To Paint is to Love Again, Part 10: Art and Insanity

For some years after graduating from art school, I had a variety of art jobs. I worked independently, as a team leader and a team member, in smaller and larger groups. The jobs, albeit all within the creative fields, were very different, and so was my experience in each role. But there was one common element to the jobs which had a hierarchic structure: I found it hard to adapt to specific rules, boundaries, and working under someone’s command. Whenever my creativity was stifled and squashed to fit in a particular box, I suffered deeply. I watched friends soar in various corporate careers pondering the roots of my crazy quest for independence.

The connection between art and insanity has been extensively researched for centuries, and studies have shown correlations between creative occupations and people living with mental illness. But what do we understand as insanity? Henry Miller defined it as an exaggerated inability to adapt. And he was not alone in his view. As we can read in an article by Allan Beveridge written for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicin, titled “A disquieting feeling of strangeness?: the art of the mentally ill“, the exact same expression was used by writer and historian Michel Thevoz:

Quoting with approval R D Laing, Thevoz perceived insanity as a refusal to adapt to a sick society. Further, he perceives madness as an inner voyage, and psychiatrists with their drugs and hospitals as inimical to creativity.

Miller complained that little attention was given to the art of the insane, but this wasn’t entirely true. Madmen have been a subject of study and analysis since the beginning of the 19th century. Beveridge’s paper is a fascinating analysis of how the art of the mentally ill was perceived in the span of the two centuries — from the Romantic movement, which identified madness as an exalted state allowing access to hidden realms, through the developing psychiatric profession, to the twentieth century’s interest in non-mainstream ways of expression and art created within marginalised groups. The main question Beveridge is asking is whether there is anything exceptional about the work of the mad. And while psychiatrists’ opinion is very much divided in this matter, the author sides with Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist working at the Heidelberg Hospital, who concluded that there is “a disquieting feeling of strangeness” in the work of patients with schizophrenia.

The reason that art created by the mentally ill has fascinated people, including those who are artists themselves, is because it is liberated from all sorts of societal and psychological restrictions. “Dubuffet believed that western culture was arid and stifled by convention and tradition. He saw in the work of the mentally ill a breaking away from these constraints” and “christened such work art brut”.  To artists, reason and logic were seen as a cage that the mentally ill were free from. The French Surrealist poet Paul Éluard wrote:

We who love them understand that the insane refuse to be cured. We know well that it is we who are locked up when the asylum door is shut: the prison is outside the asylum, liberty is to be found inside.

This fascination, bordering on envy, is understandable — no matter where and in what period we are living in, the world poses a great number of challenges and requires numerous sacrifices. And despite the pop culture’s idea of being the master of one’s own fate, it is simply not true: we are bound and restricted by the society we’re living in, by our shortcomings, life circumstances, and there’s always an invisible wall behind which we are unlikely to escape.

Now, there are those who try and climb the wall, no matter what. There are those who give up on the start and accept their limitations. And there are artists who instead of fighting with obstacles on the path to success, simply create an alternative universe to live in. Madmen do it unwillingly, for artists it’s a choice.

Though sometimes this alternative universe is not exactly a result of a deliberate act, but a necessary refuge of the mind. Artist Madge Gill started to create at the age of 38, allegedly under the influence of a spirit guide she called Myrninerest (“My Inner Rest”). She worked at night, making dozens or even hundreds of drawings (from postcard size to 30-metre-long calico roll pieces) and “esoteric knitting”. Clearly, Myrninerest was a manifestation of her subconscious need to escape the daily drama and provide relief for the suffering she endured — first as a child, when she was placed in an orphanage (she was born illegitimately), and later in her adult life when she lost one of three sons, a daughter who was stillborn and the sight in her left eye. She underwent treatment in Hove for an undiagnosed psychiatric condition but to me it is clear that the best treatment took place around the table in her Walthamstow flat where she drew and embroidered. She died in 1961, leaving thousands of artworks “piled in cupboards and under her bed“.


Another famous “outsider artist” who created his own mythology was August Walla. He started drawing as a young boy in the various facilities he was placed in due to “abnormal behaviour” which was likely triggered by the death of his beloved grandmother when he was 6 years old. Uncertain of his gender identity, he claimed that during the Nazi period, he had been a “Nazi girl” who was subsequently re-operated during the Soviet occupation into a “communist twin”. Many of his works feature female figures with swastikas and male figures with a hammer and a sickle.

As a teenager Walla was admitted several times to the Mental Health and Care Facility at Gugging, the psychiatric institution in the outskirt of Vienna while his mother was undergoing hospitalisation herself. In 1983, the two of them were no longer able to take care of themselves so they moved into what is now the House of Artists at Gugging.

The House of Artists (which was initially called “Center for Art and Psychotherapy”) was founded by psychiatrist Leo Navratil who had, in the late 50s, discovered artistically talented individuals in his ward (later referred to as “art brut” artists) and went on to write a book about schizophrenia and art. In 1981, Navratil invited creative patients to live in the house which was both a living space, studio, gallery and meeting place. The House of Artists became a a model for psychiatric reforms based on art therapy as a means to reintegrate clients into society. It has also attracted a great number of visitors, including David Bowie and Brian Eno who in 1994 visited the Gugging psychiatric hospital to interview and photograph the celebrated artist-patients. That year, in addition to the House of Artists, Gallery Gugging was founded, and in 2006 — the Museum Gugging.  Eventually, The Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic became Art Brut Center Gugging comprising the museum, the gallery and a public studio.

Psychiatrist and artist Dr Johann Feilacher, who was Navratil’s successor after his retirement in 1981 and is now the director of the Centre, says there is a reason why the art brut movement is so powerful:

Art Brut artists are not influenced by art, meaning the social culture of art isn’t necessarily interesting to them. This gives them the opportunity to make paintings and drawings without any outside influence. They don’t have the works of other painters in their heads, so they’re unable to copy them.

Walla was one of the most famous Gugging artists but there are many other famous troubled artists in the history of art. Henry Darger who worked as a hospital janitor in Chicago, Illinois, spent his life secretly working on a large fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred watercolour illustrations.

Like Walla, Darger suffered the death of his parent — his mother died after giving birth to his sister whom Darger never met (she was given up for adoption), and upon his father’s death, the boy was institutionalized in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, an institution which implemented forced child labour and severe punishments. It was there that doctors established that “Henry’s heart is not in the right place” and his Tourette’s syndrome became apparent. And while he managed to escape the asylum when he was 17, the cruelty of the place never left him. His fantasy novel follows seven princesses who assist in a rebellion against child slavery, and features gruesome scenes of evisceration, decapitation, and crucifixion.

In some cases, the mental illness is apparent in early childhood, and in others it strikes at a later time in life.

Richard Dadd was a British painter “of huge promise” who became mentally ill during a trip around the Mediterranean in his early twenties. While Madge Gill was guided by Myrninerest, Dadd had delusions of receiving messages from the Ancient Egyptian deity Osiris who instructed him to kill his father — which he did. He was subsequently committed to the criminal department of Bethlem psychiatric hospital (also known as Bedlam) where he spent 20 years, after which he was moved to Broadmoor Hospital where he died in 1886. In both facilities, he produced a great number of stunning watercolour and oil paintings featuring mythological and fantastical characters. The most famous one is The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke which became the inspiration for a song by Queen.

August Natterer, a German outsider artist, was married and had a successful career as an electrical engineer when at the age of 39 he got stricken with delusions and anxiety attacks — he had a hallucination of the Last Judgment during which “10,000 images flashed by in half an hour”. After a suicide attempt, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to the first of several psychiatric institutions where he spent his life. Natterer was one of the “schizophrenic masters” profiled by Hans Prinzhorn, German psychiatrist and art historian, in his field-defining work Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Natterer’s work became an inspiration for Max Ernst’s Oedipus Rex, which is a good example of what Henry Miller observed — the work of accredited artists assuming “qualities and aspects borrowed from the insane”.

“The individual who can adapt to this mad world of today is either a nobody or a sage. In one case, he is immune to art, and in the other he is beyond it”, wrote Henry Miller. And while his view might be a bit extreme, I do believe that a turbulent, sensitive and ponderous inner world which makes it harder for one to become the go-getter our modern society rewards, is where art is born. Artists are troubled creatures — not necessarily in the clichéd bohemian Modigliani-style of substance abuse and reckless life. But they are troubled emotionally.

We’re living at a time where people pick up painting, sculpture etc. as any other form of Instagrammable activity to brand, market and sell. But that art is as devoid of soul and value as an Ikea poster. It’s just an attractively packaged void created by those who are driven by marketing techniques, market trends and whatever gets most views on social media. As Plato said, “An empty vessel makes the loudest sound”.

Some of the works presented here were created far from anyone’s view, in obscurity, in darkness, behind asylum walls, in pain. But they are spectacular.


Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 10: Art and Insanity

The saving thing about children and how we need to emulate them is that they will and can use anything that comes to hand. So does the prisoner in his cell.

I forget now in which prison it was in England or was it Scotland that my friend Brassaï, the photographer, discovered graffiti, the like of which he had never seen anywhere.

And then there are the insane. What marvelous drawings and paintings have been produced by these unfortunate devils? What technique? (If we want to talk technique). Strange, how little attention is given nowadays to the art of the insane. Since the days of modern prints, I don’t know when I have seen a book giving illustrations of their work. What has happened is that the work of our accredited artists has assumed qualities and aspects borrowed from the insane. I am talking, it should be understood, not of the results produced under therapy, but of the products of compulsion and obsession manufactured day in and day out, often without food or sleep by those solitary ones who are caged like beasts. Where, one may ask, do these unfortunate creatures get the strength and the inspiration to carry on as they do? One should bear in mind, of course, that they do not have to earn a living, that they are not concerned about their health, nor did they worry about hygiene, that they feel no shame or guilt concerning their misconduct. That they do not have to keep up with current events. That atom bombs mean nothing to them, nor cold wars and hot wars. Not even the imminent stampede to the moon. How the artist must envy them at times and how dangerously close at times he comes to behaving and thinking like them.

Certainly, the surest way to kill an artist is to supply him with everything he needs. Materially, he needs but little. What he never gets enough of is appreciation, encouragement, understanding. I have seen painters give away their most cherished work on the impulse of the moment. Sometimes in return for a good meal, sometimes a bit of loves, sometimes for no reason at all, simply because it pleased them to do so. And I have seen these same men refuse to sell a cherished painting, no matter what the sum offered. I believe that a true artist always prefers to give his work away rather than sell it.

A good artist must also have a streak of insanity in him, if by insanity is meant an exaggerated inability to adapt. The individual who can adapt to this mad world of today is either a nobody or a sage. In one case, he is immune to art, and in the other he is beyond it.

Thinking back to the year 1928, when I first began making watercolors, it seems to me that if I had not discovered this outlet, I would have gone insane. My writing was getting me nowhere fast. My domestic life was a shambles and my ability to panhandle had become nil. When I found what the left hand can do – the left hand is the dreamer – I became active as an ant. I painted morning, noon and night, and if I ran out of paint, I used crayons, pencil or hunks of coal. Coal on blood-soaked butcher’s paper always yields something interesting. Though my mind was intensely active, for I was seeing everything in a new light, the impression I had was a painting with some other part of my being. My mind went on humming like a wheel that continues to spin after the hand is let go. But it didn’t get frazzled and exhausted as it would after a few hours of writing. While I played, for I never looked at this as work, I whistled, hummed, danced on one foot, then the other, and talked to my soul. Jolly talk, what I mean, as if there was someone beside me watching me, egging me on. If a crony stopped by to unload his woes, I continued to paint while pretending to listen. Sometimes I would offer to do his portrait for a pack of cigarettes, two bits, even a dime.

Some of my friends, catching my infection, joined me in these painting sprees. Sometimes a group of us would be doing one another’s portrait simultaneously, and while we slaved away, always merry and bright, we would discuss the painters we revered. During these séances, we thought nothing of revising one another’s work. The one who could do noses or ears well, or feet or hands, would doctor up the noses, ears, hands and feet of all the others. We were learning in our own fantastic way, and it was fun. Now and then it was suggested that we get models to pose for us. But none of us had the means for such a luxury. Besides, it didn’t take us long to realize that the presence of a nude female would only deflect us. So in lieu of a good, sensuous piece of live pink flesh, we would slip a coat over a chair and tried to catch all the wrinkles, shadows, textures, herringbone effects and whatnot. Or we’d do hats. Hats were my specialty, particularly slouch hats which were worn and creasy. Coats, hats, shoes, whatever we fixed on, gave us a kick. Maybe the painting was only an excuse to stay indoors where it was warm and cozy, to stop looking for work (we were none of us respectable citizens) or to indulge in fertile talk. We weren’t trying to get anywhere. We were there, were we not?

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 9: The Struggle in Art

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