Sunday, March 29, 2015

A short history of mental illness in art

A short history of mental illness in art

From Hogarth to Van Gogh, art has challenged our understanding of mental illness. Jonathan Jones’ shares his top ten for our mental health appeal

Jonathan Jones
Tuesday 13 January 2015 10.52 GMT

Art has led the way in seeing mental illness not as alien or contemptible but part of the human condition – even as a positive and useful experience. Modern art has even celebrated mental suffering as a creative adventure. This psychiatric modernism started with the “madness” of Vincent van Gogh and led to work by patients being discovered as a new kind of art. Yet it has much deeper historical roots. Albrecht Durer portrayed genius as melancholic as early as the Renaissance and Romantic painters identified with the “mad”.
Perhaps it is not hard to see why artists often show empathy for what society calls illness: all creativity is an irrational voyage. The idea of going outside yourself to see things afresh is probably as old as the torchlit visions of cave artists and was expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato when he wrote that poetic ecstasy is the only source of divine truth. “Madness is a gift from the gods”, as Plato put it.

1. Vittore Carpaccio – The Healing of the Possessed Man at the Rialto (c. 1496)

Painting by Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1460-1525), an Italian painter of the Venetian school, trained in the style of the Vivarini and the Bellini.
 Painting by Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1460-1525), an Italian painter of the Venetian school, trained in the style of the Vivarini and the Bellini. Photograph: David Lees

This painting of everyday life in 15th century Venice reveals how mental illness was understood and treated in the middle ages. It is sometimes called “The Healing of the Madman”, but “possessed” is closer to contemporary ideas about the mind. For the man being miraculously healed by a priest amidst the human drama of the Rialto bridge has been taken over by a demon. His suffering is neither a medical nor social problem, but a religious experience.

2. Matthias Grunewald – The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1512 - 16)

The Temptations of Saint Anthony and the Conversation between Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Mathias Grunewald (1475-1528), oil on panel.
 The Temptations of Saint Anthony and the Conversation between Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Mathias Grunewald (1475-1528), oil on panel. Photograph: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Late medieval artists were fascinated by the story of the early Christian hermit Saint Anthony the Great who was tempted by devils. For Grunewald, this becomes a truly personal and psychological terror, an image of a man whose sanity is under threat. The infinite horrible shapes of the demons are like malformed thoughts. It is a compassionate work, for this is part of the Isenheim altarpiece, painted for a hospital that treated people with disfiguring illnesses. One of the devils has the sores and grey skin that appear in other parts of the altarpiece and evoke the illnesses treated there. Does this swarming scene therefore portray the threat to mental health posed by extreme physical suffering? It influenced German expressionism and is to this day a masterpiece of the threatened mind.

3. Albrecht Durer – Melancholia (1514)

Johan Wierix; after Albrecht Durer, Melancolia. Engraving on paper, Scottish National Gallery
 Johan Wierix; after Albrecht Durer, Melancolia. Engraving on paper, Scottish National Gallery. Photograph: Antonia Reeve

This visionary work of art is both a diagnosis and heroic celebration of what might now be seen as illness. Melancholia was known and experienced in the middle ages, a darkness of the mind resulting from an inbalance of the humours. That darkness is marked on the brooding face of Durer’s spirit of melancholy. In her despond, she appears unable to continue with her great works. She is to judge by her tools a mathematician, geometer, and architect: a Renaissance genius. Durer portrays through this emblem his own inner life and intuits the mind’s complexity. For Melancholy in his eyes is the badge of genius - to aspire to know and create is to slump into despair. Unhappiness is noble, for Durer. This print is arguably the beginning of modern psychology.

4. William Hogarth – The Rake in Bedlam (1733)

The insight of Durer – not to mention Shakespeare and Cervantes – that mental shadows are part of human life was lost on the founders of London’s Bethlem Hospital. The notorious “Bedlam” was founded in the middle ages and may have specialised in mental illness as early as the 14th century. When Hogarth in the 18th century portrayed a young man whose career of gambling and spending had led him there, it was a place where Londoners could come and look at the “mad”.Hogarth shows two “sane” women enjoying the spectacle of madness, which includes people who think they are kings and bishops. Of course, in Hogarth’s view, the boundary between sanity and insanity is not that obvious at all.

5. Francisco Goya y Lucientes – The sleep of reason produces monsters (c. 1799)

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. (Capricho No 43). Found in the collection of State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
 The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. (Capricho No 43). Found in the collection of State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Goya’s depiction of a sleeping man – the artist – assailed by monsters of the night is an image of reason’s frailty made at the end of the Enlightenment, the great 18th century movement that sought to change the world with encyclopaedias, scientific demonstrations and the first factories. Goya’s pessimistic yet also compassionate view is that reason only ever rules part of our minds. It must share the world with nightmares. At the dawn of the modern age, this great image echoes old depictions of the Temptations of St. Anthony, whose assailants have not gone away after all.

6. Theodore Gericault – Portraits of the Insane (1822)

A woman addicted to gambling, by Jean-Louis Theodore Gericault (1791-1824).
 A woman addicted to gambling, Portraits of the Insane, by Jean-Louis Theodore Gericault (1791-1824). Photograph: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

In the Romantic age extreme states of mind and inner suffering were the stuff of poetry and art. This mood of introspection opens new eyes on mental health in Gericault’s portraits of the “insane”. He painted ten of these, of which five still exist, all depicting patients of his friend Dr Etienne-Jean Georget. In this painting, there is deep respect and human sympathy for a woman whose illness seems mostly visible as deep unhappiness. Escaping from stereotypes and prejudice, Gericault portrays mental illness as a part of the human condition that he himself - as an artist whose paintings dwell on death and violence - clearly feels close to.

7. Gustave Courbet – Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man) (c. 1843 - 45)

The painting 'The Desperate Man' by French painter Gustave Courbet can be seen at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt/Main, central Germany, October 14, 2010.
 The painting ‘The Desperate Man’ by French painter Gustave Courbet can be seen at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt/Main, central Germany, October 14, 2010. Photograph: FRANK RUMPENHORST/AFP/Getty Images

In a moment of Romantic exhilaration Courbet portrays himself as a “madman”, his face ecstatic and terrified. His desperate state of mind is not a shameful sickness but a badge of artistic pride. In a tradition that goes back to Durer’s Melancholia but reached new power in the Romantic age, he equates genius and madness. This face of desperation is the face of the 19th century avant garde, risking and even courting sickness with drink and drugs. Courbet looks like a character in one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, his mind unravelling in a way the first modern artists were fascinated by.

8. Vincent van Gogh – Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
 Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Photograph: Peter Barritt/Getty mages/SuperStock RM

Vincent van Gogh was fascinated by a 19th century painting called The Madness of Hugo van der Goes. In this picture the medieval artist Hugo van der Goes – who in real life was confined to a monastery because of mental illness – broods in torment, while those around him despair of helping the afflicted man. Van Goghwrote that he sometimes identified with this painting. Here, shortly after cutting off his own earlobe, he scrutinises himself as a man similarly afflicted. Or is he? Vincent’s eyes are crystal blue, his gaze acute and penetrating. He looks at his wounded face objectively, with deep truth. He is neither “sane” nor “insane” but a fellow human being who speaks to us with courage and honesty.

9. Edvard Munch – The Scream (1893)

People look at Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.
 People look at Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ in Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Madness is the modern condition in this work of art that has the clarity of a theorem. The Scream is universal. This is how life today makes us feel, says Munch. Far from a pathology afflicting individuals, the desire to scream out in pain and isolation under the wobbly sky is a sane response to an insane world. Munch takes the artistic revaluation of mental illness that started in the Romantic age to its logical conclusion: there is no Bedlam but the world itself.

10. Josef Forster – Untitled work in the Prinzhorn Collection (after 1916)

Once Munch and Van Gogh made “madness” a positive value in modern art, a key to visionary truth, it was only a matter of time before the medical profession too started to see new connections between art and the mind. Before his death in 1933, Dr Hans Prinzhorn assembled a collection of art by mentally ill patients that was the beginning of what is now known as “outsider art”. This example has the eerie power of Goya. From something to be depicted by artists, “madness” has become a source of artistic originality in itself.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The top 10 female nudes in art

The top 10 female nudes in art

From the ravishing Venus of Urbino, past Ingres's sensual Odalisque, to the feminist riposte of the Guerrilla Girls, the female nude has inspired, enraptured and enraged

Jonathan Jones
Tuesday 15 April 2014 12.06 BST

Titian – Venus of Urbino (1536-38)

<Venus of Urbino> by Titian Venus of Urbino by Titian. Photograph: Nicola Lorusso
No one has ever painted naked women as gorgeously as Titian did. His ravishing Venus is a lover laying her beauty bare, and the recipient of her optical largesse is anyone who happens to stand in front of this painting in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy. Titian creates with mind-boggling skill the lavish presence of this nude: the rapture of her carnal glory. There's something divine about such beauty. Some people find profundity in religious art, in abstract art, in conceptual art. For me, there's nothing more moving in art than the breasts of the Venus of Urbino.

Juergen Teller – Vivienne Westwood (2013)

Vivienne Westwood No.3, London, 2009.
 The conventions of the nude can be enjoyed in limitless ways ... Vivienne Westwood No 3, London, 2009. Photograph: Juergen Teller

Nudity never loses its power. The conventions of the nude can be enjoyed, and challenged, in limitless ways. Vivienne Westwood glories in poses culled from painting as she exults in all the possibilities of nakedness in art, while in her 70s.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The top 10 self-portraits in art

Self-Portrait With Charlie (1995) by David Hockney.
Photograph: David Hockney

The top 10 self-portraits in art

From an anxious Lucian Freud to an enigmatic Rembrandt and a noirish Cindy Sherman, these self-portraits take the selfie to a new artistic level

Jonathan Jones
Thursday 4 September 2014 14.23 BST

David Hockney – Self-Portrait With Charlie (1995)

Hockney is ruthless in his self-portraits; he never poses or tries to look good. What he does is to record the act of self-portraiture – the fact of a painter looking in a mirror and trying to record what he sees – and give it a deliberately awkward material truth. In doing so, he paints the ideal of honest observation.

Parmigianino – Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c 1524)

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c 1524) by Parmigianino.
 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c 1524) by Parmigianino. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

It's not only modern artists who portray themselves in thought-provoking ways. In the early 16th-century, Parmigianino looked at himself in a convex mirror and painted his distorted reflection, his huge hand close to the surface of the picture, his face the focus of a selfie-like bubble image, in which time and space warp vertiginously. This precocious painting is the theme of John Ashbery's great poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

Pablo Picasso – Self-Portrait Facing Death (1972)

Picasso always portrayed himself with big eyes that seem to swallow up the beholder, insisting, even as he turns himself into a painted object, that it is he, not you, who does the looking. Those eyes were never bigger – or braver – than in this unillusioned, atheist painting of the artist battered by time and recognising the nearness of his own mortality.

The top 10 backs in art

The top 10 backs in art
Man Ray's violin woman, a masterpiece of Japanese erotica and David Hockney's most liberating pool painting ... check out these choice rear views

Jonathan Jones
Thursday 29 May 2014 17.32 BST 
Last modified on Tuesday 1 July 2014 16.01 BST

Kitagawa Utamaro – Lovers in an Upstairs Room (1788)

A kimono-clad Shunga masterpiece ... Lovers in an Upstairs Room by Kitagawa Utamaro (1788).
Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum 

This is a masterpiece of the Japanese erotic art genre known as Shunga. A woman with her lover has her back to us, clad in a kimono. With this subtle and sympathetic pose, Utamaro lets us into a private moment while also intensifying the mystery and self-possession of the woman with the gracious back.

Man Ray – Le Violon d'Ingres (1924)

Man Ray - backs in art
 A visitor looks at Le Violon d'Ingres by Man Ray (1924). Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/Corbis Facundo Arrizabalaga/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/epa/Corbis

This classic Surrealist photograph is a joke about the painter Ingres, whose nudes have dramatically violin-like proportions. Man Ray got his famous model Kiki of Montmartre to pose naked, except for a turban – like one of Ingres' orientalist fantasy women. Then, through the magic of the darkroom – actually just a paintbrush – he turned her back into an actual violin.