Chapter 3

Creativity Helps

3.2 The art of the mad – art therapy

Psychotic painting Artist unknown


Adolf Wölfli General view of the island Neveranger , 1911 (Detail)

When the first public interest in the art of the mad awoke in the beginning of the 19th century, the mysterious circumstances of the works were indeed their prime attraction.

Of lesser interest was their artistic quality. Today there are countless examinations of the therapeutic and artistic qualities of such works and it appears that there are no two equal opinions on this matter.There are striking similarities between some works that are of interest at least to the psychiatrist, for example in the works of schizophrenic patients whose drawings nearly always fill the entire page. Often there is no particular centre to these works neither in a thematic nor in a pictorial sense.

Typical of these patients are pages filled with scribble like patterns reminiscent of the patterns on a carpet. They also often divide the space into strict segments.Typical of drawings from atients who suffer from depression on the other hand is unsurprisingly a very dark cast, which often covers large areas of otherwise relatively realistic works.

The face of depression. Artist unknown

Double Head. Artist unknown

To the psychiatrist the reasons for this are clear : a depressed person uses depressing colours, a person with a split personality draws a split page, where no one point is more important than another, hence the pattern. However, the true causes for this will remain unknown until systematic scientific research is undertaken. Such research must involve a comparison of the above mentioned works to the works of so-called healthy people ( non-artists !) and an objective assessment of these works, by art-critics and average people, and not psychiatrists who may look for particular signs and thus may be prejudiced.

In addition it would be highly interesting to see how patients use different media, if one was to comment on their creativity as opposed to their ability to communicate visually.

However, according to Prof.Dr.R.Michaelis, art-therapy remains an exception in the treatment of psychotics and it's actual help thus somewhat limited. It mainly serves as a means of communication between doctor and patient when other communication is slow or impossible. Hence the works prime importance lies in replacing linguistic communication with an alternative , not in the creation of art. We can witness this particularly in the works of schizophrenic patients who clearly attempt to express their fears, hopes etc. In fact they do so in such a way that they leave little or no place for interpretation.

Arnulf Rainer - 'Rote Traenen' ( red tears )

Although the artistic value of psychotic art remains questionable, it has strongly influenced many artists

Paul Klee - 'Self-portrait'

The number of patients who actually become artists as a direct result of their condition is negligible.