Archives for the month of: April, 2012

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A retrospective of the artist William Utermohlen’s work is currently showing at GV Art (49 Chiltern Street, London, http://www.gvart.co.uk), until May 26.

William Utermohlen was born in Philadelphia in 1933, of German parents, and moved to London in 1965, where he lived until his death in 2007.

In 1995, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, yet continued to paint and draw until 2000. The current exhibition includes his earlier work, as well as the later work and self-portraits that post-date his diagnosis.

Blue Skies, 1995, was painted soon after the artist realised that he had Alzheimer’s disease. In it, we see a man forlorn and hunched over in sadness, alone and sitting at a table. Above, a skylight reveals blueness and a world that seems distant and removed.

In the accompanying video to the exhibition, William Utermohlen’s wife, the art historian Patricia Utermohlen draws our attention to earlier work, Conversation Pieces (1990-1991), painted a few years before the diagnosis, where the artist includes himself in the painting, but on the periphery, as if he were already sensing that he was outside the circle, there but no longer fully present.

All through his life as an artist, Utermohlen created many self-portraits (http://www.williamutermohlen.org), beginning in 1955. Intense and complex works, there is a clear change in style following his diagnosis, as he more directly and urgently attempts to communicate something that is beyond words. In the pencil drawings we see a forlorn and resigned man, in the watercolours, the Mask series, the focus is on his head and skull, which is the target of Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the vividness of the colours, there is a palpable sense of despair and anguish.

Patricia Utermohlen also tells us that her husband shared the drawings he created following his diagnosis with his hospital team, the only way he could truly communicate his experience of living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Although Utermohlen died in 2007, his wife believes that his death in reality occurred in 2000, when he could no longer paint. Tragically, from that point he no even longer recognised his own work.

This exhibition is about more than the artist’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. It includes many wonderful earlier works, from his series based on Dante’s 33 cantos of the Inferno, to his series of lithograph illustrations for Wildred Owen’s World War 1 poetry collection. Utermohlen was an extraordinarily diverse artist, who had been painting and exhibiting for 40 years before his diagnosis. Alzheimer’s disease was a chapter, a tragic final chapter, in the life of an artist who had throughout his career shared his sense of self and identity in his portraits. In the initial stages of Alzheimer’s, he continued to do so, and they effectively and poignantly portray a man fragmented by his condition.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Tonight I saw Wolfgang Rihm’s opera, Jakob Lenz, an ENO/Hampstead Theatre co-production.

The opera is based on a true story, written by Georg Buchner, and centres on the mental disintegration of a celebrated poet and playwright, Jakob Lenz, in Alsace in the late 1770s. Lenz, distraught and tormented by voices and hallucinations, arrives at the home of a pastor, Oberlin, who takes him in. What follows is Lenz’s progressive descent into madness, punctuated by suicide attacks. Although Lenz’s fragile mental state is primarily obsessed with the female focus of his unrequited love, religion also features prominently.

The contemporary and prolific German composer, Wolfgang Rihm, wrote the chamber opera in 1977/78, when he was just 25. The current ENO/Hampstead Theatre co-production is the first English language staging, with Sam Brown as director and Andrew Shore, mesmerising and totally believable, as the harrowing and tormented Lenz.

In the programme notes, Bernd Feuchtner shares Rihm’s recent statement that the first person he had ever seen composing was his grandfather. As his grandfather was very ill at the time, Rihm immediately associated the creative act with suffering. Perhaps then, Rihm’s association with Jakob Lenz, which depicts unrelenting and unremitting suffering, that of madness and its accompanying sense of hopelessness and ultimate destruction, is not so surprising. Undoubtedly, the original story laid out the textual content, but Rihm’s score heightens the sense of existential human suffering, to an almost unbearable degree. The music and sounds are unpredictable, often surprising, sometimes shocking. You never know what to expect next, as Lenz’s behaviour becomes increasingly uncontrollable, and Rihm’s score serves to enhance this threatening sense of the unknown.

Water features, on a narrow, almost claustrophic stage, with ponds and tangles of reeds. This deeply atmospheric staging serves the theme well. Lenz is constrained by his madness, and there is no escape, not even when he submerges himself in the murky water, only to rise again. In the end, he abandons the idea of killing himself. Yet the madness continues and escalates, which his friends cannot bear to watch. Restrained and shackled, straitjacket-like, his friends leave him (as does the audience), underneath the sinister shadow of the chapel.

This is not an easy performance, there is no let-up in the torment that is Lenz’s life, who exists in ‘our’ world, yet also in a world inhabited by many other voices that no-one else can hear and share.

In the programme notes, an interview with the Director Sam Brown raises the question of whether the story of one man’s descent into madness is still relevant today. By response, Brown states his belief that, although opera in this century tends to have a much broader focus, he prefers to work on ideas about the inside of the individual’s mind. I welcome this view. Watching Jakob Lenz tonight, I did not feel that I was watching an isolated story of one individual’s descent into madness, but rather that I was witnessing something profound, disturbing and shocking, about the alienating and potentially universal experience of human suffering.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yesterday, I included a photograph I had taken, of sea and rocks, in remote southwest Ireland. It is an isolated and lonely spot, where I love to swim, heading outwards, towards a flat horizon.

In Melissa Wilson’s play on dementia, Autobiographer, the cover of the accompanying book (Melissa Wilson, Autobiographer, Oberon Modern Plays, Oberon Books, London, 2012) depicts a woman in a billowing white dress, her body below water, with just her head above the surface. Towards the end of the play, Flora, who suffers from dementia, speaks of the sea, of waves and diving under them, ‘a fun game’. Suddenly she can no longer touch the bottom. The waves feel more threatening and the shore seems far away.

In the collection Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease (Holly J Hughes ed, Kent State University Press, 2009), the poet David Mason uses a metaphorical sea to share his experience of watching his father’s progressive dementia. In the poem, The Inland Sea, the patients (his father was in a home) ‘drift, fish-jawed in their medicated stupors.’…’Drowned children’….’both past and future utterly dissolved.’

The poem ends:

‘Their beauty terrifies us, so we think

it like no beauty we have ever know

and leave them for the ordinary shore.’

In an accompanying note, Mason comments that his own horror watching those with dementia disintegrate and fragment was in fact misplaced, that even in their current state they were beautiful. But we need to rethink our idea of beauty to include them, and what they have become.

Image

April 25, 2012

I saw Autobiographer, by the performer, writer and sound artist Melanie Wilson, this week at Toynbee Studios. The play is a 70 minute or so portrayal of a life unravelling through dementia.

Intense, compelling, tragic and utterly moving, the performance involves five characters, all are Flora at different stages of her life, from the age of 8 to her 70s. The setting was compellingly conducive to the staging, an intimate space where we all gathered around, occasionally interacting with the actors, all of whom could convincingly be us now, yesterday or tomorrow.

As Flora’s mind fragments and disintegrates, the actors move, switch places and space, as dementia, subtlely at first, inveigles its way in, and the space where Flora once stood becomes shaky, forcing her to move on into unknown and ultimately terrifying territory.

We are but stories, which are lost, replaced, or potentially forgotten through dementia. Our memories and stories are how we piece things together, how we make sense of stuff, and ourselves.

The play clearly reflects the research that it is built on, as slowly and steadily Flora, through all her selves, exhibits those features that characterise dementia, the repetition, the non-recognition, the desperation to make sense of the story, to hang on, as it all slips away and frustration, agitation, confusion and anger follow.

I so loved the analogy of the dress pattern, where Flora is the pattern, slowing fraying and being unpicked by her condition.

This moving performance particularly made me consider how interconnected and critical our stories are. We are born in the middle of someone else’s story, and so it continues, as we dip in and out of the story of ourselves and that of others.

The story of dementia, biographical or fiction, almost invariably focuses on family, on the acute inversion of old age into something child-like in its dependency, and the sufferer’s need for reassurance. Flora repeatedly asks about her daughter, and when she can go ‘home’.

In the end, all the Floras remain,’I am still here’, and you realise that, despite the condition, the irreparable changes that accompany dementia, Flora is indeed still here, present and real, even though her story, and ours, has changed.

April 24, 2012

The profile of dementia in the arts has been slowly increasing.

Just over two years ago I saw Tamsin Oglesby’s play Really Old, Like Forty Five at The Cottlesloe Theatre London, which addressed the need to treat those who are old, and particularly those with dementia, as human beings. A current play, at the Toynbee Studios, Autobiographer, by Melanie Wilson, brings dementia back to the stage, with Alzheimer’s as the central theme.

Dementia is becoming more than a statistic, as the incidence increases exponentially, and thereby the likelihood than we ourselves or those close to us will be affected at some point. ‘Losing one’s mind’ is something we all fear, and dementia, characterised by memory loss, and loss of self, strikes at the very core of who we are and what defines us both as collectively human and as an individual. It challenges not only the identity of the individual, but how society interacts with that individual, who has become unrecognisable, remote, as if ‘replaced’ by someone we think we should know, but struggle to deal with the visible disintegration of a self.

It is this dead-end and seemingly pointless dualism, the fragmenting of the mind while the body nonchalantly continues intact, that terrifies. In terms of experience of illness narratives, the personal story of dementia falls within Arthur Frank’s chaos story classification – truly chaotic and therefore almost beyond telling. As a result, dementia autobiographies/pathographies are rare once the condition takes hold (there have been some, for example Bryden, C. Dancing with Dementia: My Story of Living Positively with Dementia; DeBaggio, T. Losing My Mind; and of course Terry Pratchett), and more often the story becomes a third party, family/carer, biographical one, or a work of fiction.

Perhaps it does not matter whose story it is, so long as it is told. 

This week, I will muse on the current play Autobiographer, which I have just seen and loved, the upcoming Louis Theroux TV programme on dementia, and a current retrospective of William Utermohlen, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, at GV Art London.

It is good to see dementia/Alzheimer’s disease acknowledged and out there.

Monday April 23, 2012

I listened to AL Kennedy’s Radio 3 programme last night, an exploration of the ‘cliched link’ between madness and creativity/art and insanity.

There were some things of interest, for example identifying the link as cliched upfront, and challenging the view that art and madness somehow ‘belong together’. As Kennedy stated, the long held myth merely serves to trivialise mental illness and to further isolate the artist.

The historical basis of the myth was discussed, particularly how the notion of the mad artist flourished with Romanticism.

Something that was also alluded to, and which I have often also had a problem with, is that our notion of the mad genuis/artist, is largely based on individual ‘case reports’, where diagnoses are retrospective, and ‘benefit’ from advances in psychiatry, with new and revised definitions and classifications. Thus, we can never truly know what Byron/Clare/Dadd suffered from, we can merely attach a label with a retrospectoscope.

Society has always needed to pigeon hole artists, for a host of complex reasons – Munch’s peers repeatedly attempted (and failed) to classify him as mentally unstable, believing him (and his art) to be contaminated by a family history of madness.

The controversy around the association between madness and creativity has not yet been settled, but it feels good that it is being challenged. By not accepted it glibly, we can start to explore whether the connection is real or illusory, and whether either way it matters in the end.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I am not sure about this title – Madness and Creativity – for many reasons, but mainly the word ‘madness’, one of those terms that mean everything and yet nothing. But I have kept the phrase for that very reason.To address its validity, to disabuse it of its glibness, I have retained it, though hopefully not inadvertently propagating the myth by doing so.

Today brought me to East London, the 18 Hewett Street Gallery, to see Daniel Johnston’s exhibition. Johnston is an artist, a musician and a singer, as well as a visual artist, mainly comic/cartoon type illustrations.

I first became aware of Johnston a few years ago, when I saw the film documentary of his life, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Born in 1961, Johnston has stated that his first widely acclaimed album Hi, how are you, was created during a nervous breakdown. The documentary, which won the 2005 Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival amongst other accolades, focuses on Johnston’s mental illness, apparently both manic depression and schizophrenia, which initially manifested as delusions and fixations on the devil and satan. Johnston appears to have since reached a period of relatively stability, and has released many albums, including Welcome To My World (2006), Electric Ghosts (2007), Is And Always Was (2009), and Beam Me Up (2010). He recently had his second sold out concert at the Union Chapel, London.

Johnston is also an artist, and has drawn many of his own album covers. A lover and collector of comics, he released his first own comic book, Space Ducks – An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness, just last month, March 2012.

The exhibition I saw today was a collection of less than 15 Johnston sketches and drawings. It is hard to describe his work, cartoon like, involving many figures, from superman to animals, to surreal eye-popping gargoyles and man-beast creatures. The pictures also include text, such as ‘Always wanted to be a good person’, ‘The Death of Satan’, and ‘A thought repeated is often a lie.’

I am not sure what to make of Johnston’s art, not sure whether I get it or not. The intro text to the exhibition mentions that his work is partially informed by his mental illness. I guess my question, and unease, is to what extent that matters, and whether his medical diagnosis is actually relevant/helpful/counter-productive to interpretation.

I watched an interview with Johnston on youtube, where he was clearly uncomfortable and anxious, and stated that he felt like a ‘monkey in a zoo’. Johnston himself rarely seems to allude to his mental illness, and only one of his songs, ‘I had lost my mind’, which is the signature tune for the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, seems to overtly address his condition. Yet even here, he deals with it in a playful way, focusing more on a literal play of ‘losing’ my mind. Other songs, such as ‘My life is starting over again’ could, if we stretched the point, be seen as referring to relapses and remissions in mental illness. Yet Johnston does not allow us to assume that this is the case. ‘The Story of an Artist’ is the story of the artist getting old, at no point that of an artist struggling with madness.

I find Johnston’s music mesmerising and seductive. The reasons why he can create such magic are of course inextricable from who he is and what life experiences he has had. One of these experiences is mental illness, but there are many more, none of which alone define him or his art.

 

 

Saturday, April 21

The association between madness and creativity is a controversial one. A long held view has been that both are inseparable, that insanity is somehow a prerequisite for artistic genius. And it is easy to compile a list of those who were both ‘mad’ and famous artists/poets/writers. But I have long struggled with this reductionist argument. By ascribing artistic genius as sanity gone wrong, we conveniently explain away something that is beyond the reach of most, but also, more worryingly, this very process potentially belittles the creative work itself. I believe that the work of creative genius should stand alone, and not be viewed or judged against a diagnosis of mental instability.

In recent times, mental illness has become a more explicit theme in the world of the arts, as artists (and I mean this in the broadest sense, not visual artists alone) with mental illness share their experience of what this is like, and also as mental illness has become a much more prominent subject matter for artists and writers, who may not suffer from the condition, but recognise the importance of putting it out there.

Recently, I interviewed the artist Josephine King for Resonance FM (http://archive.org/details/PanelBordersDepictingThePersonal) at The Riflemaker Gallery, where she currently has an exhibition, I told him I was an artist. He said “can you cook?” (http://www.riflemaker.org/s-current-exhibition#jf). The exhibition has as its theme King’s relationships, but also alludes to bipolar disease. I saw her debut exhibition, also at The Riflemaker, a couple of years ago, Life So Far, which focused on her experience of living with mental illness. The series of poster type ink paintings, colourfully vibrant and flamboyant yet accompanied by text such as:

‘Born with bipolar disorder. In painting I find protection from the darkness of this illness.’ (http://www.riflemaker.org/s-josephine-king)

leave no doubt as to the burden of living with chronic mental illness.

Undoubtedly, separating the illness from the artist is impossible. But the artist, and her creative output, need not be defined by a diagnosis, and the temptation to pathologise art should be resisted.

Tomorrow night, April 22, Radio 3 features a programme with AL Kennedy: Art and Madness, which will hopefully provide further insights into this most debated of topics.

Otherwise, I will also be on my own self-exploration of same, including the opera Jacob Lenz, and the work of the artist Richard Dadd at Bethlem Royal Hospital, and the singer and visual artist Daniel Johnston at 18 Hewett Street…

Later…

CQ

I have allowed myself the luxury of another day’s blog entry on Munch, particularly as the reality of seeing The Scream painting has not yet hit home…

And in my yesterday’s excitement I forgot to mention the other Munch painting that was also on view, Night in Saint-Cloud. Deeply anguished and traumatised by his father’s death, Munch suffered a period of intense distress and self-persecution, which eventually ended when he had two visionary experiences. The visions ended his creative block, allowed him to visually express the complex emotions that surrounded his father’s death. But perhaps most importantly, this painting, and its associated Saint-Cloud Manifesto, paved the way for Munch’s life long attempt to depict ‘the soul’, not in a religious sense, but as an exploration of how art could express feelings and emotions.

Schopenhauer believed that the limit of the expressive power of art was its inability to create the scream. Munch disproved this theory, not just as a result of The Scream, or Despair, which he viewed at the first Scream, but in his life long (and courageous) endeavour to depict man as a sentient being, hitherto unexplored in the world of art. 

A Munch exhibition is scheduled for Tate Modern from June 24 2012: Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, and further afield Munch features in an exhibition in Stockholm (until August 2012): Passions – Five Centuries of Art and the Emotions.

April 17, 2012.

Approximately 14.30hrs…

 

…I saw and was transfixed by The Scream

Tight security as we were ushered into the inner sanctum of Sothebys.

And there it was, alone. The experience felt reverential, as we stood and worshipped this iconic representation of human suffering.

I was not disappointed, and even as I write it seems hard to believe that I have seen it, up close, and real.

The painting is more colourful than I had expected (the colours are brighter than in the other three versions), larger, and even more mesmerising than I had anticipated.

I wondered, again, as I stood and gazed, why the image draws the viewer in, what it touches, and why I found it so difficult to tear myself away.

The painting is one of a series, in which Munch contemplates and depicts man’s inner life and ‘soul-searching’ (others include Anxiety, Despair, Melancholy). Munch spoke little about the background to The Scream, although he did say that it relates to a time when he was ‘being stretched to the limit…at breaking point…You know my pictures, you know it all – you know I felt it all.’ (quoted in: Sue Prideaux. Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream. New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2005, p.152).

Yet today the painting feels less about Munch’s personal experience, and more about the many interpretations that it allows. Mostly, the words anguish, distress, dread, doom, are attached to the feelings that the painting evokes. 

In terms of illness and art, Munch suffered from both physical and psychological distress throughout his life, and spent time in institutions, at one point diagnosed with dementia paralytica secondary to alcohol. There was a family history of mental illness and his sister, Laura, suffered from schizophrenia. She lived most of her life in an asylum near the location depicted in The Scream.

When recovering from an eight-month stay in a private clinic following a breakdown, Munch believed that recovery necessitated retaining at least some degree of his psychological distress:

‘Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.’

‘My sufferings are part of my self and my art.’ (Sue Prideaux, p.251).

Susan Sontag spoke of the Kingdom of the Ill, and the Kingdom of the Well. Mostly, we believe that we live exclusively in one world or the other, yet in reality the gap between the two is narrower than we realise. Munch lived his life bridging and embracing both. 

The Scream speaks from that in between zone that bridges both worlds, a place of alienation and isolation. The scream is deafening, it lingers and echoes in all our lives, which are more fragile than perhaps we want to believe.