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“The best ideas do not come from reason, but from a lucid, visionary madness.” (Erasmus of Rotterdam)
The interpretation of the condition of madness changes and is influenced depending on the historical period and, consequently, the prevailing culture of the time. In the classical world, the loss of self-consciousness was associated with divine possession. Many works declared or even pleaded for mystical inspiration. In the medieval period, the figure of the fool became the earthly personification of Evil, a being to be exorcised and purified in the name of God, the Supreme Good. It was only during the Renaissance that the perception of madness underwent a radical change: Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote an “In Praise of Folly” in which he affirmed that madness is inherent in man from birth as his inseparable life companion.
In psychology, the term ‘madness’ or ‘insanity’ denotes a psychological condition that identifies a lack of adaptation of the individual to the society in which they live, a loss of consciousness towards reality. This phenomenon, as declared by the neurologist Sigmund Freud, arises from the liberation of the unconscious from the chains of censorship. This condition manifests particularly through altered behavior and psychological states, which induce the subject into states of psychological suffering.
There is a process that activates specific cerebral mechanisms related to the “psychology of seeing,” which involves the emotional and aesthetic sphere of the subject who views the artwork. These mechanisms not only affect those who observe a painting but also the creative moment that fully involves the artist in the execution of their work. The artist’s work arises from the combination of their visual experience and their interpretation of what is happening in the surrounding context. Both the acquisition of visual information and its internal processing can be distorted by pathological causes. This is precisely what we aim to do in this article: to describe the stories of different artists whose artistic expressions have been altered by the emergence of different and deteriorating pathological states.
In most cases, a severe pathological condition can cause psychological alterations manifested through deep depression and a pessimistic view of reality. In the case of Michelangelo Buonarroti, depression was not related to organic causes but had a psychological origin and was subject to cyclical variations. An evident example of this illness that accompanied him in the last years of his life is the distorted portrait of Saint Bartholomew in “The Last Judgment”: Saint Bartholomew shows the judge the knife and the skin of martyrdom, within which Michelangelo painted a pained self-portrait.
As evidence of the connection between his private life and artistic production, he transferred some of his imperfections, such as the distorted nose, onto the face of the “Madonna of Manchester”:
Other artists were overcome by deep melancholy and depression, either due to purely psychological reasons or intoxication, particularly from lead, an element present in the pigments of colors at that time.
Francisco Goya was one of them: it is said that he prepared colors in a tub, collected them with sponges or rags, and then applied them to the canvas, giving characteristic brushstrokes with his thumb. It is known that lead encephalopathy causes brain damage leading to deafness and personality alterations. Initially, he was completely blocked in his artistic activity, but later he filled his canvases with nightmarish figures.
One of the most admired and beloved artists of the modern era, Vincent van Gogh, can perhaps be considered the quintessential “mad painter.” He died by suicide after being repeatedly admitted to psychiatric hospitals, suffering from hallucinations and epileptic attacks, and after mutilating his left ear, which he severed to give it to a prostitute. During these crises, he fell into deep depression, anxiety, and mental confusion that prevented him from working and likely led to self-mutilation and suicide. During one of these crises, he even threatened Gauguin’s life.
Different hypotheses have been put forward regarding the nature of his illness, which manifested itself in adulthood, before the age of thirty. The most common hypothesis is that it was epilepsy, but it is not widely accepted because the manifestations did not match those observed in patients with epilepsy. Arnold proposed the hypothesis that van Gogh suffered from a rare hereditary disease called “acute intermittent porphyria”. The characteristic symptoms of the disease include gastrointestinal disturbances, peripheral neuritis, and psychiatric disorders with hallucinations—all symptoms documented by van Gogh himself. In the last period of his life, he developed a tendency to drink camphor and other terpenes, including kerosene from lamps.
But what influence did all this have on his art?
The crises were so debilitating that they prevented him from working, but when the period ended, his creativity returned to its fullest potential. It is natural to wonder if there was any correlation between his mental illness and the use of warm colors in his later paintings, particularly the color yellow; in fact, in his early years, the predominant colors were in darker shades. Yellow dominates several of his paintings, such as the “sunflower vases” and “wheat fields”.
Arnold believes that the predominance of this color is closely associated with his mental illness; as it is known, van Gogh was a frequent drinker of absinthe, a highly toxic beverage, which, according to Arnold, created true chromatic alterations in the painter’s mind. It came to light that the toxic substances present in absinthe could give rise to visual hallucinations, which would explain all the bizarre and extreme behaviors exhibited by the artist throughout his life.
In all cases of artists affected by various types of illnesses, it has been observed how the illness could influence their artistic expression, interfering with their manual dexterity, or as in van Gogh’s case, partially altering their perceptual and emotional abilities. The emotional, perceptual, and expressive alterations in severe diseases of the nervous system, particularly mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are much more dramatic. These devastating mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia, are now recognized as genetically based diseases of biological origin, leading to profound anatomical and functional alterations in the brain. In schizophrenics, the cerebral ventricles are dilated, and the region of the hippocampus, which regulates emotional responses and memory, is smaller than normal. Other brain alterations have been noted in these patients, such as those in the temporal lobe, due to irregularities in the development of this structure. These anatomical and physiological alterations in the brains of schizophrenic patients may suggest that hyperstimulation of the temporal cortex may involve the limbic system, altering emotionality and affectivity, leading to the hallucinatory manifestations exhibited by several aforementioned painters.