Van Gogh cut his ear off. Gauguin had a mid-life crisis and shacked up with frighteningly young Tahitian girls. Munch suffered from hallucinations. It’s a cliché that all great artists are crazy. However, the “tortured artist” stereotype certainly has a basis in fact — many famous artists’ most emotionally resonant works were created during times of emotional turmoil, the result of an all-consuming mental ailment. Not merely aesthetic masterpieces, these pieces offer great insight into an artist’s inner torment. Inspired by the fantastic Yayoi Kusama retrospective that’s currently up at the Whitney Museum, after the jump we look at some of history’s greatest mentally unstable artists and the work that beautifully captures their crises.
Yayoi Kusama, Self-Obliteration (1967)
Yayoi Kusama was only a little girl when she began hallucinating the dots, nets, and flowers that have dominated her six-decade career. “My artwork is an expression of my life, particularly of my mental disease,” she told BOMB in a 1999 interview. “I was hospitalized at the mental hospital in Tokyo in 1975 where I have resided ever since. I chose to live here on the advice of a psychiatrist. He suggested I paint pictures in the hospital while undergoing medical treatment. This happened after I had been traveling through Europe, staging my fashion shows in Rome, Paris, Belgium and Germany… My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I don’t see hallucinations, though.”
Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)
“For several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, The Scream? I was stretched to the limit — nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.” Munch’s account of the period when he made his most iconic work jives with its fiery colors and haunting subject. Looking at the painting, you feel its desolation and anguish on a visceral level. The artist experienced anxiety, hallucinations, and feelings of persecution throughout his life, which eventually lead to a nervous breakdown. The Scream not only captures Munch’s torment and agony but has become a symbol of the universal suffering and alienation of the modern man.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black on Grey) (1970)
Untitled (Black on Grey) was painted shortly before the painter’s suicide in February of that year. Rothko, who suffered from depression, was found covered in blood, with his wrist cut open and overloaded on antidepressants. When asked about his grey and black paintings, Rothko had simply replied that they were about death. The oppressive black expanse hovering over a desert of gray presents a subliminal wasteland of desolation. Speaking about his work in general, the artist once said, “There must be a clear preoccupation with death — intimations of mortality… Tragic art, romantic art, etc. deals with the knowledge of death.”
Vincent van Gogh, Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) (1890)
Van Gogh painted Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) while living in the Saint Paul asylum. For most of his adult life, the painter suffered from anxiety and depression, manifesting in the often-romanticized story in which he cuts off his left ear. Shortly after mutilating himself, van Gogh checked into the asylum, where he worked prolifically, creating paintings including his magnum opus, the Starry Night. Based on an earlier lithograph, Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) was painted during the last two months of his life. Depicting an old man overcome with emotion, head in hands, suffering in the present world but on the brink of an unknown afterlife, the painting captures the melancholy that overcame van Gogh during his last months in the asylum.
Louis Wain, Cat Drawings
Louis Wain will forever be known as the man who drew cats. His Victorian cat drawings, which became increasingly abstract over time, are commonly used in psychology textbooks to show how his downward psychological spiral manifested in his change of artistic style. Though some argue that his schizophrenia cannot be explained through his increasingly abstract feline depictions, a series of four or five of his drawings continue to be used today by scholars. We’ll let you judge for yourself.
Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823)
In 1892, 72-year-old Goya purchased an isolated house outside of Madrid and covered the walls with a series of 14 paintings known today as the Black Paintings. On the heels of the Napoleonic Wars, Goya became incredibly disillusioned about humanity and suffered from anxiety, fear, and hysteria after surviving two near-fatal illnesses. Never meant for public display, the Black Paintings are largely thought to be the result of this psychological shift. One the most haunting and disturbing images in the collection, Saturn Devouring His Son depicts Saturn feasting into the white and bloody flesh of a corpse. Though various analyses have been applied to the painting, from the wrath of time to an analogy of Spanish authority, it’s difficult to deny that it also reflects the deterioration of Goya’s mental health during the last years of his life.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Radio City Music Hall Mural (1932)
You might notice that this isn’t a mural — it’s just a contemporary photo of Radio City. There is no painting here because O’Keeffe suffered a mental breakdown during her creation of the Radio City Music Hall mural. Increasingly anxious that she would not be able to complete the commissioned work in time, O’Keeffe suffered a breakdown that left her hospitalized. The mental collapse was so paralyzing that she was unable to paint for two years.
Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)
Gauguin had a wife, kids, and a regular job. But, feeling driven to paint full-time, he turned his back on his middle-class life. In an act of a mid-life crisis, Gauguin sailed to Tahiti to escape the chains of European society and flee “everything that is artificial and conventional.” Meant to be read from right to left, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? chronicles the cycle of human existence and embodies Gauguin’s struggle to find meaning.