Art, Mental Illness and the Expressionist Voice

Reclining Nude from the Back - an example of Modigliani's recognisable dead-eyed style.

Amadeo Modigliani is an artist that I have admired for years, since before I even went to art school or uni. The dead eyed portraits that offer a sensitive yet removed view of their subjects are a wonderful paradox. For me it’s something that an awful lot of expressionist artists have managed to capture. From Schiele and Giacometti (OK, technically Giacometti was a Post-Impressionist but I think when you look at his work, particularly those beautiful drawings, he fits well within the bounds of Expressionism) to Modigliani and Klee, Expressionism has gone beyond faithful representations of what the artist can see, beyond even an impression of what can be seen, to a place where the expression of emotional response has equal, even higher, status with a physical representation of the physical. If ever art were to go beyond the realism o the world into the metaphysical realm expressionism is that embodiment. It’s why I love this work and why, in my opinion, so much of this work has become accessible to those beyond the art world.

Schiele - This picture of the artist's wife shows the sensitivity that much of Schiele's work displays, whilst being less sexual or coldly rendered than a large proportion

Why else would Munch’s The Scream be such an enduring and popular painting, or Klimt’s grandiose artistic works be so beloved? Not just because of their aesthetic qualities but because they speak to us on another level. This is what art does – and I don’t just include fine art, but also sculpture, music, dance, cinema etc – it speaks to us personally on a level that goes beyond the sensory and pierces our psyche directly. It may commune on a level we can’t, or won’t, with other human beings. We may recognise a kindred spirit or sympathetic personality in the artist, whether or not there would ever have been this understanding. In many ways it is hardly surprising that so many of the artists that connect to the wider art-viewing public had some sort of mental health issues. From depression to schizophrenia, alcoholism to other substance abuses, many artists have been able to give voice to ideas, thoughts, emotions or suggestions that many people can only ever touch in a particularly vivid dream, even nightmare. But instinctively we recognise these expressions as elements of what Jung would term the Collective Conscious. We all experience these sentiments, to a greater or lesser extent, yet perhaps never express them. Dark ideas that haunt the very depths of our minds, often ideas, thoughts or feelings that we dare not utter aloud for fear of censure or worse.

Munch - Madonne

There has been a lot of research into art and mental illness. A couple of great articles are available from the Guardian here and the Independent here. Lazy but I didn’t see the point in paraphrasing when you could read them quicker than I could type. Whilst that’s only part of the story – after all, there is a higher rate of suicide amongst the artistic communities than in the general public – it gives an insight into a recognised link. So maybe artists that struggle do so because humanity is hell bent on denying its true nature? Jung would certainly suggest so. However, that’s for another post. My own personal feeling is that if less judgemental voices were given credence, and a wider acceptance given to those who see things differently, perhaps mental illness would be less prevalent though understanding that often there is little that suggests illness outside of the reflection of the hidden darkness of humanity. Perhaps when humanity can look in the mirror and see that there is a certain truth to the idea that society is based on pretence, then the stigma and labels of mental illness can be done away with, perhaps not completely but certainly to a large extent.



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Filed under Art, life, mental state

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