Archives for category: Art

Always a controversial and problematic discussion, the much debated association between mental illness and creativity continues to engage and to elude definitive conclusions.

I am one of those sceptical of a necessary link between creative genius and mental illness. But am open to being challenged on this.

Check out this video from Aeon that proposes the potential of art as a better tool that science for understanding mental illness. The art in question focuses on the work of Edvard Munch, who I have spoken about here in previous posts.

 

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Being able to ‘read’ and to understand the language of pain and suffering is for me an essential life goal.

Below is a link to a recently published personal reflection on how I started on this journey.

http://www.hektoeninternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1746

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I recently travelled to Brighton to see this exhibition, a collaborative project led by Sussex NHS Community Trust http://onca.org.uk/currentexhibition/

A Cancer Landscape presents works by the artist Michele Angelo Petrone, who died as a result of Hodgkin’s disease in 2007, as well as those by others personally affected by cancer that had been created during a series of workshops at ONCA in 2014. Images from the Wellcome Medical Photographic Library are also on display.

Petrone’s paintings are “images of the emotions and feelings experienced during the cancer journey”. The companion book, The Emotional Cancer Journey, includes the images on display as well as accompanying reflections and quotes from the artist. Petrone’s lymphoma diagnosis was made in 1994. Many years of intensive treatment and relapses ensued until his death 13 years later. The book, completed in 2003 when a relapse had just been confirmed, is an expression of Petrone’s experience of living with cancer:

“I have to tell you all about my journey of illness.”

“Illness and death may be familiar to you, But what is it really like when its your own illness? What is it really like when your life feels as if it’s being taken from you?”

The journey to where?

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“I don’t know where my life will take me”

Two intersecting elements dominate Petrone’s journey: the medical component and Petrone’s emotional response to his illness. His distinctive art movingly encapsulates this intertwining, for example the piece titled The pain of it all, which does indeed visually say it all:

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Sorrow, loss, love, life’s fragility are amongst the themes covered by Petrone. The alienation that accompanies serious illness, when those affected are isolated from diagnosis in the kingdom of the ill, is dealt with in Life goes on:

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“Having treatment, my life is fossilised. Everyone else’s life progresses, goes forward. I just watch as life goes on for everybody except me.”

The other works on display, also inspired by the experience of cancer, are equally moving and haunting.

Much lingers to consider and to reflect on in the aftermath of visiting this exhibition.

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When I consider the word ‘loneliness’, Alice Neel’s painting of the same name immediately comes to mind. It is one of my favourite works of art. There is something almost sublime about the sheer emptiness of the image – an emptiness not just of people, but also of objects. The chair stands alone, in a space devoid of all else, even sound, or so it seems. I heard someone say this week that poetry is the closest thing we have to silence. Loneliness reflects a poetic silence, a soundlessness evocative of the emotional experience that it considers.

The chair sits by a window. Through it we see other windows, behind which we suspect are similarly empty and silent rooms.

Loneliness was created in 1970. Neel commented at the time that the painting was as close as she had come to a self-portrait.

Neel’s painting successfully encapsulates that intangible yet almost palpable sense of emptiness, of hollowness, and of visceral soundlessness, thus visually conveying loneliness, an experience that can be challenging to share, and a word that has no adequate verbal synonym.

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Descent from the Cross

The German artist Max Beckmann was born on this day, February 12, 1884.

Beckmann suffered for his art, his work ultimately labelled ‘degenerate’ in his homeland by Hitler and Nazism. Forced to leave Germany as a result, he lived in relative poverty in Amsterdam for 10 years. Finally, his visa for the US materialised. His fortunes improved in America, but he died within a few years, in 1950 at the age of 66, from heart disease.

Descent from the Cross intrigues and fascinates me. It epitomises the notion of (almost) unbearable suffering, where others, although present, cannot truly bear witness, and avert their gaze. Christ’s body, although pale, emaciated and wounded, seems perversely supersized, as if to emphasise that suffering, represented by perhaps the ultimate icon of human suffering, can overshadow and overwhelm that which it encounters.

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The fact of dementia is inescapable, as its incidence threatens to reach epidemic proportions in the not too distant future.

Thus, unsurprisingly, dementia as a theme is increasingly prevalent in the arts, including literature, theatre and the visual arts. I discussed the artist William Utermohlen in a previous post, and the impact of dementia on his life and creativity (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/art-and-alzheimers/). I have also experienced wonderful theatre that has focused on the subject, such as Tamsin Oglesby’s Really Old, Like Forty Five (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/dementia1/), and Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/dementia-autobiographer/).

A few years ago I came across a short story by Alice Munro, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1999 (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/10/21/131021fi_fiction_munro). The story was later adapted for the film Away from Her (2006), which was directed by Sarah Polley.

The short story concerns Grant and Fiona, who have been married for many years, and do not have any children. When Fiona was 70, Grant started to notice little yellow notes stuck all over the house. The notes were detailed and included prompts on where to locate household items as well as aids for remembering what her daily schedule should be. Fiona then started to call Grant from town when she could not remember how to get home. Fiona herself comments:

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she said. “I expect I’m just losing my mind.”

The forgetfulness and memory loss get worse. Eventually, the time arrives for Fiona to move to institutional care at Meadowlake, where she creates her own and not unhappy life, separate and detached from Grant. The story is a profoundly moving and sad portrayal of love and of loss.

Today I read a more recent short story by Munro from her collection Dear Life. In In Sight of the Lake (reminiscent of Meadowlake in the earlier story), Nancy’s story slowly unfollows as one also of dementia, or of a ‘mind problem’ as she herself sees it, although then correcting herself: “It isn’t mind. It’s just memory.”

In Sight of the Lake is a more obtuse and enigmatic piece than The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and it only really reveals itself at its denouement. Nonetheless, it is every bit as moving and as touching as its thematic predecessor, and leaves much to consider about the far-reaching and tragic impact of dementia, a condition that perhaps few of us may ultimately escape.

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The medical historian, writer and poet Professor Joanna Geyer Kordesch led the research project ‘Stories and Cures: Illness and the Art of Medicine’, which was undertaken at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. The day before she was due to present the findings at the Scottish Storytelling festival, Kordesch herself suffered a serious stroke. In this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uskmAr18wSs she shares her experience of the aftermath of the event, offering a unique insight into both her academic expertise on the subject of storytelling and illness, as well as her own personal experience as an illness sufferer.

The time from her near death experience to anything approaching normality has been a relatively long one for Kordesch. Along the way, no one could advise her on a recovery trajectory or a possible prognosis. The long and slow wait for return of function is a subjective experience, and one that is unique to each stroke sufferer. Thus, Kordesch stresses the word ‘individualised’ throughout the discussion: she sees her stroke as an individualised condition, and how she has endured it as an individualised experience. Although her experience has inevitably been different to those of others, for all those affected by illness and disability, Kordesch suggests a facing up to one’s symptoms, focusing on living through the condition (as opposed to trying to eliminate it), which can be in itself ultimately liberating, not only for the sufferer but also for healthcare professionals.

The complexity of influences, all of which interact, that arise from serious illness are unique to the individual, and include not just the physical but also the impact of imagination and of feelings. With her academic expertise on the experience of illness in the context of culture and philosophy, Kordesch speaks of the romantic era, pre medicalisation of psychological issues and psychiatry, when expression of one’s imagination, dreams and feelings were allowed and encouraged.

Since her stroke, her creative side – art and poetry – has become increasingly important to Kordesch, which allows her to tell her own story rather than using those of others. She stresses the importance of storytelling for one’s wellbeing, as an opportunity to explain and to experience ways of dealing with illness and disability.

Kordesch’s experience reinforces her belief that people need to be seen, particularly by doctors, as a whole rather than merely as their disabled/ill parts.

Kordesch acknowledges that her illness experience has added something to her life, and she now finds that she is more attentive to the world that she lives and recovers in.

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Currently on until November 3, I spent an entire afternoon over the weekend at a screening of a series of short animated documentaries.
I love comics and comic books (I learned today that sales of ‘graphic novels’ (I dislike the contrived term) have increased by 1000% over the last decade). Animation offers me something similar, as a transformative medium whose creative power and ability to engage its audience has the capacity to uniquely blend the imaginary and the actual to create, perhaps somewhat paradoxically and surprisingly, a heightened reality of sorts.

Thus it was for the short documentaries that I just experienced.

There were 12 films in all, of varying lengths, themes and formats. I had previously seen some of Tony Donoghue’s work on ‘Irish Folk Furniture’, which has at its theme an Ireland of the past, as represented by neglected and disused traditional furniture, which is restored to a new, but no less grand, splendour. A wonderfully succinct, considered, and funny piece.

The remaining 11 films were new to me. Topics included the harrowing difficulties facing families following recent immigration changes in the UK (‘Visa’), and the experiences of children such as Ali,who fled Afghanistan but his parents were left behind (‘Drawing for Memory’), and Rachel, whose family managed to escape her country of origin only to be subjected to detention centres in the UK and a forced return to her homeland (‘From A to B and Back Again’). These are truly sad stories, but they are also stories that can be shared, most particularly through the medium of animation, as the participants, who so want their experiences to be heard, can retain their anonymity throughout and thus feel ‘safe’ to speak.

There was also a fascinating piece on sleep paralyis (‘Devil in the Room’), and a very considered film on loss, based on the real experiences of five people who shared their feelings on losing something precious and how it had informed them about living (‘Good Grief’).

I was particularly moved by ‘SPD and Me’. In this work, the director Matthew Brookes, who suffers from Semantic Pragmatic Disorder, which is part of the autism spectrum and mainly affects comprehension and reading, shares his experience of coping with his condition. At the end of 4 minutes, you do get it, and you at least partly understand what SPD is and how it has challenged him. Four minutes in any other medium is very unlikely to achieve something similar…

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The BBC foreign correspondent Helen Fawkes has ovarian cancer. She was first diagnosed 12 years ago and had been in remission until recently. She has now been told that she has incurable disease (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01j9ghq).

Twelve years ago, once chemotherapy had been completed, Fawkes wrote a list of 10 things she wanted to do on the back of an envelope. One of the items was to become a BBC foreign correspondent, which she duly achieved. When she was told the diagnosis of recurrent and incurable cancer, she initially focused on the unfairness of it all. Yet, alongside the upset and the anger, she also became determined to live her life that remained to the full. She has written a 50 item to do list, which she prefers to call a list for living rather than a bucket list…

As she ticks off the items – things that celebrate being alive, mostly experiences shared with those dear to her – Fawkes finds that the list has made her excited about life. Now finding herself in a situation where control and structure have largely been eroded, she sees the list as a way of prioritising her time, of minimising regrets, and of helping to ensure that the time she has left is spent truly ‘alive’ rather than on autopilot.

Fawkes questions whether such an approach to life, as in living it ‘to the full’, is inherently selfish, or whether it might in fact be spiritual. There is no simple answer, but I do concur with the psychotherapist Philippa Perry, who suggests that there is something of the shopping list about bucket lists, a sort of consumerist approach to buying one’s way out of feeling what one is feeling…

The artist and senior TED fellow Candy Chang created a thought-provoking visual piece of work around the notion of what we really want to do and to achieve with our lives (http://www.ted.com/talks/candy_chang_before_i_die_i_want_to.html).
Chang turned the exterior of a derelict house in her neighbourhood in New Orleans into a giant chalkboard, where passersby were invited to complete the line, ‘Before I die I want to…’
Within 24 hours, the board was filled with hundreds of messages. The idea has now moved to many other countries, where it has been just as popular. Clearly, people do stop to consider what they would like to do, or perhaps what they dream of doing ‘someday’. Whether this translates into an actual ‘doing’, particularly before one becomes aware that death is much closer than anticipated, is another important and as yet unanswered question.
Chang sees life as ‘brief and tender’. She sees death as an intrinsic part of how we live, and believes that preparing for this inevitable event can not only be empowering, but can also serve to clarify our lives as we live through them.

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I have some thoughts on what I would like to experience, and to hopefully share, over the forthcoming week:

The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen

This work of fiction focuses on Elizabeth Stone, an academic (primarily of Milton) who has been diagnosed and treated for advanced ovarian cancer (thematically reminiscent of the play W;t, previously discussed here https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/wt/). Unexpectedly given an ‘all clear’ following treatment, the protagonist re-explores her life, and her loneliness.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

This will be my 6th read from the Booker Longlist. Described as a book depicting ‘overwhelming grief’ and ‘suffering’, it promises to be suitably apt for this blog…

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose

I have just started re-reading this hugely impressive book by the philosopher and writer. It impressively covers many issues, including death, illness and Judaism, in such a short text. One sentence in the book:

‘It was the occasion of my initiation into the anti-supernatural character of Judaism: into how non-belief in God defines Judaism and how change in that compass registers the varieties of Jewish modernity.’

prompted the next item on my list:

The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama

This is a current BBC series that I have started to watch, in order to redress my ignorance of the history of Judaism.

Alexis Hunter and Jo Spence Art Exhibition

This exhibition, at the Richard Saltoun Gallery until September 27, focuses on the development of feminist art. I have previously discussed Jo Spence in the context of the art she created around her diagnosis of breast cancer, and her living with, and dying from, the condition (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/jo-spence-art-photography-illness-and-the-body/).

http://www.richardsaltoun.com/exhibitions/26/overview/

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun

This film screens at the Lexi Cinema on Wednesday. Seven years in the making, it tells the story of the Tibetan movement, and struggle, to free Tibet.

http://thelexicinema.co.uk/2013/08/17/when-the-dragon-swallowed-the-sun/

Finally, a thought

Something I came across today, and am still considering, from Nietzsche:

“We possess art lest we perish from the truth”

CQ