A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Was Pablo Picasso Schizophrenic?

A couple of weeks ago, as I was browsing my Facebook news feed, a friend of mine posted some of Picasso’s self-portraits:

Picasso Self-Portaits FB-1

I found these images fascinating because they were instantly familiar. They reminded me of something I saw in one of my psychology textbooks: a series of cat drawings, drawn by someone who was suffering from schizophrenia. Luckily, my psychology textbook was still in my bookcase, so here are those images:

Cat Drawings 2a

The accompanying text reads “Some drawings of cats, done by Louis Wain (1860-1939) in the 1920s over the course of his illness, suggesting the progressive distortions in perception and/or thought characteristic of schizophrenia.

The similarities were remarkable, so obviously I started wondering: did Pablo Picasso suffer from schizophrenia? Was his incomprehensible style, which so many people have assumed was the work of a brilliant mind, a manifestation of a progressive neuro-degenerative disorder?

Obviously, I couldn’t make any assumptions… this was a Facebook post, after all, and anyone can post whatever they like on their news feed. Therefore, anything I see on Facebook (or on any form of social media) is automatically suspect until I can personally verify it. So I did a little searching, and found a number of web sites that backed up this post. This one includes Picasso’s self-portraits, drawn throughout his life from age 15-90. Everything checked out; my hypothesis was looking promising!

Picasso Self-Portraits-800

Since Picasso’s progressive perceptual distortions seemed strikingly similar to Louis Wain’s cat drawings, and I was now convinced that I was onto something. The social media angle was now verified, so I knew that these were in fact Picasso’s self-portraits. As for Louis Wain’s cat drawings… well, those have to be true. Who is going to question the information in a university psychology textbook?

Actually, I’m going to question it. In fact, I had to, if I wanted to be thorough in my research. As I resumed my Google searches, I wasn’t expecting to find very much, since Louis Wain was born in 1860. However, I was astonished by the volume of information about Louis Wain and his cat drawings that was available online.

The first thing I discovered was the original series of eight drawings (in colour). These were compiled by Dr. Walter Maclay, who was studying the effects of mental disorders on art:

Louis Wain Cat Drawings (Colour)-800

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Louis WainNext, I pieced together a biography. Louis Wain was born in London, England, on August 5, 1860. He was the eldest of six children. Between 1877 and 1880, Louis studied at the West London School of Art from 1877-80, and then became an assistant teacher there until 1882, when he then started working for the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Wain was an art journalist, as well as a freelance illustrator. His illustrations included English country houses and estates as well as livestock, but Wain began to make a name for himself with his cat drawings, which he drew for the Illustrated London News. His drawing were both humourous and anthropomorphic – the cats were not only clothed, but also doing human things such as serving tea, playing cricket, fishing and riding bicycles. Wain drew several hundred drawings each year, and illustrated about one hundred children’s books. His youngest sister, at age 30, was declared insane and was committed to a mental asylum.

There is some disagreement regarding the origin of Wain’s schizophrenia. Wain became schizophrenic after the death of his sister, Caroline in 1917. However, other family members believe that his schizophrenia began after he fell off a bus and struck his head. It was also thought that it may have been Toxoplasmosis, caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which cats excrete in their feces. As the disease progressed, Wain’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and occasionally violent. He was committed to a mental institution in 1924. He continued drawing until his death in 1939. Wain was buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in London. Biography credits: Paul Hussey and Wikipedia.

Now, here’s where things started to get interesting… there is a lot of debate about the veracity of the schizophrenia assumption.

  • Dr. Michael Fitzgerald suggested that Wain didn’t have schizophrenia, but suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. He explained that Wain’s “technique and skill as a painter did not diminish, as one would expect from a person with schizophrenia“.
  • Aidan McGennis pointed out “elements of visual agnosia are demonstrated in his painting. If Wain had visual agnosia, it might have manifested itself merely as an extreme attention to detail
  • Rodney Dale, in his biography Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats points out “with no evidence of the order of their progression, [Dr. Walter] Maclay arranged them in a sequence which clearly demonstrated, he thought, the progressive deterioration of the artist’s mental abilities“. Dale then added “there is clear no justification for regarding them as more than samples of Louis Wain’s art at different times. Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures, perhaps 10 years after his ‘later’ productions which are patterns rather than cats.
  • Finally, this blog poster, while not an academic, viewed Wain’s cat drawings and made the following observation, based on his own personal experience “I have schizophrenia and I know for a fact his drawing getting more abstract has nothing to do with his psychosis. I’m an artist too and all that happens to your drawings when things get bad is you don’t feel like making art.

For me, these items together constitute reasonable doubt. Since my hypothesis was based on the correlation of Wain’s increasingly bizarre drawings with the progression of his schizophrenia, I no longer have a solid argument to make if the chronology of Louis Wain’s cat drawings can’t be verified.

More importantly, my little exploration also reinforced the value of critical thinking: don’t assume that any information source is infallible, and don’t be awed by any article’s academic provenance. Check things out yourself and validate the information from as many different sources as possible.

There were two components in my Picasso/Wain comparison: the social media post of Picasso’s self-portraits and Louis Wain’s cat drawings from my psychology textbook. Obviously the social media post needed to be verified, but who could have guessed that there was erroneous information in a university textbook? I had always assumed that textbooks were beyond reproach. Now I know better. While I’m a little disappointed that my schizophrenia angle didn’t pan out, I feel that I have now become a more disciplined critical thinker for exercising my due diligence.

Was Picasso a creative genius? Was his unique style a manifestation of a progressive neuro-degenerative disease? It looks like that answer will remain a mystery, as our fascination with this legendary artist continues…

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The Scream – An Environmental Interpretation

In May 2012, American billionaire Leon Black paid $120 million for Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at an auction. It’s an iconic image and along with the Mona Lisa, is one of the world’s most recognizable works of art. There also seems to be no consensus on its meaning, other than Munch being the main figure in the painting. There are many interpretations:

  • A slaughterhouse is believed to have been situated within earshot of the painting’s location, near a fjord in Ekeberg, just east of Oslo, Norway. Therefore, the scream might represent his reaction to the cries of the animals.
  • Edvard Munch’s sister, Laura, was committed to Gaustad, the city’s insane asylum, which was also within earshot of the painting’s location. The expression on the protagonist’s face could be his reaction as he heard the screams of the asylum patients, or even those of his sister.
  • Then, of course, there is Edvard Munch’s own commentary on the painting, which one would assume would be the final word on the subject “I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature”. This makes sense, since the actual title of the painting (in German) is Der Schrei der Natur.

Edvard Munch - The Scream

And now The Bob Angle. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I would like to add my own interpretation of this painting. I think that The Scream is actually an environmental statement, and that Edvard Munch used this painting as a way to sound the climate change alarm – 80 years before David Suzuki. Now let’s start connecting the dots.

Some Background

Krakatoa is the name of an island in Indonesia. On August 26, 1883, a volcano erupted on that island and it turned out to be one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The explosive force was equal to a 200-megaton atomic bomb, which is 13,000 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. The explosion was heard as far away as southern India, and Perth, Australia (about 1,900 kilometres away), and the sound was so loud that anyone within 10 miles of the island would have gone deaf. 165 villages were destroyed and over 36,000 people died. Twenty-one cubic kilometres of ash was hurled into the atmosphere, and some of it reached a height of 80 km.

 Krakatoa Map

The vast quantity of ash in the atmosphere altered the appearance of sunsets around the world for the next several years. In Chelsea, England, an artist named William Ascroft was so struck by the unusual and vivid hues in the sunsets, that he painted a series of watercolours of them, beginning in November 1883. You can view these paintings on the Science and Society Picture Library’s web site.

Perhaps Krakatoa’s most important legacy is that these sunsets made scientists examine the way dust particles travel through the atmosphere, which led to the discovery of the jet stream. The global visibility of the Krakatoa sunsets led to an awakening among scientists; they realized that the planet was an interconnected and tightly-networked entity where environmental changes in one location can have surprisingly far-reaching effects.

An Environmental Interpretation

Astronomers have noted that the sunset in the background of The Scream contains the characteristic orange and purple hues of the Krakatoa sunsets. Edvard Munch painted The Scream in 1893, but he was in Oslo immediately after the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, when the colourful sunsets began, and it is thought that they did influence The Scream. In 2003, David Olson, a physics and astronomy professor, suggested that the unusually-coloured sky in The Scream was what the sky looked like over Oslo shortly after the Krakatoa eruption.

Although The Scream was painted in 1893, I think that it actually represents an evening in late 1883, shortly after the Krakatoa eruption, when the volcanic ash and dust first started to affect the appearance of the Norwegian sunsets.

I have a two-fold interpretation of the the principal figure in the painting. He doesn’t necessarily represent Munch, but Man – not as he is now, but Man as he one day might be. Notice the grey, bulbous, slightly elongated, alien-like head, completely devoid of hair. This is a classic representation of what we used to think technologically-advanced extra-terrestrials might look like. I believe that this figure might be either an alien visiting Earth in the present day, or it might be a more evolved Man in the distant future.

If this figure represents Man, then he is the Enlightened Man – one who has evolved to live in harmony with his environment and who leaves a negligible environmental footprint. He is completely integrated with nature and his surroundings, and understands intuitively that humans are simply one small part of a large and complex ecosystem. When he gazed upon the sunset in the background, he knew immediately and intuitively that something was terribly wrong. There was a disturbance in the equilibrium; a calamity of tremendous and possibly global proportions had taken place. The blood red sky (as described by Munch himself) represents the metaphorical blood of a wounded planet. The painting’s protagonist is an empath – connected not only to his fellow humans but also to the Earth itself, and his scream is the pain he feels for the wounded Earth.

That’s how I see The Scream – as a relevant, and even poignant, allegorical tale told by a prescient artist. I’d like to hear your interpretations of this painting as well. Please write your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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Mutual Artistic Disdain

by C.M. Coolidge, 1903. Public domain image.When it comes to art, it’s easy to be a snob. I think we all feel to some degree, that our tastes are just slightly more refined than everyone else’s, hence it’s tempting to become lost in our own haughtiness and gaze upon the choices of others with a jaundiced, patronizing and even condescending eye. I admit that I am no exception, but I never thought it was possible for two art lovers to look sneeringly upon each other… simultaneously! It is indeed possible, and it happened to me.

When I first moved into my humble abode, I had lofty decorating goals; I wanted to create a living space that was worthy of Architectual Digest. However, like most neophyte decorators, I was faced with the perennial challenge of “champagne tastes on a beer budget”. After the painting was done, the carpeting was installed and the furniture was in place, it was time to complete the ambiance. I wanted to hang some Old Masters and Impressionist paintings in the living room and the den, but these paintings were fiendishly difficult to find. The Bay and Wal-Mart sold paintings, but they were decidedly more pedestrian than patrician – not quite as embarrassingly lowbrow as the kids with the big eyes or the dogs playing poker, but nothing that I would ever hang on my walls. After considerable searching, I decided to buy my prints from the AGO’s gift shop – they had a wonderful selection and the prices were surprisingly reasonable. Unfortunately, the frames were extra and were horrendously expensive. Even custom frames at Michaels were far more than I was planning to spend.

While I would never stoop to buy paintings at Wal-Mart or The Bay, I must admit that they did have nice frames. I decided that I would venture back and buy some of their proletarian art after all — but just for the frames. I would wear a hat and dark glasses to disguise my appearance, and afterwards, I would dispose of the prints immediately, and in a trash container far, far away from my home – so that these ignominious monstrosities that pass for art could never be traced back to me.

That very week, as luck would have it, The Bay had a sale on framed paintings, so I measured my prints and then drove there with a notepad and a tape measure. As I was examining the sturdiness and finish of the frames and then imagining how they would appear hanging in my den, I noticed that a middle-aged lady was also browsing the paintings. She decided to make a some small talk, and asked me what kind of paintings I was interested in. I replied quite honestly “Oh, I don’t care about the paintings – I just want these for the frames”.

Let me tell you – the look on her face was just priceless: a moment of utter disbelief and then condescension tinged with disgust. Personally, I thought this situation was absolutely hilarious, because at that moment we were both looking down at each other (although I was doing my best to remain expressionless and non-judgmental). While she thought that I was surely some uncultured bottom-feeder who had dragged myself out of my cultural quagmire and into this department store, I was simultaneously looking at her and thinking “What self-respecting middle-aged adult buys their art at The Bay? Look at this stuff – it’s not even fit for the waiting room in a doctor’s office. This detritus is one step up from the proverbial Scarface movie poster in a male teenager’s bedroom”.

Yes, buying art really does bring out the insufferable snob in us.