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Mental illness in art.

Posted Oct 22 2008 6:15pm

The British Journal of Psychiatry has a collection of pages of art from the Royal College of Psychiatry's
">"Psychiatry in Pictures"
project, which is just what it sounds like, art about mental illness. Following are some of the pieces included in the project that in one way or another illuminate, depict, or comment upon panic and anxiety.


This one is by a Sri Lankan artist named Sujith Rathnayake, who produced a bunch of art along these lines when he entered a psychiatric hospital after the terrible tsunami at the end of 2004. I categorically do not want to co-opt someone else's tragedy for my own purposes, but I don't have a problem saying that this piece's evocation of the sense of being overcome by forces you can't outrun really resonates with me. More.


This one's by an artist named Ian Palmer. Again with the "trapped" theme. Hello, agoraphobia! More.


This is "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," by Francisco de Goya. The more we learn about the brain processes involved in panic and anxiety, the more it appears that a version of this -- the "sleep" of reason, or the inability of the "executive function" areas of the brain to calm the brain's more primitive fear centers (see the bottom of this post for a more detailed look at this) -- is central to anxiety and panic. More.


This one's by a then-11-year-old ADHD patient named Darcy Easton. "The Scream" is pretty much the Mona Lisa of anxiety-related art, and it's interesting to note how many plays on that famous painting there are floating around. More.


"Number 15 Digital Cry" is by Steve Blundell, and depicts his experience of depression. See what I mean about "The Scream"? More.


"The Maze" is by William Kurelek. In the author's words:

The subject, seen as a whole, is of a man (representing me) lying on a barren plain before a wheatfield, with his head split open. The point of view is from the top of his head. The subject is then roughly divided into the left hand side of the picture, with the thoughts made in his head represented as a maze; and the right hand side, the view of the rest of his body. The hands and feet are seen through the eyes, nose and mouth, tapering off into the distance and the outside world. The Maze. An exitless one, it occupies and divides the inside of the cranium into groups of thoughts, the passageways being calculated to do the grouping. The white rat curled up in the central cavity represents my Spirit (I suppose). He is curled up with frustration from having run the passages so long without hope of escaping out of this maze of unhappy thoughts. Outside World. Grasshoppers and drought (sun before the clouds) represent the mercilessness of Nature, which bankrupted my father, a farmer, and brought out of him the cornered beast. The thorny, stony ground is a kind of T.S. Eliot Wasteland — spiritual and cultural barrenness: the pile of excrement with flies on it represents my view of the world and the people that live on it. The loosened red ribbon bound together the head of a T.S. Eliot Hollow Man, and was united by psychotherapy (Dr Cormier), but since the outside world is still unappealing, the rat remains inert. Before the head was opened, burrs (bitter experiences) choked the throat and pricked the sensitive underside of the tongue, and when it was opened the sawdust and shavings (tasteless education) spilled out from on top the tongue: mixed with the sawdust are symbols of (to me) equally tasteless Art, painting, literature and music. The burrs also represent, in the eye socket, the successive evaluations of my character by any friend during the process of acquaintance, all repellant but hopeful till the last, when the heart is discovered to be a grub. On the tongue and in the throat, the Kurelek family (big burrs produce little burrs), representing my father as the hard domineering blue burr opening up the mushy yellow burr, my mother, to release a common lot of burrs, my brothers and sisters, and one unique orange one — myself. The last burr, spearing culture, is I at the university. The inverted one is I as a child, trapped painfully between two aspects of my father, the one I hated and the one I worshipped.


If this post is up your alley, check out the series of PANIC! posts called "What fear looks like":
Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
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