I've been working pretty hard trying to explain the complexities of my chosen topic. The mental state of the artist, how that effects their work, and why a larger percentage of mentally unstable people gravitate to creative fields. Obviously this is a topic for books, in fact several, so i've narrowed down somewhat dealing with manic-depression and visual artists. It still complex and in my progression to explain all aspects of this connection, I think I've lost sight of what my original objective, along with required elements i need to cover. Mainly talking about actual artist that prove what I've stated in this incredibly long explanation.
So the real question I need to answer is:
How does Manic-depressive illness effect the work produced by artists afflict with it?
Their isn't a short answer to this but with the three examples I have chosen represent differences in perception, treatment, and severity of manic depression, as well as its manifestation in their work. These three artists are Richard Dadd (1817-1886), Ralph Barton (1891-1931), and Henry Darger (1892-1973).
So here's what I've found about each from my research, and my own evaluation of how they represent common reaction to this illness.
Richard Dadd suffered from a severe case of manic-depression, which went untreated until a psychotic break in 1843. Coupled by stresses in career, travel and family dilemmas Dadd began to slip into a self-created delusion, which culminated with him murdering his father, stating he was an agent of the devil. He then fled and attempted to kill again to evade capture. This series of events is an example of an untreated manic stage. Having a history of mental illness in his family, his father and siblings felt they could maintain Dadd, however a letter from his sister to their brother suggested her fear of his safety and those around him. While vacationing in a small village fairly near London, where his family were hoping Dadd would be able to recuperate, Dadd psychosis progressed to the point he felt compelled to kill his father and in doing so would be carrying out God’s work.
After his arrest and trial where evidence of his mental instability was clear, he was sent to Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital in London, the oldest psychiatric hospital in the western world. Bethlem at the time had a reputation for mistreatment of the mental patients, who were there more to keep them out of the public’s way then for any benefit to them. However Dadd’s time there seem to have been among the better cases. His condition did not improve, but did not worsen either, and he was able to keep painting, which was most likely the best course of treatment he could have had at the time. In fact the majority of his work was produced after his commitment. Including his two most noted pieces, which took up nine years each to complete. Both these pieces contain highly structured and detailed fantasy settings with an array of figures epitomizing kings, fairies, and other mythical human like creatures, all staggered in a giant wooded hill, with flowers, twigs and nuts lager than most of the figures. These two highly detailed paintings best express the commitment manic-depression can instill. Dadd also completed several illustrations on various themes and subjects. One such series encapsulates sins and states of mind humans endure. Within this series Dadd illustrated the sin of murder and the state of madness with a subtly and power that can be attributed to his familiarity to both.
Dadd’s case shows some key factors that have come to be textbook examples of manic-depression and it’s relationship to the creative mind; factors such as family history, focused dedication to a specific theme or themes, as well as his wild personality that allowed the milder indications of his condition to be overlooked. His stated goals and early artistic connections followed a sense of passions that at first was shared but then over the course of a decade his fellow artists found his single minded focus and over barring personality to be too much, eventually he was alone in his consistent drive. This slow isolation can be seen as another element of his breakdown in 1843. But after his commitment Dadd’s disconnection from the world served to help ease the stress and allow him the focus he truly wanted. The period was not a picnic for by any means, conditions in the hospital were unsanitary and overcrowded, many times the less stable patients were beaten or shackled to the floor, even though it is most likely Dadd did not receive such harsh treatment, he was exposed to a grueling atmosphere which would cause anyone strain. However Dadd was able to focus solely on painting and creating the expressive fantastical imagery he wanted. This counteracted the negative elements of Bethlem enough for him to maintain some level of the control he had once lost.
Ralph Barton contrasts Dadd’s condition in several ways, almost to the other end of the bi-polar spectrum. Barton projected a calculated public image that allowed him to be quite social and charismatic while masking a deep depression. He remained in constant control of himself and well isolated from personal relationships that would allow anyone to see beyond what he wanted to show. In the prime of his career he was one of the most sought after illustrators for his unique caricature style. He became a regular within the New York and Hollywood socialite circles, where he gain a reputation for his refined dress and a string of women. He was also quite hard and demanding of himself, which only grew with his progressively unchecked depressive bouts. His negative views began to seep into his work, which in his later years portrayed a cynical tone of greed and materialism. By comparing two illustrations from early and late in his career, this cynicism is quite notable in composition and color choice. Barton internalized his problems and with his move from his home in Kansas he further isolated himself from a familial support system that could have help him. But in May of 1931, he killed himself. There are varying accounts as to exactly how but he most likely shot himself in his apartment. Only two people, including long time friend Charlie Chaplin, are known to have gone to his funeral, most who had known him had long sense written him off and an ill tempered hermit. Compounding his down fall was real stigma attached to mental illness within the 1920’s and surrounding decades. Most perceived these states as weaknesses, those that clearly display them were avoided and relegated to invalid status. Mostly likely his surviving friendship with Charlie Chaplin was more do to Chaplin’s own history and reoccupation with mental illness.
Henry Darger spent majority of his life on his own, his mother dying before he was five. Darger became a ward of the state of Illinois at age eight, where conditions were hard, with frequent punishments and forced labor. At the age of 16 he successfully escaped the institution and made his way back to Chicago, where he was able to find work in menial labor, which is how he continued to support himself up until his death. Although he was a solitary man, he became active in helping abused and neglected children find homes. He also rented a second floor room where he lived for the last 40 years of his life. For the most part Darger’s life stayed consistent, working as a dishwasher, attending mass everyday and spending his remanding time alone. Not until his own failing health placed him in the same mission that his father had died in some 70 years earlier, did anyone discover his work. His landlords first entered Darger’s apartment shortly before his death, soon afterwards the couple took charge Darger’s estate, publicizing his work. The subject matter of his work covers somewhat disturbing depictions of the same fantasies that Darger had used to preoccupied himself while living in the boy’s home. This is common a way to cope and developing a mechanism for independently dealing with harsh and cold conditions is not in itself a sign of any mental illness. However his continued preoccupation, coupled with what is seen as a manic state, even if only in isolation, in a way show a combination of Dadd and Barton. Dadd's more manic states and interest in fantasy, and Barton's tight control and avoidance of personal relationships. The volume of collages, illustrations, and writings found shows how vast and compulsory Darger’s fantasies had become; not only the need to escape into them but the need to manifest them in some form. The events of his life compounded preexisting tendencies, creating a high level of independence to the point of avoiding social interaction. Although unlike Barton, Darger’s methods of escapism was enough to counter act more the extremes associated with bi-polar disorder. Although little about his mood could be gleamed from interaction or his own personality, his work tells a great deal about his mental state and the inner workings of his mind.
Within Darger’s lifetime, large step forward were taken in understanding and treating mental illnesses. But Darger’s himself was more a product of an older system, one that more resembles segregation and strict punishment for what was seen as deviant behavior. While residing in the boy’s home, Darger was noted as not having his heart in the right place, and punished for self-abuse. The latter term is mentioned in some sources as a euphemism for masturbation, while he first phrase clearly shows the behavioral or emotional causes of this assessment to be seen as character flaws. Once Darger develop a consistent enough coping mechanism he had limited to no interaction with any sort of authority that would have detected a problem, thus any new insight to treatment of mental illness would have been outside his purview.
This was more from memory than straight from the sources I've read. So my next step is to go back and find the areas that support what I have just said. This also means that some of my fact may not be exactly accurate, but they will be before they make it into my paper...
This works out to be about five pages, and still needs more added. Not just the citings, but also more indepth analysis of specific works.
I'd appreciate any comments for anyone who was patient enough to read the whole thing. Does it make sense? Do you having any questions or suggestions for what else i could add (or take away) for it to read better?
13 March 2008
I know I should be posting more often, and I have been trying to think of what I want to say in them. But I'm mainly drawing a blank. I'm confident in the concept for my show, the work is going great, I'm actually ahead which is so weird to me. I'm really interested in talking about what I'm doing, and have had some great conversations. I've always been apprehensive about talking out into this vast space where people can ignore me or read my thoughts without me knowing their reaction. Retardedly insecure I know and I don't think that is stopping me, just lingering there making what I've attempted far more calculated than it needs to be. Maybe I'm just over thinking this whole damn thing, like I do with everything else and I just need to do it.
Next post is coming and will contain a hell of a lot more than inconsequential ramblings.
Next post is coming and will contain a hell of a lot more than inconsequential ramblings.