Archives for category: Madness & Creativity

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.




The event, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank tonight, and simultaneously broadcast live on Radio 3, was described in the accompanying programme notes as the BBC Concert Orchestra delving ‘into the depths of the human psyche playing with fear, anxiety and madness in an examination of hysteria…’

This intrigued me. I was also unsure what to expect…

The works performed included Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, excerpts from Maxwell Davies The Devils Suite, the world premiere of Jocelyn Pook’s Hearing voices, and Muse’s Hysteria (I want it now) arranged by Patrick Nunn.

It was an extraordinary evening.

Firstly, Schoenberg. Knowing a little about the controversy that surrounded Pierrot Lunaire, I was slightly anxious about what I was going to experience. First performed 100 years ago this year, its initial reception was not overly positive. In fact, the discordant and ‘ear-splitting’ tones of Schoenberg’s work were accused of desecrating the walls of the Berlin concert hall where the premiere was held (

The piece is based on the poetry of Albert Giraud. Schoenberg was obsessed with numbers, and created 21 movements, arranged as three times seven, and thus Op.21 (and also presumably why ‘H7steria’). It is difficult music to explain, unpredictable, and constantly shifting in terms of mood and tone. It therefore constantly surprises, and I progressively warmed to its strangeness. In fact, the outcry that surrounded its premiere, as well as performances since, now seem inexplicable to me. The origins of Schoenberg’s composition have been linked with Freud, and the concept of hysteria, but it seems unlikely that art as complex as this could be traced to any single source or inspiration.

Secondly, excerpts from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Devils Suite (Sister Jeanne’s Vision and The Exorcism), the score for Ken Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils. The film, similar to Schoenberg’s piece, has also been highly controversial, and was heavily censored at the time, due to accusations of ‘depravity’ and ‘blasphemy’. Today, the film can still cause shock, even outrage, with its themes of self-flagellation, masturbation and nude orgies. I was again surprised tonight by the excerpts that I heard from Maxwell Davies’ score. They were beautiful, haunting, eerie, perhaps at times even a little terrifying. Sublime.

Thirdly, the commissioned piece by Jocelyn Pook, with the composer’s song cycle Hearing Voices receiving it’s world premiere tonight. The work was primarily inspired by Pook’s great aunt, Phyllis, who was in an asylum for the last 25 years of her life. When she died, the composer discovered her great aunt’s writings in a trunk, documents of her breakdown and also her struggle to make sense of it all. Hearing Voices also tells the stories of four other women, including that of Pook’s mother, who had a breakdown in the 1950s, of Agnes Lister, who features in Gail Hornstein’s book Agnes’s Jacket, and of the contemporary artist Bobby Baker.

The mezzo-soprano who sang and acted (and did both wonderfully) the stories of these women tonight was Melanie Pappenheim, who coincidentally is a descendant of Bertha Pappenheim, Freud’s famous patient ‘Anna O’.

The BBC Concert Orchestra performed a score that alternated between being background to the voices of the women, and to the fore. A wondrous score, it haunted and still lingers, mirroring a similar effect from hearing each sufferer’s story. The combination of the orchestral score, the real voices of some of the women whose lives and experiences this work was based on, Pappenheims’s singing and acting/re-enacting, as well as images and photographs, served to create something world making, that spoke of bearing witness, and of compassion.

Finally, we were treated to Patrick Nunn’s arrangement of Muse’s Hysteria. I like the original, but Nunn did something very original and intriguing here, which did, not quite confuse me, but made me sit up and listen, and consider. I needed to make sense of the otherness of something I had thought I had been familiar with. Which perhaps was the essence of what tonight was ultimately about.



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.

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 ( at The Riflemaker Gallery, where she currently has an exhibition, I told him I was an artist. He said “can you cook?” ( 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.’ (

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…