time to see and treat mental disorders as they are. Not a taboo, not a prerequisite of artistic inspiration, but a medical condition.

Still, openness certainly helps in navigating the sensitive topic. Some have gone forward to talk about these issues, such as American artist Derek Hess who designed for Mental Health America and participated in mental health efforts and advocacies. Hess discusses the artist’s role in raising awareness about these problems: “It seems like the curtain is beginning to be pulled back on mental illness in our current society. When creating pieces inspired by it, it is important for the artist to articulate the meaning behind it.”

Hess mentioned on his site that most of the emotions behind his work involve “angst, depression, loss, fear, and loneliness.” Of this, he said, “Drawing the essence of emotions is elemental — we as a species will always have heartache. It’d be deeply satisfying if my work stood the test of time, if it would be as relevant to someone in a hundred years as it felt to me the day I drew it.”

Another artist, Christie Begnell — who struggled and recovered from an eating disorder—spends her time sharing her works and knowledge on social media. It was initially a way for her to promote her book Me and My ED. Today, however, Begnell says of her Instagram account: “It’s a platform for me to support others, to provide recovery resources, to provide psychoeducation and help challenge ED and mental health stigmas.”

“I found drawing to be the most therapeutic thing for me, as I could visually express what I couldn’t verbalize,” she said. “One therapist actually asked if she could photocopy some of my drawings to use with her clients.” Later on, Begnell would share her works of art through her book.

But for all these artists, the goal of the creative seemed similar: to keep moving. The value of the art does not fall on the work itself — it is the process of creation that counts. Through the goal of self-expression, art becomes a therapeutic activity that offers an opportunity for contemplation, self-honesty, and vulnerability. So as long as one creates, one tries to get better. 

In another letter to Theo, Van Gogh had written: 

“On the road that I’m on, I must continue. If I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed

That goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting.

Van Gogh found fulfillment in art; he vowed to share his work “out of love” despite a community that misunderstood and ostracized him. His moving words serve as a timely reminder for all of us, especially those who are struggling. “Keep on,” he’d said — and that’s precisely what the turbulent world asks of us today.

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