The use of art to describe and display mental health disorders is commonplace. From post-impressionist Edvard Munch’s vision in which the “Sky turned blood red” inspiring him to create The Scream, to contemporary prodigies the Proudfoot Brothers’ elusive masterpieces, mental illness has and always will be instrumental in the world of art.
Defined as “Art Brut” by Jean Dubuffet, these artworks offer insight into the artists’ worlds entwined with depictions of psychosis and mania, amongst numerous other impulses. These artists usually have little to no contact with the world of art, yet their unconventional designs gleaned from their mental states label them as virtuosos.
In researching art that was a product of mental illness, we can outline two principal depictions of mental illnesses through art. The premise of each artwork varies with some depicting emotional turmoil, to then elucidating the severity of depression. As outsiders, those without diagnosed mental illness struggle to empathize and understand mental illness. What insight do these artworks offer to the average person? What can we take away from the artwork? What are the trials and tribulations of depicting illness through art?
Piece 1: The Ambiguity of Identity
This piece is a recreation of an unnamed artwork by Egyptian artist Nasser Sabry. It was experimental in its design and goal of depicting a mental illness through the almost elementary movement of the pencil to create four faces on one head. All of the faces seem to have the same enigmatic expression: a twinge of a smile. Using a 3B graphite for the main features and a 6B graphite for the hair, there is a lot to analyze from the purposeful monochromatic color scheme. The inscrutable expressions created by soft lines on the faces may evoke feelings of confusion or curiosity,but the darker and somewhat forced strokes may suggest there is more to this piece than what meets the eye. The raggedy and seemingly unnecessary strokes throughout the piece are vital to tying the piece together. Multiple faces, similar but not the same, all connected by fragile strokes that could be undone at any moment.
Piece 2: The Melancholy Blues
A piece created to address the inner turmoil one faces with ones’ struggle with mental health. I decided to draw this artwork after reading “The Black Veil” by Rick Moody who explores the authors’ personal experience battling depression while addressing and overcoming the stigma and stereotypes associated with the illness. One key tenet within the book that stood out to me was the premise of feeling ashamed by depression, a feeling I wanted to depict in my artwork. The idea of societal pressure and stigma that consumes one’s mind can be detrimental, often eliciting feelings of humiliation. The sketch shows an individual whose face is replaced with a chasm of darkness buried within their arms. The prominent pencil strokes that appear may display the severity of these feelings, with the deeper strokes aimed towards the area where the head would be.
This piece remains unnamed because what one sees should be open to interpretation and should not be influenced by anything other than the work itself. Trying to gain insight into the world of mental health has its trials and tribulations, yet it has led to a form of enlightenment in which I feel I am more aware now than ever of mental illness.
The use of art in depicting and understanding mental illness is important, especially with the current climate. Mental health is becoming a more prominent issue now than ever before and art can not only aid those who need help finding their way to express how they’re feeling to the outside world, but also allow outsiders to understand a small part of what it means to be affected by something you cannot see.