A possible link between madness and artistic genius is one of the oldest and persistent cultural notions. This perceived relationship stems as far back as the pre-Grecian myth of Dionysus, son of Zeus who afflicted with madness while young, inflicted frenzied ecstasies, madness, and brutalities on those around him. Rituals of worship in his honor therefore symbolized the emergence of new life and creation from chaos, brutality and destruction. This myth setting a precedent for the ties between the nature of manic-depressive illness and creativity. By the time of Plato and Socrates, common lore held that poets communicated with the gods through inspired ‘madness’ which was obtainable only during particular states of mind. Socrates, in his speech on divine madness, Phaedrus, “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.”(1) Of course, this ‘madness’ Socrates spoke of encompassed a wide range of emotions, not just psychosis, but emphasized a profound altered state of consciousness and feelings. The link between madness and art continued into the Renaissance where there was a renewed interest in the relationship between genius and melancholia, there after emerged the masterpieces of troubled Baroque artist, Michelangelo Caravaggio, a leading Italian painter of the early seventeenth century. Into the nineteenth-century, emphasis was again placed on the melancholic side of art along with the more spontaneous, inspired, and swept-by-the-muses qualities of genius. In 1812, Professor Benjamin Rush of the University of Pennsylvania wrote the first major psychiatric treaties in the United States including observations between certain kinds of mania, and artistic talent, “From a part of the brain preternaturally elevated, but not diseased, the mind sometimes discovers not only unusual strength and acuteness, but certain talents it never exhibited before… Talents for eloquence, poetry, music and painting, and uncommon ingenuity in several of the mechanical arts, are often involved in this state of madness.”(2) From this state of madness artist Edvard Munch, one of the founders of the Expressionist Movement, produced his world famous piece, “The Scream” (1891), only one year after genius Post-Impressionist, Vincent Van Gogh, would take his life by self inflicted gunshot wound in 1890. Both scholars and psychiatrists began acknowledging links associates with certain kinds of “madness” and speculated on its ability to produce extraordinarily creative and accomplished artists. I will further examine the research of late twentieth century art historians and current psychiatric studies to prove there is indeed a link between the mad artist and masterpiece. Using the biographical method I will compare the lives of Michelangelo Caravaggio, Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh in association with mental illness and the fragile state of each artists’ psyche at the time works were produced. I argue, these artists hypomanic temperament joined with high ability is more effective than the union of high ability with normal temperament and drive, and it is this combination that abled their art to emerge as genuine works that spoke directly to the audience, withstanding generations of critics and analytical approaches, to remain some of the most treasured masterpieces of our time.
To understand how masterpieces have emerged from madness, one must first examine the madness. The controversy surrounding the “mad genius” arises from a lack of understanding about the nature of manic-depressive illness. “Madness” derives from extreme forms of mania and depression, a rather common mental illness that for most people does not translate to psychosis. Manic-depressive, or bipolar illness encompasses a wide range of mood disorders and temperaments. Symptoms are characterized by changes in mood and behavior, thinking, sleep and energy levels. In severe cases becoming a life-threatening, or psychotic form of the disease. An early example of this behavior is evident in the life and works of Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Marisa da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio is of great interest to psychiatrists and psychoanalysts studying the relationship between emotional illness and creativity.(3) There is little to no documentation from Caravaggio’s private life but extensive Italian criminal reports and his art, has been able to provide graphic glimpses characterizing the artist as having a severe mental imbalance. Caravaggio was a dangerous person that was easily enraged, engaging in many brutal fights, including the murder of at least one man. His voluminous police records of unruly behavior and reckless disregard of human life has led psychiatrists to make a biographical diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, with an onset of a paranoid subtype of schizophrenia evident in a change within his work around 1599 with his painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes, the beginning of the artist’s obsession with decapitation. Phycologist Ronnie Mathers writes, “Schizophrenic symptoms and delusions are the result of the projection of objective physiological processes occurring in discrete organs of the body, or at least body-systems, it interprets the changing nature of Caravaggio’s paintings as reflecting him own suffering in the eyes and throat.”(3) This painting is more than just a depiction of the biblical event of Judith slaying Holofernes, but Caravaggio’s search for self-understanding and coping with illness. The degree of violence and portrayals of trauma inflected to the throat continued in his work, in 1609, painting his own severed head into David with the Head of Goliath. Despite mental imbalance, Caravaggio remains one of the most exciting and popular painters of all time, achieving revolutionary realism and dramatically intense tenebrism, light that dramatizes and highlights the most important aspects of the narrative while alluding to the presence of the divine. The first artist to exploit symbolic light to such an extent in narrative painting.” (4)
Caravaggio is an unusual case when examining the writings of Psychologist William James and scholar Emil Kraepelin who emphasized the positive features associated with certain kinds of madness, but also accented the debilitating extremes of psychiatric illness underlining the need for sustained attention, discipline, and balance within the artist in completing works, made difficult in extreme cases of mental illness. The notion of the artistic genius temperament involves a sense of grande, quick intelligence, the ability of capturing a vision accumulated within grim thoughts, and bouts of madness. The link of increased artistic ability is more specifically attached to the milder manic states associated with mood disorders that ables a more reflective, philosophical melancholias rather than debilitating psychiatric psychosis. While many ideas are generated during manic states, structuring, editing, and fine tuning of artistic work is best carried out during normal or mildly depressed periods, evident in the case of artist Edvard Munch.
One of the founders of the Expressionist Movement, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) had a biographical diagnosis of bipolar disorder with psychosis based on his own diary entries, documented behaviors, and a psychiatric hospitalization in 1908. In 1891 Munch recorded his initial concept for his most famous work, “The Scream,” that stemmed from a visual hallucination of hypomania, “I was walking along the road with two for my friends. Then the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy.. A great scream pierced through nature.” (5) Over a period of eighteen months, Munch transformed the experience into a work of art, the phases illustrated by a series of preliminary drawings exhibited at the Munch Museum in Oslo. In the final version, first done as lithograph and later as a painting, Munch integrated a critical change and presented the screaming man connected to the scene around him rather than turned profile and observing like in all of his initial drawings. This change demonstrating the use of a creative homospatial process, using two or more images occupying the same space leading to the articulation of new identities. “The creative homospatial process involving superimposition of images that is a conscious, intentional healthy form of cognition and not a product of the pathological condition. It is used to bring about innovation and unifications.”(6) Munch’s flexible thinking and focus over the years span is an example of mental illness transformed into masterpiece. A transformation he acknowledged writing, “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.. my sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”(7) Though the need for clear and logical thought is crucial, these characteristics are compatible with manic-depressive illness and associated mood disorders. The case of Edvard Munch demonstrates mental instability as asset, transforming his internal conflict into the motor that drives the work forward.
It is this interaction between inherent artistic genius and mental instability that gives power to art born this way, capable of speaking directly to the audience to remain as masterpiece. This is evident in works of arguably the world’s most famous ‘mad’ artist, Vincent van Gogh. The life of van Gogh is well documented through a steady flow of letters to his brother Theo and others. A self taught artist who went on to change Post Impressionism forever, van Gogh’s expressive and emotive use of color and brushwork became hugely popular, massively influencing Expressionism, Fauvism and various 20th century artists. Van Gogh worked at a furious pace producing more than 2,000 works during his 10-year career, selling only one painting during his lifetime. In a 1956 study, Henri Gastaut agreed with the diagnosis originally made by the French physician, Felix Rey who attended van Gogh in Arles and concluded his major illness as temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe with episodes of reactive depression sustained by periods of high energy and enthusiasm. Apart from episodes of madness brought on by absinthe, he maintained a remarkable degree of lucidity during his final years producing some 300 works while institutionalized at Saint-Remy, including the transcendental masterpiece, Starry Night (1889). Set in the familiar surroundings of soft hills and flame-shaped cypresses of Provence, van Gogh placed his native village of Brabant under an apocalyptic twilight sky. Undoubtedly the artist’s most famous and mysterious artwork, he never revealed the origin of the spectacularly transfigured sky. Art historian Tralbaut wrote he seemed to be telling us, “This is where I come from, this is where I am now, and here is my universe of overpowering storms.”(10) When discharged from the asylum in May 1890, van Gogh spent the last 10 weeks of his life north of Paris in Auvers-sur-Oise, completing 70 paintings during this time. Heavenly skies were replaced with immense fields of wheat under dark, stormy skies writing to his brother Theo, “It is not difficult to express here my entire sadness and extreme loneliness.” In one of his last paintings, that some consider to be his suicide note, Wheat Field With Crows (11), black birds fly in a starless night, with three paths below leading nowhere. Three days later, in the field he painted days before, Vincent shot himself in the lower chest, dying two days later with Theo by his side. Theo wanted nothing more than to raise the profile of his late brother but died only six months after. His widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger took on the task of raising awareness of the artist, selling his work, and organizing exhibitions. By 1905 Jo was behind the largest Van Gogh exhibition ever, shown at the Stedeliik Museum in Amsterdam and in 1914 published the letters between Theo and Vincent revealing Vincent’s fascinating and troubled life story, which increased the artists popularity, his art taking the world by storm.
Van Gogh is arguably the best example of mental illness to masterpiece. His definite brushwork and contoured forms influenced Expressionism, Fauvism and early abstraction and his personal life and mental struggles still captivates audiences to this day. Great art embodies values of Beauty, Reality and Truth. Vincent left his truth on the canvas bringing the viewer “into contact with aspects of himself that are fleeting, distant, or disorganized and often fear laden.”(12) This truth perhaps popularized by societies fascination with the cultural notion of the mad artist. “The “mad” artist create outside the discourse of “normal” people and herald a new episteme, claimed Foucault. The insights of these artists force the world to question itself.”(13) Art capable of standing the test of time must be open to various interpretations, though socially and historically grounded, above all they are personal.
What is to be made of the link between these artist’s work and their mental imbalances in relation to genius works of art? Does mental instability define artistic genius? Not all great artists have suffered from mental illness, in fact unless effectively dissociated, mental illness tends to complicate and deteriorate artistic production. The missing link between mad artist and masterpiece is high artistic ability. Inherent genius along with the capacity of sublimation through artistic creativity is required for production of great artworks that are not flawed. Artists, such as those discussed, have possessed natural artistic talents in combination with mental instability that proved advantageous. It is this interaction, and tension between changing mental states, mixed with discipline drawn from periods of health that ultimately gives power to art that is born in this way. When hypomanic temperament joins high ability, the combination, I argue, is more effective than the union of high ability with normal temperament and drive. Perhaps their artwork’s notoriety is influenced by the age old cultural notion of the “mad” artist fulfilling society’s expectations, but the transformation of mental turmoil, unveiling of inner truth, and the various interpretations it provides solidifies these artist’s works as world treasured masterpieces.
The Artists’ Mental Illness and Their Masterpieces Resources
1.Plato, Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters, trans. Walter Hamilton. (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1974), pp. 46–47.
2. Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind. (Philadelphia: Kimber and Richardson, 1812), pp. 153–154.
3.Touched With Fire
4.Chessick, Richard D. Emotional Illness and Creativity: A Psychoanalytic and Phenomenologic Study. International Universities Press, 1999.
5.Mather, Ronnie. "Caravaggio and the Physiology of Schizophrenia." PSYART (2007): N_A. Web. 6. Langdon, Helen, and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio: a Life. Westview Press, 2000
7. Heller RH Edvard Munch: The Scream. New York, Vking Press, 1972, p.109).
8. Rothenberg, Albert. "Creativity--the Healthy Muse.(connection between Mental Illness and Creativity) (Essay)." The Lancet 368.9554 (2006): S8. Web.9
9. Edvard Munch’s Writings, The English Edition, published by the Munch Museum. https:// www.emunch.no/english.xhtml (February 2020)
10. Dietrich Blumer, The illness of Vincent Van Gogh American journal of psychiatry 519-526, 2002
11. Tralbaut ME: Vincent van Gogh. Lausanne, Switzerland, Edita SA, 1969
12. Leeuw, Ronald De, and Arnold Julius. Pomerans. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Penguin Books, 1997.
13. Chessick, Richard D. Emotional Illness and Creativity: A Psychoanalytic and Phenomenologic Study . International Universities Press, 1999.
14. Oremland, J. D. (1997). The origins and psychodynamics of creativity: A psychoanalytic perspective. International Universities Press, Inc