Psychologists have long been fascinated by the tentative link between mental health and creativity. It’s no secret that some of the most famous artists of all time were plagued with delusions and hallucinations, and to this day we see news stories of artists and performers in the public eye struggling with their mental health, and sometimes taking their own lives.
The pattern seems to go back a long way. In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh famously cut off his ear after an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin. He committed suicide two years later in 1890.
“I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me,” he wrote in a letter to his brother a couple of years before his death. “Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… At times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”
Edvard Munch, who painted one of the most iconic and widely recognised masterpieces of the 19th century, also had his demons. After painting “The Scream,” he said the idea came to him in a vision, where the “sky turned blood red.”
“I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired,” he wrote. “Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”
Experts believe the painting represents the anxiety of man, coupled with Munch’s internal torment, which fueled his art. In 1908, Munch wrote how his condition was “verging on madness,” and it was “touch and go,” so he entered electrification therapy for hallucinations and feelings of persecution.
The ‘tortured’ or ‘starving’ artist
“We’ve got a whole bunch of tortured artists,” psychologist Perpetua Neo told Business Insider, speaking on the proposed link between mental illness and creativity. “A lot of them draw on their tortured selves to create meaning and create art.”
Artists can be pretty unhappy people, she said, and they are often quite honest about that fact. “But at the same time, as a psychologist, I would ask if perhaps they need to believe, to create their identity, to be an artist with a tortured soul.”
It ties in with the idea of the “starving artist,” where people sacrifice their wellbeing in order to focus on their art — living on minimum expenses, spending whatever they have on their art projects.
“If you’re always going to be that way and take it as your identity, you’re going to make choices that lead you down that road,” Neo said. “There’s this idea, this perception, that I don’t know how to manage money, I’m bad at this, I don’t know how to be commercial. And of course, if you think that, you’re going to stay there that way.”
With the tortured artist identity, they may believe their creativity is a form of therapy, to create a fantastical kind of world to the real one we live in.
But if that therapy starts to not work anymore, what happens then? Is that why Virginia Woolf swam into the middle of a river and drowned herself? Is it why Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven, while her children slept in the next room?
“This therapy only has a certain kind of effect,” Neo said. “After they create this art, they still feel a bit lost, then obviously there’s a limit to how much this art will help them.”