The Changing Depictions of Mental Illness in Art History

Essay, 2019

8 Pages, Grade: %80


The Changing Depictions of Mental Illness in Art History

Human behaviour and mental illness have always been a source of cultural fascination in history. Prior to modern psychoanalytic thought, art served as a way for people to make sense of their experiences of mental illness. Art and symbolism filled the gap in understanding and depicting the human experience. This essay will demonstrate the progression of psychological depictions in art, and thus representations of mental illness throughout art history. Early Renaissance artists such as Vittore Carpaccio and Matthias Grunewald interpret mental illness through the lens of religious and spiritual imagery. Later Renaissance artists such as Albrecht Durer were impacted by the changing social, cultural and economic landscape of the 16th century. Romantic artists such as Fransisco Goya and Theodore Gericault use romantic imagery and realism to depict man’s internal melancholy and anxiety. The cultural momentum of the Weimar Period heralded an era of “Outsider Art”. Resulting in a cultural landscape that both feared and revered work made by those with mental illness.

Renaissance artists depicted mental illness through the lens of the religious and spiritual experience. Vittore Carpaccio’s work The Healing of the Possessed Man at the Rialto 1496 portrays a bustling scene of the Venetian Rialto, the international marketplace at the financial epicentre of the medieval city (Horeftari 2019). The painting is dominated with depictions of everyday merchant life. However, it is in the upper left part of the painting that the ‘Healing of the Possessed Man’ takes place. A man surrounded by religious figures is ‘healed’ by the Catholic archbishop, Francesco Querini (Bézin 2019). The composition of the painting suggests that the healing of the ‘possessed man’ is not intended to be the focal point of the painting (Scribd 2019). Rather, it suggests that exorcism and religious healing practices were a common public occurrence. It suggests that the approach to mental illness during this period was not a medical practice, but a religious one (Bézin 2019).

Another Renaissance work that depicts the religious link between spirituality and mental illness is the painting The Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grunewald 1512-16. The subject of the work, Saint Anthony, is surrounded by grotesque and nightmarish demons (Bézin 2019). The apparitions are symbolic for his own psychosis and his resulting psychological terror. In this piece, Grunewald is communicating the soul condition and the impact one’s thoughts can have on their physical being. In this work, Saint Antony’s thoughts have manifested into demons causing him to feel paralysed by his self-imposed terror. It is in this way that Grunewald uses religious allegories to communicate the human condition.

The later part of the Renaissance heralded a shift from religious imagery to scientific and rational thought. The emergence of humanism meant that mental illness was no longer seen as a spiritual affliction, but a human one. Marsilio Ficino’s 1489 text, ‘ De vita triplici’ (AGNSW 2019) explores the connection between creative expression and mental illness. It is in this way the Renaissance gave birth to the concept of the ‘artistic genius’. In Albrecht Durer’s 1514 painting, Melancholia this character becomes most evident. The main figure in the work is represented as being surrounded by all of the intellectual, scientific and cultural accomplishments of the era. She is surrounded by tools relating to architecture, mathematics and geometry. In the top left hand is the inscription Melencolia. This suggests that a society focused only on rational pursuits can lead to emotional decay. The all-encompassing nature of depression and melancholia is further implied by the morose expression and demeanour of the female subject. She appears disinterested and unengaged with the tools and the world. Durer is suggesting that melancholy can not only serve to inspire imagination and rational thought but it can also lead to despair and insanity.

The Romantic age romanticised extreme states of mind and crippling inner-suffering. In Franscisco Goya’s work The sleep of reason produces monsters 1799, he inserts himself as the subject. He paints himself as alone, with his head buried in a book, surrounded by owls, bats, a cat and a Lynx (AGNSW 2019). The bats symbolise his doubts and the owls represent reason and wisdom. The association of the visions with the artist’s trauma implies that there is a danger in withdrawing into oneself (Bézin 2019). Goya suffered ill-health and psychological disorders such as depression and hypochondria (Crompton 2018). Through painting himself into the work, the piece can be regarded as a portrait of his own mental health. At the bottom of the work there is an inscription of artistic intent:

The author dreaming. His one intention is to banish harmful beliefs commonly held, and with this work of caprichos to perpetuate the solid testimony of truth.’ (AGNSW 2019)

At this point Goya was severely deaf which further deteriorated his own mental health. This inscription can be seen as his way of attempting to communicate and erase stigma around his own anxiety and melancholy. In relation to the Romantic concept of the ‘mad genius’, the work begs the question whether it is better or worse that Goya is tormented by his visions. For he is able to create, see and paint such creatures. Before the end of the 18th century, mentally ill patients were considered to be in a ‘bestial’ state of mind (The Canvas 2019). This is depicted most distinctly in William Hogarth’s work ‘ Rake in Bedlam 1733’. The work portrays a man whose career of gambling and drinking has led him to be locked up in the infamous mental asylum, Bethlem Royal Hospital. In the piece, two ‘sane’ women can be seen enjoying the spectacle of the ‘madness’ that surrounds them (Crompton 2018). The composition of the work features various other figures representing other stages of mental illness. The cell on the left depicts a ‘religious maniac’ and a man adopting a regal pose, believing himself to be a king, a depressive and a mad tailor (Mental Health 2018). The women in the work provide a stark contrast to the scene around them. This is to highlight the 18th century stigmatization of mental illness. Suggesting that mental illness not only stands in contradiction to the enlightenment but that it can also be regarded as a spectacle to be voyeuristically enjoyed. Furthermore, the close proximity of the figures in the work symbolically suggests the thin boundary that exists between sanity and insanity.

Unlike contemporary society, Romantic artists sought to empathise with their subjects. The 19th century artist Theodore Gericault’s decision to use mentally ill people as his subjects could be directly related to his own personal experience. Both his father and grandfather died of mental illness related causes and he himself suffered a nervous breakdown in 1819. In his 1822 body of work entitled Portraits of the Insane, Gericault draws on his own experiences to portray his subjects through an empathetic lens. The series was created at the behest of the young doctor Étienne Jean Georget of the Hospital Salpêtrière (Buda 2010). It provides documentation of the psychiatric experience. Gericault sought to destigmatise mental illness in his work by depicting mentally ill people with the dignity of formal portraiture. His work Portrait of a Kleptomaniac 1822 paints the subject as the focal point with a shadowed background. He paints the subject with as much dignity as he would any other sitter. The dignified clothing and sombre facial expression make no suggestion to their mental illness, aside from the title of the piece. With strong detailing and quick brush strokes, there is a degree of empathy provided to the subject. It is in this way that Gericault has placed the mentally ill subject within the cannon of Romantic art.

While the Romantic artists sought to represent and mythologise the mentally ill, there was an apprehension of artists to engage directly with their subjects. This shifted in the early part of the 20th century with the development of ‘Outsider Art’ or ‘Art Brut’. In the period between 1918 – 1921, Dr Hans Prinzhorn assembled a collection of art from patients of the Heidelberg University Hospital (Crompton 2018). The Prinzhorn collection holds more than five thousand oil paintings, wood carvings, drawings and textile works created by mentally ill patients (Hauschild 2013). At a time when European artists were exploring the concept of the subconscious, such as German expressionism and Dadaism, Art Brut stood out as a true expression of the human experience. Prinzhorn recognised this in the art of his patients and was occupied with the role mental illness played in releasing innate creativity (Spence 1996). The collection was popularized by Austrian Writer and Illustrator, Alfred Kubin after Heidelberg clinic professor Wilmanns invited him to the view the works (Neuendorf 2015). Impressed by the works, Kubin penned his 1922 essay, The Art of the Insane. In the text he expresses his enthusiasm about the works stating that

“We were standing before miracles of the artistic spirit, which are summoned up from the depths, free of any intellectual overlay; the creation and contemplation of which must give happiness” (MacGregor 1989).

Kubin asserts that the Prinzhorn works should not be kept in the institution and should be accessible to the public. Unfortunately, later in the decade this assertion would be realised to the detriment of the lives of the artists. In 1933 Prinzhorn died and Wilmanns was stripped of his directorship of the clinic because of his anti-Nazi views (Gilman 1985). Wilmann’s successor was Nazi party member, Carl Schneider who in 1938 was invited by Goebbels to speak at the opening of the exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ (Gilman 1985). The Berlin Entartete Kunst exhibition displayed selected artworks created by children and mental patients alongside analogies of works by contemporary artists to illustrate their ‘sick minds’ (Crompton 2018). The Nazi party sought to create a clear distinction between the ‘superiority’ of Nazi German values over the degenerate and primitive work of the Avante Garde. The guide accompanying the exhibition listed the artists as ‘idiots, cretins and cripples’ (Crompton 2018). A year after the exhibition, Carl Schnieder introduced the patient extermination program (Brand-Claussen 1996). Resulting in the forced sterilisation and imprisonment of the artists featured in the Berlin Entartete Kunst exhibition.


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The Changing Depictions of Mental Illness in Art History
RMIT University
Bachelor of Fine Arts
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ISBN (eBook)
changing, depictions, mental, illness, history
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Alexa Meyerowitz (Author), 2019, The Changing Depictions of Mental Illness in Art History, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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