Mahnoor Ali

Since there has been human existence, there has been emotion. Since there has been emotion, there has been the need to express it. This expression is called art. Tragedy, suffering, happiness, love, loss, and pain: these are all themes in emotional art, and have all been expressed throughout history.

However, since ancient times, the birth of civilizations, to the so-called medieval times, to the Renaissance and what ever it was that followed after, art, for the most part, served patronage. Examples of patronage include commissions by an aristocrat, a royal family, or even the church and other ruling bodies within a community. It was only around the mid-nineteenth century that artists began to take control of their work. Painters started to go against Salons, international styles, and any other predetermined ideas of beauty. No longer did aesthetic appeals matter but, rather, the emotional and communicative aspect of art. This is the time that paintings (and other mediums) started to become satirical, shocking, and subjective. The reason for this is that art began to serve more purpose to the artist than to the viewer.

What led to this new purpose behind painting? Emotions. Specifically the dark, tormenting, and all consuming emotions. You Can’t Spell Paint without Pain explores the artists known for such emotional art.

It is not to say that artists had no feelings before movements such as impressionism, post-impressionism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, and so on, but it was not until people began to see art as an outlet that iconic and relatable artists stepped up to the paintbrush and had at it on the canvas. The “tortured artist” has become a cliché today, a rather romanticized one, but it bears meaning to its phrase. Notably the most famous of this kind of artists were Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch. While van Gogh painted lighthearted pieces to channel his depressive state, Edvard Munch created more delirious works to symbolize his repressed anxiety and mental anguish. To be even more abstract was Jackson Pollock, the notorious alcoholic who paved the way for action painting with his drip and splash method. Amongst the most shocking, as far as representation of the human body goes, were the works of Egon Schiele and Francis Bacon. Both having been raised in countries either suffering the aftermath of war or the slow beginning of one, Schiele and Bacon expressed agonizing distortion of male and female figures. Also harboring ugly wartime memories was Joseph Beuys, best known for his highly symbolic and questionable performance art. Another haunted ex-soldier with a distinct, gruesome style in painting people was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Since the birth of personal and emotional art in the middle to end of the nineteenth century, that is all art has become- personal. Painting, performing, drawing, what ever else, is now the creative outlet for voicing pain, anxiety, calamity, trauma, and heartbreak. For what better way is there to explicit such woeful and vehement feelings? To take pain and suffering from inside and pour it out on to a canvas and leave it there is to be a true artist.


Edvard Munch ~ The Scream ~ 1893 pastel on cardboard
Edvard Munch ~ The Scream ~ 1893 pastel on cardboard
The story goes that Edvard Munch was on an evening stroll with some friends one day when suddenly he felt a sharp,excruciating cry come through nature. Being a true artist and acting on impulse, he immediately created the first of four versions of The Scream.


Munch was born in Norway in 1863 to ill-fated parents. At the age of five his mother passed away from tuberculosis, leaving his mentally ill father to parent Munch and his siblings. Munch’s father played a major role in his son’s development, both as a person and an artist. It can be inferred that Munch’s extreme anxiety and manic tendencies came from his father instilling in him deep fears of hell and other things. This is perhaps why all of Munch’s works explore human fears such as death, jealousy, and anxiety. (1)

The Scream has gone down in history, and pop culture, as a painting portraying anxiety. It is symbolic of uncertainty and the horror one feels in response to uncertainty. The figure expressing ghoulish agony is sexless and basically faceless in respects to human features and familiarity. That is precisely what makes The Scream so sympathetic and easy to relate to. The viewer can just feel the panic Munch must have felt on that sun-setting stroll when he received the vision that led him to make this piece. (2)
Edvard Munch ~ Evening on Karl Johan [Street] ~ 1892 oil on canvas
Edvard Munch ~ Evening on Karl Johan [Street] ~ 1892 oil on canvas


Another plainly creepy and gloomy piece is Evening on Karl Johan Street. Maintaining the theme of uncertainty, Munch painted this piece to express isolation. On the left side of the painting is a ghostly crowd approaching the view, but more importantly walking away from the background, which every aspect of this painting seems to lead the viewer’s eyes to. On the other side however, is a sole figure with his back to the viewer, facing the direction everyone else seems to be fleeing. Each figure is clad in a long black coat and hat, suggesting a mournful attitude. Could this be Munch commenting on death? The crowd could symbolize the attitude of most people that prefer not to talk or think about death. The lone figure, metaphorically facing this grave topic, could be Munch’s way of saying perhaps people ought to welcome the inevitable idea of death.

Egon Schiele ~ Self-Portrait ~ 1911 watercolor, gouache, graphite on paper
Egon Schiele ~ Self-Portrait ~ 1911 watercolor, gouache, graphite on paper
Egon Schiele is like no other artist. Well, except for Gustav Klimt, but that’s on a different topic.
Identified by his extremely sexual and distorted interpretations of both men and women, and sometimes children, it is no doubt Schiele was a tortured soul. (3)

Born in Austria in 1890, Schiele wanted to pursue art from a young age. His parents did not approve. Schiele grew up in a family that did not support him and his artistic interest whatsoever. When he was a teenager, Schiele’s father passed away from syphilis, implementing in Schiele long-lasting trauma and scornful depictions of sexuality in his work. As an adult Schiele, more than once, was accused of, arrested for, and even charged with exploiting young girls and exposing them to sexual content in his studio. This was because early in his career he would use younger models for his drawings and paintings. A bad reputation like that kept Schiele on the move from city to city constantly. For a brief period he was even drafted in to the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, which added to his dark young life, soon to influence his art even further. (10)

One of hundreds, Self-Portrait is Schiele’s commentary on the horrors of sexuality. Like a great deal of his work, he uses himself as a model, and leaves out hands and genitals from the figure. This exclusion suggests Schiele’s disdain towards being sexually active. Losing his father to syphilis and the grief he went through is best shown in this particular piece.


Joseph Beuys ~ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (photograph) ~ 26 November 1965
Joseph Beuys ~ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (photograph) ~ 26 November 1965


Born in Germany in 1921, Joseph Beuys was amongst many artists who caused, and continue to cause, critics and audiences alike to beg the question. “Is that supposed to be art?”

But first, one cannot mention Beuys’s name without telling his wartime rescue story. Being a pacifist, yet also a German youth during the Nazi Reign, Beuys was forced in to the Hitler Youth Movement as a teenager. To avoid being drafted, Beuys voluntarily enrolled in the air force. One day in March of 1944, his plane was shot down in Ukraine. What happened afterwards- according to Beuys and no one else- was that a small group of Tartar tribesmen saved him by covering his body with animal fat and wrapping him in felt in order to warm him up. There are witnesses that say this did not happen and it is also known that no Tartar tribe was around that region of the plane crash, but Beuys stuck to this story. (And why shouldn’t he?)(11)

The reason this story is at all significant, if not purely fascinating, is because it explains why Beuys used animal fat, both solid and liquid, and felt material so often in his art.

His most famous performance piece, How To Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare was conducted in a locked, glass-windowed shop in Dresden. Beuys covered his face with honey and gold leaf, to symbolize life and wealth, and put an iron plate on one foot and felt on the other. The felt was a symbol of protection and the iron a “conductor of invisible energies.” Then, for the duration of the performance Beuys walked around cradling the carcass of a hare, whispering hear and there.(11)

Beuys's experience with war shaped his life and art afterwards. As his artistic career progressed, his work became more and more politically charged. Works such as the Dead Hare showcased his obsession with the fragility of life and death, and the link between the dead and the living.

Francis Bacon ~ Head VI ~ 1949 oil on canvas
Francis Bacon ~ Head VI ~ 1949 oil on canvas

There is absolutely no doubt about how tortured, yet complexly creative Francis Bacon must have been judging from any number of his paintings or lithographs. Born in Dublin in 1909 during the beginning of the Irish Nationalist movement, his father was part of the War Office, and military forces of some kind constantly surrounded his family. One challenge he faced came in 1926 when his father kicked him out for being a homosexual. This lead to Bacon travelling to London, Berlin, and Paris, where he actually discovered his sexuality even further. Around this time he became interested in art. Another artist growing up in a wartime environment and dealing with personal struggle, Bacon made works that explored odd views of human figures, often charged with agony and despair. (4)

Head VI is a painting that depicts a man trapped in a clear box, screaming out in to the void. This very well suggests that Bacon himself is the man in the painting, possibly wanting to come out from being trapped, and express his identity. Actually one of the first of many screaming portraits to come, Head VI was inspired by Velazquez’s paintings of Pope Innocent X.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner ~ Self-Portrait as a Soldier ~ 1915 oil on canvas
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner ~ Self-Portrait as a Soldier ~ 1915 oil on canvas

Born in 1880 Germany, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner can be recognized by his bright use of color in rather nightmarish depictions of people. Though always having painted emotionally expressive pieces, it was not until later in his life that Kirchner began to paint fear and anxiety. This fear and anxiety was caused by World War I. Not wanting to be drafted for harder positions, Kirchner volunteered to be the driver of artillery. To his relief, Kirchner was declared unfit for service due to health issues and overall weakness.

The reason Kirchner had such bitter feelings about the war and being involved, was that he feared for his artistic ability and humanity. He was afraid the war would corrupt him and destroy his ability to create. Such desperate feelings can be seen in Self-Portrait as a Soldier. Kirchner painted himself without hands and only a bloody stump in its place. He is adorned in German uniform, but with distant, almost lost blue eyes. In the background is a nude female, who Kirchner would normally be fascinated with and paint in his earlier career, but in this he seems to be unmoved by her presence.

Vincent van Gogh ~ The Starry Night ~ 1989 oil on canvas
Vincent van Gogh ~ The Starry Night ~ 1989 oil on canvas

Now on to probably the most famous tortured romantic, tragic, pitiful soul: Vincent van Gogh. At this point his life is common knowledge because of the cultural- and international- fascination with his woeful experience. Today doctors can determine th
at van Gogh suffered from manic depression, but during his lifetime he was terribly misunderstood. Being addicted to absinthe and painting, van Gogh moved around a lot, often due to poverty and being shunned by society. Then there is the cutting - of - the - ear story, his sympathetic brother Theo, and his slow suicide in the hayfield.

Being credited as the innovator of post-expressionism, van Gogh poured his feelings and thoughts in to his paintings. The Starry Night is van Gogh’s commentary on death and the heavens. The cypress tree rises from the ground to meet the gleaming stars as a way to represent ascension. The brightest star is thought to be Venus, goddess of love. Van Gogh painted this master piece from the asylum he stayed in shortly before his death.(7)
Vincent van Gogh ~ The Potato Eaters ~ 1885 oil on canvas
Vincent van Gogh ~ The Potato Eaters ~ 1885 oil on canvas


The Potato Eaters, one of van Gogh’s earliest pieces, reflects harsh reality, poverty, and gloom. Through the faces seated around a table in a dimly lit, cramped room the viewer feels cramped and dreadful himself. The colors in particular are what give this piece its gloomy effect. Van Gogh maintained earth tones of brown and dingy green, even through the dirt glow coming from the figures' faces.

Jackson Pollock ~ The Deep ~ 1953 oil on canvas
Jackson Pollock ~ The Deep ~ 1953 oil on canvas

Jackson Pollock is infamous today, also was during his lifetime, for being an alcoholic with a bad temper and unique way of action painting. Almost as well-known as his car-crash death are his untitled, numbered, and enormous splatter paintings. These paintings were not just random drips and drops, but actually his troubled emotions portrayed on canvas.

A more meaningful piece of Pollock’s is The Deep. Like his other famous paintings, this one is dictated completely by color. The stark white and black symbolize purity and joy, and mourning and death. The gray created by the mixing of the two represents nothingness- the immobile state between white and black.

It would be worthwhile to go back and try clicking on a few of the pictures.



Works Consulted


1. "Edvard Munch and His Paintings." //Edvard Munch.// N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2015.
2. Lubow, Arthur. "Edvard Munch: Beyond The Scream." //Smithsonian.// Smithsonian Magazine, Mar. 2006. Web. 07 June 2015
3. "Egon Schiele Biography, Art, and Analysis of Work." //The Art Story.// The Art Story Modern Art Insight, n.d. Web. 07 June 2015.
4. "Francis Bacon Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works." //The Art Story.// The Art Story Modern Art Insight, n.d. Web. 07 June 2015.
5. "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Biography - Infos - Art Market." //Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Biography - Infos - Art Market.// N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2015.
6. "Expressionist Art." //Kirchner_SelfPortrait.// Oberlin College, n.d. Web. 07 June 2015.
7. "Vincent Van Gogh." //Bio.com.// A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 07 June 2015.
8. "Jackson Pollock and His Paintings." //Jackson Pollock.// N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2015.
9. "Egon Schiele." //- Paintings, Biography, and Quotes of.// N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2015
10. "Joseph Beuys Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works." //The Art Story//. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2015