Reflections: Art, Life and Love | Artists and the Mind

In this episode we hear from a number of people discussing the ways in which art and creativity are linked to our mental health. Art can provide respite in difficult times; it can be a way of expressing something difficult to articulate with words, or as Picasso put it; “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

When art meets psychiatry

Nick Tromans, author of The Artist and the Asylum, gives an introduction to the life story of one of Britain’s most promising young artists, Richard Dadd (1817-1886).

Dadd’s career began in a very promising way; by his early twenties he was selling and exhibiting works and was seen as the strong leader of ‘The Clique’, a posse of young English male artists. Sadly it became obvious on the return journey from a huge painting trip abroad that Dadd was suffering from a severe mental illness. While visiting Rome, he believed the Pope needed murdered and had many disturbing conspiracy theories about those in power.

Although Dadd’s father stood by him, he was murdered by his son during a walk in Kent. Dadd had arranged a passport in advance for his escape afterwards and prepared a change of clothes – the knife attack was clearly premeditated.

Tromans explains that there was a predisposition to mental illness in Dadd’s family; his brother and sister also lived in mental asylums. Dadd was someone who took great interest in literary characters with madness and during his stay in Bethlem asylum (now the site of the Imperial War Museum), part of his ‘moral therapy’ involved him painting characters from Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I also found Dadd a very, very funny artist . . . maybe it’s a problem with me, but his works often make me laugh out loud,” says Tromans. Dadd’s sense of humour was sarcastic, often cruel and darkly pessimistic, but in his study of people just like himself who had failed, Tromans finds his approach refreshing and interesting, and one of the reasons why Dadd’s work remains popular today.

Richard Dadd Sir Alexander Morison, 1779 - 1866. Alienist 1852

Tromans describes the varying treatments for the criminally insane at the time, in particular the work of psychiatrist Alexander Morison, who was fascinated by what he called ‘the physiognomy of the insane’ and the facial expressions of mental patients. Dadd and Morison got on well, and Dadd painted a portrait of the physician, which is in the National Galleries of Scotland's collection.

Becky Howell, Librarian at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery tells us more about the portrait, titled ‘The Alienist’, or psychiatrist, as we’d call it now. It shows Morison dressed in black, looking sombre, with a Newhaven scene featuring fishwives in the background – the quintessential image of Scotland at the time. Morison became a patron, benefactor and mentor to Dadd and owned a massive collection of his work.

Creative arts and healthcare

Steve Hollingsworth is a visual artist who leads sensory workshops, using neon lights, video, sound and performance. He works for Artlink, an arts and disability charity that puts artists into daycare centres and hospitals, using art as a means to connect with people. He describes the various ways he uses art to, “congeal perceptions” and “thicken time”.

“For a lot of disabled people, the world moves at a very rapid rate, so fast they can’t grasp hold of it.” He created a ‘sensorium’ for one boy called Ben, allowing him to move a joystick and travel through space, changing sounds. “That gave him agency that he’d not had for a very long time. It increased his confidence and he really loves it. I really resist the word ‘therapy’, even though of course the work’s got therapeutic aspects, it’s really about the possibilities of art to change things.

“With Ben the work really became a catalyst. It was like dropping a stone in a pond and the ripples moved outwards . . . Ben was able to change his identity. . . Creative play is massively important to keep things open.”

Henry Coombes The Bedfords 2009 The Artist. Written & directed by Henry Coombes, Produced by Ciara Barry, A Brocken Spectre production

The episode finishes with some insights from the filmmaker and artist Henry Coombes, who has taught in prisons and trained as a therapist. He has recovered from obsessive compulsive disorder, which now informs his practice both as an artist and a therapist. He adapts various therapeutic tools to unlock creativity, explore potential and increase fluidity with groups he works with, allowing people to slow down, find more balance in their routine or find a ‘meta position’– the notion of standing outside yourself and critically look at what you’re doing.

Listen to the episode Art and the Mind from the series Reflections: Art, Life and Love now on the podcast provider of your choice.

Richard Dadd Sir Alexander Morison, 1779 - 1866. Alienist 1852
20 November 2019