Since the time of Aristotle, there has been speculation that “madness” influences “genius”. Often considered artistic genius, musical genius, and even scientific genius. But what about creatives that were in the past seen as ‘mentally ill’ but were in fact as we understand today may well have been neurodivergent? It has often been said that those who go forth and break new creative boundaries have in the past, been vilified for their creativity. It seems many, more often than not, have lives that end in tragedy. Read more in The Harmony of ‘Madness and Genius’ within the Creative World
Image: Jamie Gallagher Untitled 4 2023 oil on wood panel
Many artists who had troubled minds, also had brilliant ones, channelling it into their work, and utilizing their struggles almost as an extra paintbrush in their repertoire. Their unique minds create artwork that may not be understood at first glance but reflects their mental state.
Being neurodivergent does not automatically make one a Van Gough or a Monet, but that doesn’t mean it cant go hand in hand with creativity. At its core, neurodivergence is thinking in an atypical way, which can provide someone with the processing techniques that are needed for creativity to thrive and can lead to creative breakthroughs.
Throughout history, there have always been notable artists who happened to be neurodivergent or mentally ill, whether they knew it at the time or not, their unique perspectives are clear when looking at their artistry. While their artistic accomplishments were valued, the public often dismissed or misunderstood theses artists as people, making everyday life a struggle.
Louis Wain (1860-1939)
Louis Wain became famous for his personable and adorable paintings of cats in the late 1800s. These paintings were so well received, partly because no one had ever seen cats depicted in this way before. Dogs had already become popularized as being our one and only furry friend, who had emotions and a caring nature similar to humans, but cats were still seen simply as working animals to get rid of rats and mice.
Three Cats Singing, Louis Wain
When Louis and his wife found their cat, Peter, he became obsessed with the little kitten and began painting cats in anthropomorphic (human-like) ways, casting their unique traits into the limelight. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after they were married, and Louis continued to paint her his cats to do his best to bring amusement back into her life. He was always commended for being able to paint such innocent and joyful pictures during what was the darkest time in his life.
Untitled, Louis Wain
After his wife and later then his cat, Peter died, Louis Wain’s schizophrenia, which he had throughout his life; although to an extent, it was manageable, took over and it became clear that he was channelling his mental struggles into his work as well. Over the years his once innocent and cute cats developed into abstract and slightly terrifying images that barely resembled the cats that once were.
Untitled, Louis Wain
To learn more about Louis Wain, The Electric Life of Louis Wain is a movie about his life that reflects his immense talent in art and passion for cats and tells the story of his life and how he popularised cats and helped the world see what big personalities they really have.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986)
Georgia O’Keeffe was an American painter most well known for her macro paintings of flowers, getting up close, making the viewer feel as if they’re burrowing their nose into a bouquet. There has never been any confirmation if Georgia O’Keeffe was neurodivergent or not, however, when looking at her life, some people believe she could have had what we would refer to now as autism. She lived life in her own way was quite obviously independent and introverted, and had been obsessed with painting since the age of 11.
Light of Iris, Georgia O’Keefe
It is known, however, that O’Keefe struggled with anxiety and depression, particularly during the rough times of her marriage. This is reflected throughout her work when she drifts away from painting flowers and begins to paint skyscrapers. See, her flowers had always been associated with female genitalia, but that assumption was entirely made by consumers of her work rather than by O’Keefe herself as she strongly denied these connections.
City Night, Georgia O’Keefe
Part of the reason her work was debated so much in these themes was due to her husband’s photography which consisted of her posing naked. This work launched her into the public eye and along with it came unwanted attention.
She eventually settled in Mexico and went back to her roots painting plants, and landscapes being inspired by nature once again. Georgia O’Keeffe always emphasized the importance of looking at life from a different perspective, even if that perspective is uncomfortable. A trait we see among each of the artists on this list.
Horse’s Skull on Blue, Georgia O’Keeffe
Yayoi Kusama (1926 – Present)
Yayoi Kusama, a world-renowned artist known for her sculptural work, is still making art today at 94 years old. Her works are insanely popular, with her shows selling out in minutes. Born in Japan in 1926, it wasn’t until the 1960s in New York that her work began to take off. It was through anti-war demonstrations that she began to get noticed, across from the New York Stock Exchange she was protesting against the greediness of the stock exchange saying that it was enabling the war to continue.
She not only used her artwork as a form of activism but as therapy for herself. Yayoi was only 10 years old when she first began to experience hallucinations, often as flashes of light or dense fields of dots that would take over her surroundings, she called this “self-obliteration”. In her autobiography Infinity Net, she touches on how she would see human-like expressions in violets, they were so lifelike she could hear them speaking to her.
Pumpkin, Yayoi Kusama
Kusama moved to New York in 1958l to help with her “schizophrenic tendencies” and she stayed there working as an artist for over 15 years, working with the likes of Georgia O’keefe who became a close friend, and Andy Warhol. Later in 1973, she was diagnosed with OCD and while treatment helped manage her symptoms, it also hindered her creativity. She self-admitted into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo in 1977 where she still resides today.
Every day she goes across the street to her studio to work on her art, and she returns each night. Yayoi Kusama fueled her creativity using her mental illness and channelled that into her work, resisting the urge to let it get in the way of her life, she found a way to embrace her difference. It is her mission to bring an understanding to the world of mental illness and art, to decrease the stigma and she consistently shows us how art can be used to spread awareness.
Yayoi KusamaInfinity Mirrored Room-Filled with the Brilliance of Life2011/2017TatePresented by the artist, Ota Fine Arts and Victoria Miro 2015, accessioned 2019© YAYOI KUSAMAPhoto©Tate (Joe Humphrys)
Yayoi Kusama is having an exhibition at the Tate called Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms where you can experience endless reflections. The exhibition will be on from 18 May 2021 – 28 April 2024 with booking ending September 30th, 2023.
Jamie Gallagher is an artist and creative originally from Edinburgh, it was only in 2015 that Jamie took up painting in order to express the grief he felt after the loss of his close friend, who was a painter as well.
Since then, he’s been painting in an abstract style that slowly comes together to create human figures. Jamie has such an intuitive process that often he doesn’t realize the theme of his piece until it’s finished.
The Notton Gallery is opening on the 7th of September with a new exhibition by Gallagher, Hyperphantasia. Hyperphantasia is a condition where the mind creates vivid mental imagery.
Jamie Gallagher Untitled 1, 2023, oil on wood panel
Basically, picture an apple in your mind, how detailed is it? There is a scale ranging from seeing absolutely nothing in your mind, which is Aphantasia, to seeing the apple in extreme detail, Hyperphantasia. Most people are somewhere in the middle, perhaps only being able to hold the image for a short period of time, or perhaps it’s not in colour. Being on the extreme ends is rare with about 2-3% of people having Aphantasia, and up to 10% having Hyperphantasia.
Jamie Gallagher’s work is a direct portrayal of how his mind works with Hypherphantasia, he creates what he sees in his mind, rarely using a physical reference. His paintings urge one to reflect on their own being, using colours and abstract but still familiar figures to evoke such thoughts.
Jamie Gallagher Cherry Coke Throat, 2023, oil on canvas
Many artists were failed by the reception of their mental struggles during their time. With a new understanding of mental illness and neurodivergence, there comes also a new appreciation for the art that is created with perhaps both the help and hindrances of differences of the mind.
If you enjoyed reading The Harmony of ‘Madness and Genius’ within the Creative World why not read Loving Yet Powerful The Fire of Saffron here
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