Facebook Twitter pinterest.png  Google Plus

Omphaloskepsis Blog

Getting Reconnected to Art, and to Self

Dec 1, 2012

BLOG COVER: Larry Poons, Open Country, 1968, Acrylic on Canvas. Detail of painting.
THROUGHOUT: images from my November trip to the Portland Art Museum.

Recently I had a big idea to write a blog on depression and artists. It didn't get far into my research before discovering that this is already a well-covered topic. There are too many interesting articles to peruse. One of the things I was wondering was how common it is? Another is how do artist's deal with it? What do they do to work through it?


William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Nature's Fan, 1881, Oil on Canvas. My History of Art professor, Sickler, detested Bouguereau and called him the Hallmark artist of his time. I've never seen a more sumptious depiction of skin, and so I continue to love his work, not for the scenes he paints, but merely to gaze upon the skin he paints.

It turns out there's a very strong link between the arts and depression, and wide speculation as to why. In a Psychology Today article called Depression, Creativity, and a New Pair of Shoes, Shelley Carson puts forth four theories that I mostly don't agree with:


Henri Fantin-Latour, La Toilette de Venus, 1881, Oil on Canvas.


Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Ponds of Ville D'Avray, 1867, Oil on Canvas. This painting is seen as prefiguring Impresionism because it was likely painted outdoors. "It offers a fresh, direct view of a particular landscape, and focuses on qualities of light and atmosphere. Yet this is not an Impressionist picture. Corot probably used this work as study for a larger, more finished version of the subject that was included in the Salon of 1868. We would not confuse the grayed palette and elegaic mood of Corot's painting with a work by Renoir or Monet. However, artists like Corot and Eugene Boudin were important influences on the Impressionist movement."

"First, some artists and writers admit to engaging in their craft as a kind of auto-therapy for depression (a more healthy coping mechanism than booze but lots of artists and writers use that, too!). So depression (or the effort to avoid depression) may provide an incentive to do creative work that wards off melancholia. A second theory is that the experience of depression may provide subject matter for artistic creations: Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream and Emily Dickinson's "There's a Certain Slant of Light" are just a couple of examples. A third theory, one held by many Romantic-era luminaries, is that one cannot truly comprehend the human condition (or convey it meaningfully in creative work) unless he or she has experienced the highest emotional highs and the lowest lows. Thus, depression provides the existential angst from which great art arises. Finally, recent research on mood disorders and patterns of creativity suggests that it may not depression itself but recovery from depression that inspires creative work."


Angelo Martinetti, Still Life, 1867, Oil on Canvas.


Circle of Gerrit van Honthorst, Liberation of St. Peter, 1620-30, Oil on Canvas.

My theory about artists and depression has more to do with a previous blog I wrote called Now I Know Why Artists Are Important in which I quote a Scientific American article on why creative people are eccentric. One thing the article says that's relevant here is: "When unfiltered information reaches conscious awareness in the brains of people who are highly intelligent and can process this information without being overwhelmed, it may lead to exceptional insights and sensations."


Larry Poons, Open Country, 1968, Acrylic on Canvas. I was particularly excited to see this 
enormous painting at the museum as I recently exhibited with Poons in the Beijing National Museum.


Larry Poons, Open Country, 1968, Acrylic on Canvas. detail


Larry Poons, Open Country, 1968, Acrylic on Canvas. detail.

The relevance of this post is the link of creative individuals and highly intelligent individuals. There is also a link between highly intelligent people and existential depression. In his article on existential depression and giftedness using Dabrowski's model of disintigration, James Webb writes "existential fretting, or for that matter rumination and existential depression are far more common among (though not exclusive to) more highly intelligent people"


 William Beckman, Portrait of Gregory Gillespie, 1995, Oil on Panel

In other words, I think it's more of a function of intelligence and creativity and less of a funtion of the emotional nature of the craft. My argument to the latter is that the whole world would be depressed as there is an emotional nature to the craft of being human! We are all built to have emotions.


Stanley Boxer, Snow Dark, 1972, Oil on Canvas. Plus detail. (I love the edge of the painting)
Part of the Clement Greenberg Collection.

Other writers are blogging about depression and highly creative/highly capable people. Recently Aaron Swartz committed suicide. There's an excellent blog about it in the New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jan/18/death-aaron-swartz/


 Walter Darby Bannard, Little Rain, 1972, Acrylic on Canvas. (detail left) Part of the Clement Greenberg Collection.



Richard Notkin, The Gift, 1999, Earthenware. Plus detail.

A question is: aside from the obvious—medication—what does an artist do with their depression? How do they continue to work? For some artists, the depression fuels the work, for me, it's interfering with my ability to make work, because it intereferes with my executive functioning, my ability to organize my thoughts and my time, limiting my time in my studio...whittling it down to practically nothing. Maybe this is an important incubation period, the ideas are still percolating.


 Moses Sawyer, Girl with a Cigarette, 1968, Oil on Canvas

I spent the morning on a studio visit of a prominent Seattle artist and friend who told me that what he does is finishes things, even if it's only a small drawing. That helps him to continue to move forward. One thing that helps me is to go to the museum. It connects me to my mothership. I've included here images of work that affects me from my recent visit to the Portland Art Museum, where I drew from their show The Body Beautiful, and soaked in the work of my people.


 Helmut Middendorf, The Storm, 1982, Oil on Canvas.


 Helen Frankenthaler, Spaced Out Orbit, 1973, Acrylic on Canvas. Part of the Clement Greenberg Collection


 Ed Dutkiewicz, Untitled Figure #6, 1999, Bronze Edition of 5.

As an artist, what ideas do you have for moving through?


Thank you to my sources:

Portland Museum of Art

Scientific American, The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric Highly creative people often seem weirder than the rest of us. Now researchers know why By Shelley Carson  | April 14, 2011 | 36

Link Between Creativity and Depression. Depression causes and signs by malo - 2007-10-05, Disabled World - Disability News for all the Family
Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults. Webb, J Ph.D. Davidson Institute on Talent Development.

Category: Creativity
blog comments powered by Disqus