Art and Mental Health
By: Ipek Kozanoglu.
As a way of continuing to raise awareness about the taboos surrounding mental health and how to tackle them, Introspect held an exhibition which ran from the 6th – 7th February at the Beacon Bar. Various artworks were featured, which all touched upon issues regarding mental health. These artworks ranged from photography to doodles, and even poetry.
The amount of work submitted was very impressive. Some works had the names of their artists printed underneath with small captions explaining how the artwork came to life and what it was reflecting. What struck me as very interesting and surprising was that it is very difficult to admit to having a mental health problem in a society where anything different is usually poked fun at or cast aside. For people to embrace their differences and to express them through art doesn’t just help mental health sufferers to cope with their problems, but it also encourages people who do not experience these problems to feel connected to those that do. This helps prevent the marginalisation of mental health sufferers, especially when, in an exhibition like this one, mental health is seen as the default. This was an admirable and inspiring choice by Introspect. The exhibition welcomed many students and, from my observations, many of them engaged with the art, and immersed themselves into real, poignant stories of struggling people.
My favourite artwork, above all others, was Overload by Beatrice Herman. It is a papier-mâché work depicting a lonely man trapped inside multiple distorted frames, and covered with gruesome headlines such as ‘Desperate For Another Chance At Life’, or words such as ‘betrayal’, ‘pain’ and ‘death’ surrounding him. To quote from her caption: ‘The piece focuses on the widespread availability of media and its role within society as an incessantly dark presence or depressive force.’ I loved this work, and I found it very relatable to my own life. Everyone at some point in their lives feels trapped. The feeling might be caused by pressing deadlines, familial issues, depression or just a quest to find yourself and a place in this world. The sense of being trapped and swamped was depicted perfectly in Herman’s work, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it for a while as I thought about my own life. Many people had similar reactions while they stood in front of the artwork, and admired it deeply.
As the evening progressed, Art History professor Stephanie O’Rourke came to talk about madness in art throughout its history. She gave examples starting from Ancient Greece to those of 19th century artists, and emphasized that the meaning of madness has changed over time. She mentioned that, in ancient times, madness meant ‘surrendering the self to a greater power’. In the courtly societies of the 15th century, however, the definition of madness had changed to mean ‘to transform one’s identity’, and O’Rourke gave the example of masquerade balls to emphasize this point. As we came into the 18th century, madness began to mean ‘disorder’ or a state of being ‘disarranged’, which she later explained as terms which derive from the French word déranger. Once the science of psychology started to develop and progress, further explanations for madness came about, one of them being that the mind has a structure which can be misaligned. This comes closer to what we understand as madness today. Later, the meaning of the word ‘madness’ branched out, and began to stand for many different things. O’Rourke gave well-known examples of madness from Vincent Van Gogh’s life, such as when the artist cut off his own ear, as well as Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream. She interpreted these cases as expressions of the isolation which was felt while living in a city for the first time. She also emphasized that one of the other reasons why art and the issue of mental health began to coincide was that religion did not provide the solace and comfort it once did. Rather aptly, Nietzsche famously commented at the time that ‘God is dead’. O’Rourke then gave another example from the 18th century, Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. The etching emphasized the interest in madness following the Enlightenment period, and was indicative of how established structures lost their meaning for people, thereby driving them to madness.
Examples from Géricault’s series of portraits of the insane, whose subjects avert their eyes from the viewer, followed next. These portraits represented a new understanding of madness as ‘a state of radical privacy’. Lastly, O’Rourke concluded with examples from Georgia O’Keeffe, whose act of putting art into the world was a symptom of her madness. She stated that for O’Keeffe, art was something personal, and putting it on display is synonymous with losing control of what belongs to you, for the artwork shared is witnessed by a world which may not see the same meaning and emotion within it as the artist does. Consequently, your art becomes completely detached from the self and, therefore, reflecting art into the world is to bring madness upon oneself.
As a whole, the event was fantastic. The artwork exhibited was very good at expressing mental health issues, but it also provided a way to empathise with people and to understand what it might be like for someone to experience serious mental health problems. The lecture given later on helped to provide a certain understanding of madness and how it has been portrayed throughout the history of art. Overall, it was a great way to spend my Monday evening, as I explored and delved deeper into my madness in the best way I could: by surrounding myself with art and sharing a collective experience with people on their different journeys.
Photographs were either sourced from the Introspect facebook page or taken by Ipek Kozanoglu.