Did you know that March is Women's History Month? To celebrate the work of just a few talented female artists, gallerists, collectors and advisors that work in the arts, we've created a Women in Art magazine. If you like this article, follow the link below for more.
To celebrate International Women's Day and Women's History Month, we've created a smorgasboard of content from women artists, gallerists and special contributors - including the piece below courtesy of PhD researcher, Anna Jamieson.
Anna is based at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her research focuses on the historical relationship between women, art and spectacle in England. Based in London, she is also a freelance writer and university tutor.
Forgotten Art History: Women, Art and "Madness"
Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Richard Dadd. Three famous artists who share two things in common. One, their art is renowned for telling a story of their declining mental illnesses. And two, they’re all men.
Today, the relationship between the arts and mental health is much discussed. Expressing the inner workings of our minds through creativity and using art therapy to work through mental health issues are now seen as crucial, tried and tested ways to engage with past traumas or nourish our mental wellbeing. But when reflecting on the ways well known artists have dealt with their own mental health through their practice, it is striking how often female artists are omitted from these conversations.
So, what does the relationship between art and ‘madness’ look like if we add women into the mix?
Traditionally, the story of mental illness and women has been told by men, corresponding with the role of women within the history of art more broadly. Women did not have the same artistic training as men in their journey to become professional painters or sculptors, meaning that female artists were undoubtedly less visible than their male counterparts. As a result, women have historically been the subjects, rather than the creators, of art, without a level playing field or creative platform to express themselves.
This bias means that artistic representations of “mad” men and women have typically been created by male painters. Whilst men were often portrayed as thoughtful melancholics, their illnesses making them more appealing, introspective and linking them to an inner world of genius, women have in contrast been shown as hysterical, nervous or hypochondriacal. In fact, the late eighteenth century saw the hysterical or melancholic woman become the emblem of mental illness - a cultural phenomenon that is often discussed as the “feminisation of madness”. The leading painters of the era depicted mentally ill women as either sad and sobbing, or hysterical, angry and sexualised.
Whilst the term “art therapy” was officially coined in the 1940s, occupational therapy - including performing in plays, playing sport, going on day trips or creating artwork - had been part of institutional life for much longer. Asylums in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century encouraged these types of activities; yet significantly, many asylums focused on this sort of therapy for men only. In contrast, women’s occupational therapy consisted of cooking, washing or cleaning. Whilst male painters, such as Richard Dadd, who murdered his father and was sent to Bethlem in the mid-nineteenth century, were encouraged to explore their illnesses through painting, women who expressed their minds through their art were seen as dangerous or degenerate, unhinged or amusing.
Women, of course, are far more than just mere archetypal emblems of mental illness. Just like men, they suffered and dealt with a myriad of disorders, emotions and experiences. And just like their male counterparts, female artists teased out these experiences within their artwork - yet their stories have often been omitted from the art historical canon, not being told or acknowledged in the same way.
A FEW EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE
There are a few exceptions to this rule. One is the Minimalist American artist Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004), the subject of a retrospective at the Tate Modern back in 2015. Martin had schizophrenia, and her pulsing, subtle and muted compositions have often been interpreted as a mode of therapy for her disorder. Another is renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who is known for her larger than life, all-encompassing canvases, through which she evokes the hallucinations and obsessive-compulsive behaviour that she has suffered from since childhood.
Kusama and Martin are just two prominent examples of many women who described their mental health issues through their art. To name a few others; Séraphine Louis (1864–1942), the French painter who spent time within mental asylums and whose work is often interpreted as a reflection of her own troubled psyche; French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864 - 1943) mentee of the famous sculptor Rodin who spent 30 years in Montfavet’s asylum, France; and Mary Barnes (1923 - 2001), the English painter who suffered from schizophrenia.
Many of these women died in obscurity, and it is only now that their stories are being told. Learning about these artists, their artworks and experiences complicates our understanding of the way an artist with mental health issues, be they male or female, interpreted the world around them. With conversations about women and “madness” taking place across popular culture, adding the stories of female artists to within their historical context undoubtedly can only strengthen and broaden these narratives, helping us to understand past experiences and alleviate current stigmas and stereotypes surrounding women and health.
We're delighted to bring you such profound articles such as the one above from Anna. If you've enjoyed reading this piece, why not check out our Women in Art magazine - created to celebrate the stories of women in the industry to mark International Women's Day and Women's History Month. Simply follow the link below. Alternatively, if you'd like to browse some exceptional artworks by female artists, we've created a Women in Art curated collection.