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A Brief History of Mental Illness in Art

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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File:Master of Saint Bartholomew - Saint Bartholomew Exorcising - Google Art Project.jpg

Saint Bartholomew Exorcising, circa 1440-1470 (Google Art Project, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Historically, many cases of demonic possession have masked major psychiatric disorder[s].”-Kazuhiro Tajima-Pozo et. al. BMJ Case Reports 2009

File:Juan de Flandes - Portrait of Joan the Mad - WGA12045.jpg

Portrait of Joan the Mad by Juan de Flandes, circa 1496 - 1500 (Gallery of Web Art, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Juana (also known as Joanna and Joan) of Castile was born in Toledo, Spain on 6 November 1479, the third child of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Not long after her marriage to Philippe “The Handsome,” Duke of Burgundy, people of the court began referring to her as Juana “The Mad” (la loca)…

Juana’s life became far more complex than her parents or her contemporaries could have anticipated. As a young woman she was described by ambassadors to the Spanish court as beautiful and highly educated. She spoke six languages, was accomplished in religious studies, court etiquette, dance, and music. She was a capable equestrian. Then, in a twist of fate, through her inheritance and marriage she became the foundation of what was to be the most powerful kingdom in the world of the sixteenth century, and the most extensive the world has known…

Juana’s story is tragic. There was so much to be gained by others and so much to be lost by her. Her marriage, her inheritance, her children all became personal tragedies…popular culture has depicted Juana as a schizophrenic who had an obsessive attachment to her deceased husband and a victim of those in power around her. Juana was the rightful heir to her mother’s kingdom of Castile-Leon and all its possessions. Rather than a place on her rightful throne, she ended up confined to a room in a remote castle with only her youngest child to keep her company.”

–Juana “The Mad” Queen of a World Empire By Linda Andrean, Center for Austrian Studies. October 2012

File:Hieronymus Bosch 053 detail.jpg

Extraction of the Stone of Folly by Hieronymus Bosch circa 1488 - 1516 (www.rijksmuseum.nl, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Bosch’s fool is appealing to a surgeon to extract a stone from his head. The stone in question is the “stone of folly” or “stone of madness” which, according to popular superstition, was a cause of mental illness, depression, or stupidity. Such stones could be located anywhere in the body, such as the bowels or back, but were most commonly assigned to the head, where a surgeon would have to cut into the skull to remove them.” –“The Stone of Madness.” Jessica Palmer in Bioephemera, August 2008

The Madhouse - William Hogarth

The Madhouse by William Hogarth, 1773 (The Yorck Project, via WikiPaintings)

“The eight paintings in William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1733) tell the story of Tom Rakewell, a young man who follows a path of vice and self-destruction after inheriting a fortune from his miserly father. It was Hogarth’s second ‘modern moral subject’, and followed the hugely successful A Harlot’s Progress (1730)…

In the concluding scene Tom has descended into madness and is now in Bethlem Hospital or Bedlam as it was known. He is surrounded by other inmates who are suffering various delusions. These include a tailor, a musician, an astronomer and an archbishop. In the door to one of the cells is a man who thinks he is a king – he is naked and carries a straw crown and sceptre. Like the real Bedlam, Hogarth’s Madhouse is open to the public. Two fashionable ladies have come to observe the poor suffering lunatics as one of the sights of the town. The ever-faithful Sarah Young sits, weeping, by Tom’s side.” - “A Rake’s Progress” Sir John Soane’s Museum

File:Francisco de Goya y Lucientes - The Madhouse - WGA10078.jpg

The Madhouse by Francisco de Goya, circa 1812 - 1819 (Web Gallery of Art, via wikimedia Commons)

“The problems of the mentally ill have challenged both society and physicians for centuries. In times past their odd behaviour often associated with insanity was interpreted as the result of demonic possession. It could also, sometimes, be a source of public amusement. To control their behaviour the insane were often manacled. This appalling state of affairs is well illustrated in this work by Goya (1746–1828). He was not the first or last to depict the institutionalized insane (for example, Hogarth’s Bethlem Hospital in 1735 and Chepik’s The Madhouse in 1987), but Goya’s work certainty evoked the suffering and torment of these individuals. Interestingly, Goya had been taken seriously ill in 1792 at the age of 47 with loss of balance, difficulty in walking, partial blindness and deafness. It has been suggested that this could have been a viral-induced Vogt–Koyanagi–Harada syndrome. Over the following months he gradually recovered but remained permanently deaf. This harrowing illness may well have had an influence on his later work. It is also quite possible he had a fear of insanity himself because two of his relatives (an aunt and uncle) were affected in this way.” -Alan E. H. Emery, Practical Neurology. June 2008

File:Gautier - Salpetriere.JPG

Salpêtrière by Armand Gautier, circa 1857 (Wikimedia Commons)

“1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, showing personifications of dementia, megalomania, acute mania, melancholia, idiocy, hallucination, erotomania and paralysis in the gardens of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière. Reprinted in Madness: A Brief History (ISBN 978-0192802668), from which this version is taken.”

File:Théodore Géricault hiena de Salpêtrière.jpg

Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy by Théodore Géricault circa 1881 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Gericault’s Monomaniac series once consisted of ten portraits of the mentally ill, however, only five have survived into the present day. The surviving paintings include the Monomanie du commandment militaire (Napoleonic veteran suffering from the delusion of military authority), Monomanie du vol des enfants (A compulsive kidnapper), Monomanie du vol (A kleptomaniac), Monomanie du jeu (A compulsive gambler) and Monomanie de l’envie (A woman suffering fits of neurotic jealousy).

The term ‘monomania’ was first coined by French psychiatrist Jean-Etienne Esquirol, and it was an exclusively nineteenth century term referring to a person who was outwardly well, but harboured one obsessive fixation. The portraits themselves and the context within which they were painted raise many questions regarding the state of psychiatry and the treatment of the mentally ill at the time, the public’s view of the mentally ill, the progression of science and the morbidity and tragedy that art encompassed during this period. The reason for the portrait’s creation can be interpreted in a number of ways, ranging from the rarer thought that it was encouraged as a therapeutic exercise for Gericault by his psychiatrist, to the more widely received idea that the paintings were produced as part of a commission from psychiatrist Dr Etienne-Jean Georget.” -Kate Davey, Outsider Art. January 2012; see also “Géricault’s Portraits of the Insane” by Ben Pollitt, Smarthistory

File:Philippe Pinel à la Salpêtrière.jpg

Philippe Pinel à la Salpêtrière by Tony Robert-Fleury, circa 1876 (medarus.org, via Wikimedia.commons)

“Completed more than three quarters of a century after the event, it portrays several stock figures in the tradition of asylum art: a woman (on the ground) tearing at her clothing, 2 huddled melancholics, a tense maniac, and a woman (at right) with a vacant stare chained to the wall. In the center is a limp and passive woman, whose stance emphasizes her unthreatening nature. She is being freed from her chains as the commanding figure of Dr Philippe Pinel looks on.

This scene in Robert Fleury’s painting is often said to have taken place during the French Revolution as a psychiatric parallel to larger political events: the rights of man extended to the (female) inmates of a mental asylum. In fact, however, Pinel unchained the female patients at Paris’s Salpêtrière hospital in 1800. He did not entirely abandon physical restraints, but when necessary, he confined the more agitated and potentially dangerous patients to the gentler control of the recently popularized strait-jacket. This was part of a widespread asylum reform movement that began during the late 18th century and continued well into the 19th.

Lay asylum superintendents and early medical “alienists” (psychiatrists) in Italy, England, France, and the United States contributed to humanizing the treatment of the insane by making confinement less brutal and treatment more gentle and interactive. Pinel in particular spent a great deal of time with his patients, listening attentively as he recovered their life histories. His was a newly sympathetic attitude toward the insane: he tried to make contact with their remaining vestiges of reason, rationally reconstruct their mental world, and—after a momentary act of identification—lead them back to sanity.”–“Freeing the Insane.” Elizabeth Fee and Theodore Brown. American Journal of Public Health. October 2006

File:Vincent van Gogh - Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe.jpg

Reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh's Self-Portrait With A Bandaged Ear, circa 1889 (allartpainting.com via Wikimedia Commons)

“‘Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear’ was painted after Van Gogh began to suffer from serious mental illness, including psychotic episodes and delusions. The painting was directly motivated by a psychotic attack, during which Van Gogh chased and threatened Gauguin with a knife. Immediately following this episode, Van Gogh returned home, cut his ear off, and offered it to a prostitute as a gift.

After his hospitalization, Van Gogh discovered that Gauguin had left Arles and that Van Gogh’s dreams of forming an artistic community had been destroyed by his own behavior. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he checked himself into a sanatorium. In 1890, Van Gogh succumbed to his illness and depression. He shot himself in the chest and died two days later.”-NYU School of Medicine

File:The Scream.jpg

The Scream by Edvard Munch, circa 1893 (WebMuseum at ibiblio via Wikimedia Commons)

“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.”-Evdard Munch

“Depersonalization [disorder], a serious disruption in a persons thoughts or sensations about their individual self, understandably alters their entire world…Alienation, isolation, and altered perceptions have for centuries served as themes for the visual arts, particularly modern art. Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream depicts the essence of a private hell and detachment from all things outside of one’s self.”-Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder And the Loss of the Self By Daphne Simeon & Jeffrey Abugel

“The world’s most famous panic attack occurred in Olso during January 1892…This experience affected the artist so deeply he returned to the moment again and again, eventually making two paintings, two pastels, and a lithograph based on his experience, as well as penning a poem derived from the diary entry. While it isn’t known if Munch had any more panic attacks, mental illness did run in his family; at the time of his episode, his bipolar sister was in an asylum.”-Kathy Benjamin, Mental Floss. September 2012

File:Portrait of Heinrich Mann by Max Oppenheimer 1910.jpg

Portrait of German writer Heinrich Mann by Max Oppenheimer, circa 1910 (Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

“Max Oppenheimer seriously rivalled Kokoschka as a portrait-painter. In 1911, rows erupted between the two artists over who could lay claim to the invention of the ‘psychological portrait’. Oppenheimer’s depiction of the German novelist Heinrich Mann in a state of nervous enervation, with flickering eyelids, rigid limbs and splayed fingers, was declared a “Kokoschka-copy”. Heinrich was brother to Thomas Mann, who continually engaged with the themes of mental illness, incarceration and freedom in his fiction writing.”–Wellcome Collection

Jackson Pollock’s Psychoanalytic Drawings, circa 1939-40 (via Duke University Press)

 

“Perhaps no aspect of Jackson Pollock’s oeuvre—one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century—has been more misunderstood than the drawings Pollock created during Jungian psychoanalysis sessions from 1939–40. Presented to his psychotherapist, where they remained in private files for almost three decades until their publication in 1970, these drawings have been shrouded in both personal and art-historical controversy—from a lawsuit filed by Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, to wide-ranging justifications of them as Jungian iconography or as “proof” of Pollock’s supposed mental disorder…

The images reveal a range of styles, from highly refined and elaborate sketches to rapid and automatic improvisations, as well as a range of subjects, from human figures, animals, and cryptic figures to purely abstract forms. Together, they bear witness to Pollock’s intense interest in the latest contemporary art as well as non-Western traditions…Remarkable for their beauty as well as spontaneity, these drawings reflect the conscious intellectual choice of an artist blazing new trails.”–Duke University Press

Rhythm 2 by Marina Abramovic, circa 1974 (via mikkipedia)

“As an experiment testing whether a state of unconsciousness could be incorporated into a performance, Abramović devised a performance in two parts.In the first part, she took a pill prescribed for catatonia, a condition in which a person’s muscles are immobilized and remain in a single position for hours at a time. Being completely healthy, Abramović’s body reacted violently to the drug, experiencing seizures and uncontrollable movements for the first half of the performance. While lacking any control over her body movements, her mind was lucid, and she observed what was occurring.

Ten minutes after the effects of that drug had worn off, Abramović ingested another pill – this time one prescribed for aggressive and depressed people – which resulted in general immobility. Bodily she was present, yet mentally she was completely removed. (In fact, she has no memory of the lapsed time.)”-Wikipedia; see also Lisson Gallery

Diary Drawings by Bobby Baker, circa 1997 (via Wellcome Collection)

 

“Bobby Baker is one of the most widely acclaimed and popular performance artists working today. She began her diary drawings in 1997 when she became a patient at a day centre. Originally private, they gradually became a way for her to communicate complex thoughts and emotions that are difficult to articulate to her family, friends and professionals.

The drawings cover Bobby’s experiences of day hospitals, acute psychiatric wards, ‘crisis’ teams and a variety of treatments. They chart the ups and downs of her recovery, family life, work as an artist, breast cancer and just how funny all this harrowing stuff can be.”–Wellcome Collection

This post inspired by “Depictions of Mental Illness in the History of Art,” a recent presentation by Fernando Espi Forcen and Carlos Espi Forcen at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco

About the Author: Ferris Jabr is an associate editor focusing on neuroscience and psychology. Follow on Twitter @ferrisjabr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. osuzanna7 4:14 pm 05/23/2013

    Fabulous read!

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  2. 2. jgrosay 4:17 pm 05/23/2013

    ‘Historically, many cases of demonic posession have masked major psychiatric disorders’ Takuhiro Kajima-Pozo, BMJ. In the end, it’s the same, the Bible states clearly that: ‘death entered the world because of devil’s envy’; as all diseases are the satanic action, it doesn’t make a very big difference if the cause of ailments and death enters or controls a person or not, devils can control a body, but never a soul, and I’ve heard as stated by an experienced psychiatrist, that some schyzophrenias mask evil’s influence or posession, and pointed as signal of this, things such as ‘inversion of values’ and other alike. The concept that disease is a punishment for your own sins or for the sins of your ancestry is not a middle age one, as some propose, but it’s one of the oldest hebrew culture concepts, repeatedly stated in the Ancient Testament, and brought up to the Gospel, where after being asked about if the blindness of man was because he made sins, or his parents were sinners, Christ said: ‘Neither him nor his parents sinned, this is just an occasion for the power and goodness of God to be shown’. Salut +

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  3. 3. wileywitch 4:41 pm 05/24/2013

    The sky that appeared so menacing to Munch was a result of the eruption of Krakatoa. The fact that a volcano in Indonesia had a dramatic impact on a sky so far removed was disturbing to a lot of people at the time.

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  4. 4. darinlhammond 1:27 am 05/31/2013

    Wow, what a comprehensive and sweeping view of mental illness and art. You put a lot of work into this piece, and it’s compelling. The linking of mental illness to religion has always frightened and horrified me.

    Thanks for the insights,

    Darin L. Hammond

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  5. 5. donnyboy 6:09 am 06/4/2013

    I’m suprised you did not include Louis Wain’s cat paintings, where you can see the development of his schizophrenia as the cats in his pictures become more and more surreal.

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  6. 6. georgejmyersjr 11:43 am 06/19/2013

    Some of the “facts” are contentious in regards to the artists, i.e., Van Gogh was shot by someone, his room was actually mis-shaped as painted, as seen today in photographs, that it’s room corner not a right angle. People make up stories for trauma all the time, the basis for analysis, i.e., baseball injury actually an unguarded nose in a fight with a bully, hysterical blindness from a butchered battlefield, etc. I’ve never thought of Jungians in charge of commitments, they seem so non-committal. Don’t know if Carl G. Jung, working secretly for the OAS, while president of the international psychoanalytic society meeting in Germany, would have approved.

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  7. 7. oscar brian 1:57 am 08/16/2013

    in twain’s day,all these folks would be described as “kicked in the head by a mule” this has lost meaning with the proliferation of the auto and decline in numbers of the mule,somehow however jackasses seem to have increased in numbers ,most can be found residing in a special house for them in D.C. it is wonderful to view the artwork and i agree with donnyboys statement,that much can be observed (perhaps even more so than with Van Gogh) in the progression of louis wain’s cats

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  8. 8. williama45 12:36 am 11/24/2014

    Having this capability will proceed through being trapped only one place for more time than you experienced organized for. Google

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