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How a mental disorder opened up an invisible world of colour and pattern

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


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I’ve recently started a job at London’s Science Media Centre, an organisation that tries to ensure science is reported responsibly, as senior press officer for mental health. In my new role, I’ve been swotting-up on mental health conditions and was reminded of some fantastic artwork often associated, perhaps erroneously, with schizophrenia.

Louis Wain's cats
Louis Wain’s paintings are often used to show the progression of schizophrenia, but the sequence in which they were created has never been known.

The work of Louis Wain, who lived between 1860 and 1939, is frequently held up as an example of the progression of schizophrenia, and the effects of the disorder on the perceptions of an artist.

However, despite Wain’s art appearing in several psychology text books in chapters covering schizophrenia, it is unclear whether he was suffering from that particular condition. It has been suggested that Wain may instead have been suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, because his skill as a draughtsman remained plain to see throughout his illness. Diagnosis after the fact is always a sketchy business, and this suggestion may well be incorrect – one of the reported symptoms of Asperger’s is a loss of physical co-ordination.

As Wain’s condition worsened, so his pictures of cats became more abstract until, towards the end of his life, they were barely recognisable as cats at all, instead becoming intricately detailed, fractal shapes full of unnaturally (at least for a cat) bright colours. The foreknowledge that they are images of felines allows the viewer to pick up on certain shapes – the pointy triangular ears and some features of the face – but without it, you would be hard-pressed to realise these are cats.

The tale of Wain’s life is a sad one. For a time he was a successful artist, but a series of poor investment decisions left him penniless and he began to develop mental health problems in the early 20th century. He deteriorated quickly, becoming a suspicious and sometimes violent man, prone to incoherent, rambling speech. In 1924 he was incarcerated in the pauper ward at Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, south London, not far from where I live. After intervention by some famous and influential figures, including Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of the day, and H.G. Wells, Wain was transferred to more pleasant surroundings. He ended his days in Napsbury Hospital, north of London, which had a garden and, happily for Wain, a colony of cats. In this environment he was able to resume drawing, and it was here he produced some of his most spectacular work.

The similarity of Wain’s later paintings to fractals is striking. Fractal patterns exist, of course, in nature, and can be glimpsed in aerial photographs of coastlines and mountain chains, and even in the foliage of trees, but the earliest computer-generated images of idealised fractal patterns that we are familiar with today were not produced until the 1970s. There would appear to have been something about Wain’s condition that allowed him to perceive and represent these invisible natural patterns long before anyone else had seen them.

It would be fascinating to know more about the changes in Wain’s brain that opened up this world of colour and pattern, invisible to the rest of us. The story of Wain’s life may be a sad one, but his artwork has brought joy to countless others over the years, myself included.

Joseph Milton About the Author: Joseph Milton is an evolutionary biologist who gradually mutated into a journalist over time. Follow on Twitter @jjmilton.

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



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  1. 1. Brian Krueger 10:40 am 12/22/2011

    I’m having trouble reconciling your title: “How a mental disorder opened up an invisible world of colour and pattern.” You haven’t provided any form of a how. You reported that Wain was an artist and showed some of his art throughout his life, yet when that art was produced and how it correlates with the progression of his disease is impossible to know. A couple of different sources dispute the claim that his art is the result of schizophrenia, one contends, “Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures, perhaps 10 years after his [supposedly] ‘later’ productions which are patterns rather than cats.”. It’s equally likely that his art form evolved as he aged and the patterns he drew were influenced by the fact that his mother and father both worked in textiles. You can see a similar progression from “normal” to “odd” in many artists. Take, for example, Pablo Picasso. For someone who claims to fight for responsible science reporting, this article is quite light on the science. It makes a good story though.

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  2. 2. ZaraH 12:59 pm 12/22/2011

    Joe, there’s an important lesson in the previous comment. In science writing that veers from the ideal, the headline is often the most egregious offense, and often the headline is written by someone other than the author of the piece.

    Might I suggest that the real story here, given the absence of verifiable information about Wain, is about why his art was assumed to be an expression of schizophrenia and what this says about the field of mental health and art criticism at the time.

    And this was a detail that jumped to my editor’s eye: “he began to develop mental health problems in the early 20th century.” Can you see why?

    All that aside, enjoy your new job! You’re filling a vitally important role. I only wish that need was better recognized in the US.

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  3. 3. AndiKuszewski 2:01 pm 12/22/2011

    Wait. You said, “Louis Wain’s paintings are often used to show the progression of schizophrenia, but the sequence in which they were created has never been known.”

    If the sequence of the paintings (the order in which they were produced) are unknown, how can that possibly show the “progression” of the disease. That’s 100% ridiculous. For all we know, his vision could have become more literal and refined, rather that more divergent and disassociated. His tastes in aesthetics could have changed. You mentioned that he retained his ability to draw accurately, so this seems like the natural maturity of an artist. He may very well have developed schizophrenia, but I don’t see actual scientific evidence to prove that here.

    Also, you said,

    “However, despite Wain’s art appearing in several psychology text books in chapters covering schizophrenia, it is unclear whether he was suffering from that particular condition. It has been suggested that Wain may instead have been suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, because his skill as a draughtsman remained plain to see throughout his illness. Diagnosis after the fact is always a sketchy business, and this suggestion may well be incorrect – one of the reported symptoms of Asperger’s is a loss of physical co-ordination.”

    A few things: Schizophrenia and autism are at opposite ends of a trait spectrum of divergent versus convergent thinking, and I can’t imagine ever confusing one for the other. Also, photorealistic drawing skill is not a symptom of schizophrenia or autism, yet someone on each of those spectrums could display that skill. It is certainly not a diagnostic criteria. Finally, since when is “loss of physical co-ordination” a symptom of Aspergers?

    Finally, being an artist, or a fine draftsman, has very little to do with physical coordination and everything to do with how you see your subject matter and how you interpret that information.

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  4. 4. dr sen 10:03 am 06/17/2012

    I have come across this painting and had saved it in my desktop to find out whether it really had anything to do with the progression of the alleged schizOphrenia .since i did not have conclusive evidence i have skipped pshychedelic art .

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  5. 5. larkalt 3:25 pm 01/20/2014

    His paintings seem paranoid and full of anxiety.

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