Art Matters is the podcast that brings together popular culture and art history, hosted by Ferren Gipson.
Note: This story discusses topics relating to mental health and briefly includes the subject of suicide in relation to select artworks.
Conversations and attitudes around mental health have been improving in recent years, with public figures and civilians alike making the effort to destigmatise long-held notions around mental wellness. Through tracing artworks relating to this topic across time, we can gain some insight into how these ideas have developed. This story explores art as it refers to the term 'madness', so it's appropriate to first define what that means.
'"Madness" is a very slippery term and its meaning absolutely changes across time and changes depending on its historical, cultural or medical context,' says Anna Jamieson, Doctoral Researcher in the History of Art at Birkbeck. 'The Oxford English Dictionary defines madness as insanity, mental illness or impairment... Whilst historically words such as 'madness', 'insanity', even 'craziness' have been used interchangeably to describe what we would, today, think about as mental illness, these words were used during times when madness wasn't necessarily seen as an illness or a medical condition linked to the brain.'
Before we began to understand the associations between the functions of the brain and mental health in the eighteenth century, some believed there could be more spiritual forces at play. Madness was sometimes seen as a punishment from God for immoral behaviour, and in medieval Europe, madness was sometimes attributed to witchcraft or possession. In these cases, a person might be treated through exorcism. This history of ill-informed attitudes towards mental illness explains why so much work has been necessary in modern society to destigmatise mental health issues.
In art, madness has been represented in a number of ways and across mediums. One of the best known early examples is Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melencolia I. The image shows a forlorn winged figure functioning as an allegory for melancholy. She is surrounded by a wealth of tools and objects associated with creation and the arts. Melancholy was seen as a form of madness and was associated with solitude and emotionality.
'During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, art historians have described a cult of melancholia, which arose throughout Europe,' says Anna. 'As well as being linked with a gloomy state of mind, it was increasingly celebrated and linked with artistic and creative genius.'
Two sculptures that were formerly above the gates of London's Bethlem Hospital called Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness are another example of melancholy alongside a contrasting, more distressed form of madness. Bethlem – also known as Bedlam, and now home to the Museum of the Mind – was London's most famous psychiatric hospital, inspiring films, books and even paintings.
'Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bethlem was open for visitors. So, people in exchange for a few coins could go inside and view the mad within,' says Anna. 'In this sense, the manic and melancholic representations at its gates almost beckoned visitors in.'
Bethlem Hospital would come to be home to some notable artists including Richard Dadd and Louis Wain, who is now known for his psychedelic drawings of cats. At the start of his career, he drew more realistic images of cats and later began to draw anthropomorphised and increasingly stylised versions.
Bethlem also features as a setting in the eighth scene of William Hogarth's series A Rake's Progress. Across the series, we get a glimpse into the debauched lifestyle of the central character Tom Rakewell, whose immoral behaviour eventually sees him as a resident of Bedlam.
Depictions of the biblical king Nebuchadnezzar offer a more emotive and animalistic take on madness – in the Old Testament as having gone away from men and eating grass like an ox.
'He's often shown as naked, hairy, moving around on all fours and often with claw-like long nails. And we see this in William Blake's representation of Nebuchadnezzar from 1795,' says Anna.
Modern scholars have attempted to retrospectively diagnose Nebuchadnezzar's mental condition, variably saying that he may have had an advanced syphilitic infection, megalomania or even boanthropy, which is the belief that one is a cow. Contemporary psychologists will say that it's not appropriate to diagnose a client they have not personally treated, but this doesn't stop speculation about historical figures as scholars seek to get more insight into their lives and behaviours.
'Someone who has received a lot of attention in this way is Vincent van Gogh, who was seen as suffering from a myriad of medical conditions,' says Anna. 'He believed he had epilepsy, but it's been argued that he had borderline personality disorder, chronic sunstroke, bipolar disorder and all sorts of other illnesses which contributed to his suicide in 1890... Some have argued that the intense use of yellow that characterises many of his paintings was due to the medication he was on.'
While Van Gogh was under care in an asylum, he wrote about how he found painting to be a comfort. This reflects the healing potential of practising art and, since Van Gogh's time, there has been much research in this area. The term art therapy was first coined in 1942 by the artist Adrian Hill when he discovered the benefits of drawing and painting while under care for tuberculosis. Prior to having the name art therapy, art was used as part of the 'moral treatment' approach to psychiatric care.
'The term madness can be a problematic one in that it reinforces, rather than alleviates certain stigmas and stereotypes,' says Anna. 'This might be to do with gender or class or thinking about 'normal' ways to behave, but it is a useful term for us to think about because of what it tells us about the way mental illness may have been imagined [and] about broad cultural meanings and changing attitudes.'
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