Diagnosing Artists’ Mental Issues Through Their Work


Could Vincent Van Gogh have been even more troubled than various film adaptations of his life let on? His latest biography, Van Gogh: The Life , shows the artist as a tortured, ear-slashing madman — eating paint, chugging turpentine, acting erratically, suffering deeply, and making street urchins snicker “nutter” at him as he came down the street. In light of his new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Daily Beast’s Blake Gopnik takes a very, very close look at his art pieces and finds Van Gogh’s insanity plainly depicted in them. The quivering, frenzied lines, the haphazardness in brush-strokes, the strangely off hues — he sees not just originality, but visual signs of a specific madness. It’s actually a fascinating approach, but… What if we “read” all artists’ works as direct representations of their psychological and emotional problems?

Let’s do some intentionally amateur and superficial profiling and assign artists some illness and issues. We have no psychoanalytical expertise to back it up whatsoever, so please, criticize away. This is what happens when you really, really over-analyze — or under-analyze — an artist’s work. Really.

Let’s pretend for a second that Damien Hirst physically makes his own work. If we look at this seemingly-endless array of perfect little circles, perfectly spaced, painted over, and over, and over, and over… and over and over and over… It’s clear the maker is suffering “a significant preoccupation with perfection, control, and order” — or a lucrative case of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Oh, Salvador Dalí, life doesn’t really look like that. Is that what you see? Really? My my, tsk-tsk. We do believe you’re exhibiting signs of rabid “eccentric perceptions” akin to a schizotypal personality disorder.

Frida Kahlo is clearly suffering from a chronic narcissistic personality disorder because the majority of her paintings are self-portraits. But of course, any exploration of the self is indicates an “exaggerated sense of self-importance.” Of course.

Andy Warhol? A hoarder. Clearly. Hoarder of soup cans, “superstars,” celebrity Polaroids and tin foil.

Why are so many complex theories as to why exactly Edvard Munch’s Screaming man is screaming like that? Duh. See those people up the road? They’re strolling over this way and it’s aggravating his social anxiety disorder. That’s that then.

If dissociative identity disorder a.k.a. multiple personality disorder is the “presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behavior,” then Cindy Sherman is the queen, the king, the princess, the burnt Californian, the goth mistress, the middle-aging socialite, and the pretty boy of them all.

Clearly, contemporary painter John Currin is a sexual deviant. Why else would he mine Cosmopolitan and Playboy for inspiration and produce work be so replete of unabashed x-rated sexy sex and bodies of exaggerated eroticism? To comment on desire? Nope! Sex addict. Done and done.

Delusional disorder is characterized by a period of “non-bizarre delusions” — a tormenting suspicion of something that may possibly be true but isn’t really — and it lasts at least a month. Maybe that could explain Jeff Koons decision to sue a balloon-dog-shaped bookend seller for copyright infringement of his balloon-dog-shaped sculptures?

Pretty much any time you notice a theme, a repeated form, an idée fixe in an artists’ body of work, you can just call it fetishism. Take Louise Bourgeois’s spiders or Mamans. Her most famous sculptures idolize the arachnoid, building it up as a sort of mental totem, several feet high, very important, very emphasized. Fetishism implies a dependent, sexual interest in that particular object, but it wouldn’t be too hard to tack that on there.

You may extensively theorize how performance artist Marina Abramović’s ritualistic self-flagellation, self-drugging, cuts, ice burns, and audience submission plays into the daring practice of her endurance pieces, or you could just slap on the sadomasochist and exhibitionist labels and be done with it. Slap it on, hard.