The presence of mental illness in art dates back beyond the middle ages. Often coarsely labelled as ‘madness in art’ the passing centuries have done nothing to wane the complex relationship between creativity and emotional disorders. We explore the importance of the modern marriage between art and the mind.
Heavy chaotic ﬂourishes surround the small, perfectly framed landscape, and at ﬁrst, the juxtaposition appears confusing. Like two contrasting paintings have somehow found their way onto the same canvas: the calm and beautifully painted countryside versus the manic and eerie brushstrokes that surround the serene pastures. But the two are in fact uniﬁed: the framed watercolour-like acrylics emerge as the head of a portrait and sit above a dark and abstract body. What sort of mind would think to create this surreal montage that has been so poetically described as a mash-up of John Constable and Francis Bacon? Maybe it’s someone who sees a mind that doesn’t ﬁt a body? The work is part of David Kim Whittaker’s The Flesh to the Frame collection, some of which is currently showing at Opera Gallery Dubai to coincide with his September exhibition at Opera Gallery New York. The Flesh to the Frame explores the artist’s struggle with the psychological condition of gender dysphoria. “The works juggle dual states of inner and outer calm and conﬂict, strength and fragility, the conscious and the subconscious, the masculine and the feminine,” Whittaker explains. “These universal states of conﬂict are arguably reinforced by my gender dysphoria and my struggle and coming to terms with this condition.”
Being an artist doesn’t come from a place of contentment with the world or self.
Whittaker is not alone, the mental struggle of artists has been chronicled throughout history. The 18th century saw the depression that affected Francisco Goya, particularly present in the dark sadness of the sleeping human in The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, moving on to Edvard Munch’s hallucinations that are often credited with inspiring The Scream to more modern artists likes Georgia O’Keeffe and Pablo Picasso’s struggles with depression, and Andy Warhol’s troubles with hoarding and anxiety.
Creativity and turmoil are frequent bedfellows, something that Whittaker can relate to but doesn’t feel should deﬁne an artist. “I know ﬁrst hand, being an artist doesn’t come from a place of contentment with the world or the self necessarily, it comes from a place of concern ,” he says. “We all know of the cliched presentation of madness from the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, but I prefer to focus on his lucidity, his ability to present the beauty of the world. What a gift, not an illness.”
Cliched it may be, but the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s madness is still one that resonates with those trying to under-stand his work. 6IX Degrees Entertainment hosted the Van Gogh Alive sensory experience earlier this year in the UAE and rather than a conventional exhibition of artworks it was a biographical journey into the artist’s mental health done predominantly through the study of his letters. Art lovers are showing an increasing interest in the mind of the artist, be it Van Gogh or an unknown, and galleries are picking up on this trend. Earlier this year, The Maison de Victor Hugo museum in Paris showed four collections of works created by mentally ill patients in an exhibit, called La Folie en Tête or Madness on the Mind. There were no well-known names, with many artists being anonymous or lacking a surname.
At London’s Zebra One gallery, the With Art in Mind exhibition featured works by contemporary artists who have struggled with mental health issues including Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon as well as the relatively unknown artist Kim Noble, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, a condition in which separate personalities coexist in one person’s body, alternatively taking control.
The story of her mental condition is a huge insight into her works. Of her 21 personalities, 13 express themselves as artists, each with their own distinct style. “Judy is 15 with an eating disorder,” explains Noble. “Ria is 12, and her paintings are graphic pictures of abuse. She likes to use very bright colours to make people see what is happening, unlike in the real world where people are too eager to turn away. Abi is an adult who I feel would love to be in a relationship. Her paintings seem to show her loneliness.”
Noble has no doubt about the merits of art in both helping her express and understand her condition. “We have no memory between us and are not able to communicate with one another, art made me have a better understanding of who they were and what they were thinking, feeling and had experienced. I can not imagine art not being in our lives now.” Noble, who has been in and out of hospital since the age of 14 was introduced to art by a support worker who was training to become an art therapist, trained similarly to counsellors, art therapists are required to have a master’s degree in art psychotherapy and unlike art teachers don’t try to develop the skill. “Our emphasis is on the therapeutic process, providing an outlet for expression – for conscious and subconscious content to safely be projected onto the artwork as a form of containment,” explains Sara Powell, founder and licensed art therapist at the ATIC Psychological and Counselling Centre in Dubai. “We do not have the ability to change life experiences, however, throughout the art therapy process participants have the ability to change images, and re-frame images in a non-threatening manner.”
Art therapy emerged in the United Kingdom after the Second World War, as a way for psychiatrists to rehabilitate war veterans who had lost the ability to communicate through language due to trauma. Now, art therapy is a full-ﬂedged and respected part of psychotherapy which has been embraced globally and in the Middle East, which Powell believes “can be at-tributed to its non-threatening disposition.” This summer, The Retreat Palm Dubai MGallery ran the Little Picasso initiative, exhibiting the paintings of special needs children from Dubai’s Senses Centre at the hotel gallery throughout Ramadan, highlighting how art can make mental health something ‘non-threatening’, a term that has not always been associated with matters of the mind but maybe the art world is making its understanding more accessible. “I think that it is vital that artists through the support of galleries can offer the public a sensitive experience, an unguarded truth and an experience of empathy,” says Whittaker. “Art is a window to look through but also a mirror in which we catch our reﬂection. It lays down a marker for the present but also forms part of our legacy so we can inform those in the future of the good and the bad of what made us who we were and perhaps shape who they might become.”