How Depression Affects Artists: Depression as Noted in the Works of Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh
When Mental illness breeds artistic production, sufferers of mental illness may be less likely to get help or see themselves as ill. Many authors have promoted a connection between creativity and mental illness. However, limited scientific evidence exists to support the association of creativity with mental illness. Despite this, Many great artists throughout history have suffered with mental illness and depression whether temporary or chronically. In this research paper, I will be focusing Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, two of the many artists who are known for suffering bouts of depression and depicting it in their works. I will explore how mental illness and depression effected both the life and work of these two world renowned artists.
Since a young age, Pablo Picasso was recognized for his artistic talent. At 13, he produced his first oil paintings, and began selling his work on a small scale. That same year, Picasso’s seven-year-old sister died tragically, and his family moved to Barcelona. It was here where Picasso attended the School of Fine Arts, after impressively completing a rigorous entrance exam in only a week’s time. Picasso’s adolescence was a turbulent period. [Gedo (1980)] Picasso’s “separation conflicts” can be traced back to the birth of his sister Lola, and a earthquake that occurred in Malaga when he was only 3 years old. Traumatic events during Picasso’s childhood including the earthquake and the later death of his sister Conchita, when he was 13, had on unconscious effect on Picasso’s Later art. (Blum p. 268)
Picasso’s Blue Period
At age 20, Picasso moved to Paris with Carles Casegemus, a friend and poet he’d grown close with in Barcelona. Casegemus, became romantically involved with a Parisian prostitute, and spiraled into a manic state, ultimately shooting her and himself. The woman lived through the incident, however, Casegemus died of his self-inflicted injury. (Kavanaugh, 1995; O’Brian, 1975). Overcome with grief and haunted by the aloneness he encountered for the first time in his life, Picasso would begin to paint the despairing characters of what came to be known as his “Blue Period” (Crespelle, 1967). Picasso’s Blue period is sometimes attributed to the death of his close friend Carlos Caseagemas, who he shared a Studio with in Barcelona. They had both moved to Paris together. After they returned to Barcelona, Casagamas went back to Paris by himself to be with his girlfriend Germaine. In Paris he committed suicide in 1901 after threatening to murder his girlfriend Germaine. Picasso did not attend Casagames funeral , and despite mourning for his friend , he went on to have an affair with Casagame’s girlfriend Germaine. (Blum 272 – 273) According to Blum, Picasso’s paintings of Casagmeas’ death were painted many months after his suicide, which indicate that the death of Casagemas was not a major cause of the start of the Blue period (Blum 273). However, Casagames death may have contributed to Picasso’s depression.
Picasso’s 1901 painting, The Death of Casagemas, marked the beginning of this period, as well as illustrated the pain, guilt, and other struggles that would give rise to many of his later works. Many of Picasso’s Blue Period works deal both directly and allegorically with the conflicts of mortality, human suffering, and pain. During this time he created monochromatic paintings of people considered to be outcasts: drunks, beggars, prostitutes, artists, and those struggling with the pressures of everyday life, especially the blind. While Picasso pursued his unique artistic path in his Blue period, he drew inspiration from the works of other masters, such as Cezanne, Gaugin, Lautrec, Van Gogh, Munch, and others. Picasso’s inner reactions of grief, loss and loneliness were expressed in his melancholic blue compositions. (Blum 270) “His melancholic mood, related both to separation conflict and the current realities of his uprooted life and emerging career, was expressed in his painting of emaciated, despondent figures, the predominance of monochromatic blue, and his choice of social outcasts as subjects,” stated Harold P. Blum in his paper, Picasso’s Prolonged Adolescence, Blue Period, and Blind Figures. Blum attributed Picasso’s Blue Period art as “his projection on canvas of attempts to master his own mourning and melancholia, alienation, and bitterness during his stressful protracted late adolescence (Blum 271).”
Blindness is a key theme of the Blue period paintings, and blind figures played an important role in his works. Blind figures are the main focus in Blue Period paintings such as “The Old Guitarist” (1903), “The Blind Man’s Meal” (1903 ), and “La Celstina” (1904). The depiction of Blind subjects speaks to Picasso’s dark and disturbing mental state. It Is ironic and unsettling that a visual artist, dependent on sight, choose to depict Blind subjects. (Blum 275) The blind figured are used a device to evoke compassion, pity and sadness from the audience, as they do not share the misfortune. (Blum 275)
Many art historians have pondered why Blindness was so important to Picasso. Perhaps he identified with the unfortunate individuals he painted.(Ravin JG, Perkins J. 637) As Picasso never discussed why Blindness was such an important theme in his work, Psychoanalytic Methodologies have been attempted to explain this phenomena. The psychiatrist Carl Jung saw “incipient psychic dissociation” and even schizophrenia in Picasso’s paintings.[7-] Blindness is a most serious problem for a painter (Ravin JG, Perkins J. 637) Despite years of critical commentary on the subject the meaning of blindness in his works are still unclear.
In “The Old Guitarist” (1903), and “The Blind Man’s Meal” (1903 ) the blindness, or visual impairment of the subjects serves as a device to highlight the strength of their other senses. Because the figures are blind, it can be inferred that their other senses are more accurate. However, in the Article “Representations of Blindness in Picasso’s Blue Period” Ravin JG, and Perkins J. argue that Picasso elongated forms of his figures in these paintings to emphasize other senses, particularly their long thin hands. For instance, In “The Old Guitarist” (1903) the figure is using his elongated hands to directly create music and express himself through an artistic outlet. Even though he is blind he able to express himself creatively. Perhaps Picasso found strength in the Blind, as they have had to overcome adversity that the rest of us in the sighted world do not face. Perhaps Picasso was suggesting that the blind are able to interact with their environments in a much more powerful and meaningful way than those who can see.
In the summer of 1901, Picasso visited the women’s prison of Soint-Lozore. The prison was squalid, and a breeding ground for venereal diseases, from which many of the inmates suffered. Picasso’s experience there is known to have provoked many of his Blue Period paintings, such as Mother and Child (1901), and Buveuse assoupie (Sleeping Drinker) (1902). Both pieces (see below) feature lonely, hopeless women. The contorted bodies of the subjects, along with the shadowy, blue-gray pallets used, suggest the hardship and turmoil that characterized their everyday lives.
Other paintings, like Woman Ironing (1901), show destitute subjects performing mundane tasks. Scholars have suggested that Picasso used these works to respond to another issue that dogged him during his youth: the maltreatment of the working class during the industrial revolution.
In Picasso’s most celebrated painting from the Blue Period, however, he returns to the plight of the artist. La Vie (Life) (1903) brings us into an artist’s studio. While earlier versions of the painting, locked beneath the final work and revealed by X-rays, show Picasso as the central figure, in the end he depicted Casagemas as his subject. He is naked except for a loincloth as a nude woman clutches him, and the two look over at a mother and child. Behind them sit two canvases covered with crouching bodies.
Every element of the scene conveys vulnerability. The artist brings different facets of his troubles into a single canvas: poverty, dejection, creative anguish, and grief for those lost, like Casagemas. Interestingly, those X-rays have also revealed that the painting was executed on top of an earlier work called Last Moments, inspired by his sister’s death. Perhaps, in bringing these various instances of heartbreak together, Picasso was also in the final stages of processing his grief. Indeed, soon after the artist finished La Vie, he moved to Paris and emerged from his Blue Period into a palette of soft, joyful pinks. “Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions,” Picasso later explained.
Van Gogh’s Mental Illness
Vincent Van Gogh is another prime example of an artist who struggled with depression and mental illness. Van Gogh’s psychological issues were not simply a phase in his life, he suffered from chronic depression and mental illness throughout his life, and was considered a madman. Unlike Picasso, he was not a successful artist during his life. Vincent Van Gogh was thought to be epileptic by his doctor at the time, as mental illness was not known to the medical field during this time period. Van Gogh reportedly suffered from auditory and visual hallucinations. Van Gogh was reportedly very self-aware of his mental health issues. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh noted that “many contemporary artists suffered from epilepsy and mental illness.” (Sheon, Aaron; An Artist’s Illness p. 31) The Man of Genius, A book published at the time, suggested that epilepsy among geniuses was so common that it might be requirement for artistic achievement. (Sheon, Aaron; An Artist’s Illness p. 31)