I posted a few weeks ago about Gericault’s portraits of the mentally ill and the somewhat ridiculous notion in his time that a patient could be diagnosed based on facial features. Gericault’s portraits provided the “diagnostic material.” So we, the viewers, were looking in on supposedly tell tale signs of mental illness. But what about the other way around?
The tie between creativity and mental illness is a longstanding, if debatable, perception. Today I want to look at two artists, Martin Ramirez and Louis Wain, in a discussion of whether or not we can see signs of an artist’s mental illness in their work.
Ramirez was a twentieth century “outsider artist.” This means he was self-taught, and to this day his art is considered one of the best examples of outsider art. One of the most interesting things about his pieces is that most of them were produced from mental institutions in California. Ramirez was diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. However, his art has led some scholars to debate the diagnosis. In a 2008 article in the New York Times, Brooke Davis Anderson, a curator at the Folk Art Museum, says:
That diagnosis does stick to him…But he wasn’t afraid of white space at all, His reliance on motifs and animals indicate a more sane and less mentally ill part of Mr. Ramírez. There’s great diversity in the decorative palate, composition and scale.
As you can see, Ramirez is quite skilled at using patterns, white space, and regularity in his artwork. I tend to disagree with Anderson and others’ assessments that this is proof of a greater degree of sanity. Cathy Malchiodi, writing a follow up to the New York Times article in Psychology Today, argues:
…while some tenuous connections have been made, more often it’s difficult at best to link specific characteristics in drawings or paintings to a diagnostic category.
I would be willing to argue that, perhaps like Van Gogh, Ramirez’s visual art was his only outlet for logic, reason, and yes, even sanity. Anderson’s quote also veers into dangerous territory in proposing that only the sane can make artwork that “follows the rules.”
If Martin Ramirez’s work supposedly proves his sanity, then Louis Wain’s art proves his insanity. Wain was an English artist working in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He achieved fame with his whimsical drawings of anthropomorphic cats. In the early 1900s, he began to suffer from delusions, paranoia, and other symptoms of Schizophrenia. His later work (see above), is characterized by colorful, abstract patterns and large eyed cats. Some scholars have argues that this repetition of patterns (again with the patterns!) is indicative of his mental illness. Dr. Michael Fitzgerald argued that Wain more likely had Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of Autism. The backgrounds might be a sign of Visual Agnosia, a disorder in which someone cannot recognize or draw common objects, or in some cases recognize colors. It is sometimes a symptom of Asperger’s Syndrome.
Still, others dispute claims that Wain’s illness was represented in his art, arguing that he was just depicting popular wallpaper and fabric designs of the time. Wain went back to producing more conventional pieces even after his “crazy cats,” so perhaps his abstract patterns were just an artistic period. If a healthy artist had shown the same trajectory in his work, would he be accused of mental deterioration? Perhaps if Ramirez’s work is an outlet for reason, some of Wain’s work is an outlet for fantasy.
It is impossible to know the truth behind Ramirez’s, Wain’s, and any other mentally ill artist’s work. What I do know is that it’s useless, much like judging Gericault’s insane subjects, to use art as diagnostic criteria or the indication of illness.