Emily Kofsky

Personal struggles experienced by artists, such as physical disabilities, pain and mental instability have, in many cases, led to the creation of great masterpieces. The list of troubled artists is staggering, and spans all areas of art. In the case of physical disability, art is often used as a method of relief or therapy. For artist Frida Kahlo, painting was her way of expressing the physical pain she experienced each day as the result of a childhood accident. Prosopagnosia or “face blindness,” experienced by contemporary artist Chuck Close, has been the source of an ongoing theme throughout his work. Depression, schizophrenia, disease and multiple personality disorders have shaped artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Goya, influencing their painting styles and the subject matter of their work. A study done by Dr. Arnold Ludwig, a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky confirmed that there was a significantly higher prevalence of mental illness in individuals involved in creative pursuits than in other professions, such as business, public office, natural science, or the military [6]. Several authors, including Daniel Nettle of the Psychology in Behavior and Evolution Research Group at Newcastle University, have concluded that though a connection may exist between these two traits, it is not necessarily causal. “It is not hard to see how these symptoms might be loosely analogous to creative processes- drawing unusual connections or thinking in a unique way are hallmarks of the artistic mind. But the traits of creativity are not only descriptively similar to some of the side effects of mental illness – the neurological brain states are actually the same” [8]. For some artists, mental illness may be an advantage, allowing access to brain connections and visions that others cannot imagine.


Francisco Goya was a painter with a great expressive capacity. His work, which was carried out between the end of the Seventeenth and the beginning of the Eighteenth Century,
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Prateria di san Isidro - Francisco Goya
covered a period of more than 60 years, with a massive production, a wide range of subjects and numerous techniques, was clearly diverse. His work appears to be split into two periods: the first devoted to gaining recognition, often included tapestries and portraiture; the second was devoted to liberty, which was a result of war and rebellion in Spain. The second period was also influenced by the onset of a severe illness in 1792, possibly as a result of syphilis, from which he suffered from headaches, dizziness, tinnitus, hearing loss, as well as problems with his sight and paresis in the right arm. This was followed by a state of depression, hallucinations, delirium, and a gradual loss of weight. By April 1793 he was permanently deaf [4]. This period following his illness is characterized by paintings of horror and ghosts occurring more frequently than earlier in his career. Goya’s San Isidro Pilgrimage
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San Isidro Pilgrimage - Francisco Goya
created in 1820, depicting a procession made up of men and women singing with their mouths wide open, their eyes looking upwards through their mask-like faces is particularly disturbing when compared to an earlier painting Prateria di San Isidro created in 1788 which is full of joy and light. Subjects similar to San Isidro Pilgrimage were considerably more typical of Goya following his illness.



A prominent feature of van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night” is the yellow aura surrounding each star. Paul Wolf, a Clinical professor of pathology at the University of California articulates two theories as to why van Gogh may have used so much yellow. His use of absinthe, an alcoholic beverage containing thujone which was popular amongst French artists for its mind-altering
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The Starry Night - Vincent van Gogh
properties, may have caused him to see all objects with a yellow hue. However, investigations conducted in 1991 showed that a person must drink 182 liters of absinthe to produce this visual effect, so we can probably disregard this theory. Second, and more likely, involves overmedication with digitalis. People treated with large and repeated doses of this drug often see the world with a yellow-green tint, or yellow spots surrounded by halos, similar to those seen in “The Starry Night.” Paul- Ferdinand Gachet may have treated van Gogh’s epilepsy with digitalis. In a portrait painted by
van Gogh, Gachet holds a stem of Digitalis pursuera, the purple fox glove from which the drug is extracted [8].
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Portrait of Dr. Gachet - Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh may have also had manic depression. “In manic-depressive artists, periods of mania are often associated with increased excitability, inspiration, and massive output” [6]. These emotions translate into more daring, large-scale, or uninhibited pieces. “The manic artist may feel unfettered from societal expectations and norms, more confident in his most far-fetched ideas; at the same time, the energy of mania can help the artist focus and complete an enormous amount in a short period of time” [6]. At the age of 27, van Gogh began his pursuit of art. Within the next ten years, “feverish creativity alternated with episodes of listlessness to the point of exhaustion" [2]. By the time van Gogh died at the age of 37 in 1890 he had created thousands of works.


The work of Frida Kahlo is easily recognizable by the often gruesome and emotional subject matter. At the age of 6, Kahlo’s body was weakened and deformed when she contracted polio. As a teenager, she narrowly escaped death in a streetcar accident when a metal handrail pierced and disfigured her body, causing significant damage to her spinal column and pelvic organs [5].
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The Broken Column - Freda Kahlo
It was after the accident that she began to paint to relieve the boredom during her rehabilitation. Her challenges with phys
ical and emotional health continued into adulthood as she struggled with chronic pain, infertility, and depression. Kahlo’s poor health and pain inevitably became prominent themes in her artwork [1]. By depicting the emotions surrounding her traumatic accident and following medical complications, Kahlo painted experiences that people could recognize and relate to: feeling pain, being hospitalized, and fearing isolation. In the painting “Broken Column,” Kahlo portrays the effect on her body of the injuries sustained in the streetcar accident. She offers her body for study by exposing her skin and revealing her spinal column. With metal nails sticking into her body she conveys the sharp and prolonged nature of her pain. Later in life, Kahlo developed gangrene of the right leg, which eventually required an amputation. Though she had experienced terrible pain in her right leg, the amputation devastated Kahlo. In her personal diary, she illustrated herself as a one-legged figure and wrote, “I am DISINTEGRATION” [1]. Overcome by depression and the disfigurement of her body, Kahlo attempted to commit suicide on several occasions. Kahlo exposes her physical injuries and emotional suffering so that we may understand her life and challenges. “Yet, among the many dozens of paintings in her body of artwork, Kahlo never painted the streetcar accident that wounded her teenage body. According to Herrera, “the accident was too ‘complicated’ and ‘important’ to reduce to a simple comprehensible image" [5]. Though memories of the accident were too traumatizing for Kahlo to revisit, she found strength and release in painting the other painful memories of her life.



"Everything about my work is driven by my disabilities" [7]. Chuck Close has prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness. "He can see the parts of the face perfectly well — the nose, eyes, forehead and so on — but he cannot put the parts together into a pattern that leaves an impression on his memory" [3]. This condition is the reason he began painting portraits. Once a face is converted into a two-dimensional object, he can commit it to memory. Close is best known for his monumental portraits created from a photograph taken of the subject's face. He divides the photograph and the canvas into a grid containing the same number of squares and fills the squares, which resemble computer pixels, with circles, ovals, and other shapes containing carefully layered colors. The process allows him to combine his love of abstract art with the photorealism of his first portraits. With this technique he creates enormous faces that change in detail and complexity depending on the distance from which they are viewed [7]. Close had to alter this signature photo-realistic style after 1988 when, at the age of 48, he became paralyzed from the chest down due to a collapsed or occluded artery supplying blood to his spinal cord. After months of therapy he regained some use of his hands and arms, but he lost some of the fine motor control of his hands and had to
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Big Self Portrait - Chuck Close
resort to slightly larger
"pixels" filled with slightly less detailed shapes. Though paralysis was traumatizing, it also seemed to produce a fierce determination to continue creating art. Today Close wheels around his studio in lower Manhattan in an electric wheelchair, and works on giant canvases mounted on an electric easel that lifts and rotates with the push of a button. He wears a brace that supports his
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Self Portrait I, 2009 - Chuck Close
paintbrush and allows his weakened hands to do whatever he wants [7].



Some of the greatest artistic creations in history have come from the tortured minds and bodies of artists. They must adapt to major traumas and disabilities and overcome pain and suffering to produce masterpieces that others can relate to and be inspired by, while they are all the time altering and adjusting their technique to accommodate their changing conditions.



Sources
[1] Antelo, Fernando, MD. "Pain and the Paintbrush: The Life and Art of Frida Kahlo." Virtual Mentor. American Medical Association, May 2013. Web. 02 June 2014. <http://virtualmentor.ama-assn.org/2013/05/imhl1-1305.html>.
[2] Blumer, Dietrich, M.D. "CME Activity." The Illness of Vincent Van Gogh. American Psychiatric Association, 1 Apr. 2002. Web. 02 June 2014. <http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=175449>.
[3] "Face Blindness: When Everyone Is a Stranger." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 02 June 2014. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/face-blindness-when-everyone-is-a-stranger-20-03-2012/4/>.
[4] Felisati, D., and G. Sperati. "Goya’s Art and His Ill Health." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 05 Oct. 2010. Web. 02 June 2014. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3040580/>.

[5] "Frida Kahlo." Frida Kahlo. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/portraits/frida_kahlo.htm>.

[6] Neuroscience, Stanford Journal Of. "Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the “Tortured Artist”." Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the “Tortured Artist” 1.1 (2001). Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, 1 June 2014. Web. <http://www.stanford.edu/group/co-sign/Sussman.pdf>.

[7] Valeo, Tom. "Noted Photographer Chuck Close Transcends His Face Blindness." Tampa Bay Times. Noted Photographer Chuck Close Transcends His Face Blindness, 26 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 June 2014. <http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/visualarts/noted-photographer-chuck-close-transcends-his-face-blindness/1271738>.

[8] Wolf, Paul. "Creativity and Chronic Disease Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)." Wjm. Western Journal of Medicine, Nov. 2001. Web.