The familiar link between mental health and creativity is discussed in an article by Julian Barnes in the London Review of Books.
In his review of a new collection of Van Gogh’s correspondence he makes the point that despite recent research of 86,000 Icelanders that those with a genetic risk of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder appear to have a greater chance of being creative – this does not mean that mental illness automatically leads to someone being creative. Barnes cites a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo three months before committing suicide saying, “Ah, if only I’d been able to work without this bloody illness! How many things I could have done”. Far from regarding his illness as a necessary part of his creativity, his own experience was that it was an obstruction: he had after all seen mental illness destroy the lives of his uncle, who committed suicide as a result of it, and the devastating effect it had on his sister Willhemina, who was eventually committed to an asylum in 1902 where she lived out the next 39 years of her life in total silence.
Barnes makes the point that “sometimes the archer pulls the bow despite the wound rather than because of it” – meaning that the artist makes work despite the illness (perhaps even to spite the illness?) rather than as a result (an unconscious response perhaps?) to the illness. I wonder if the example of Agnes Martin throws up the possibility of a synthesis between Barnes’s opposition. The idea that Agnes Martin pulled her bow, less to spite her illness but to respond to it, an act of tending to herself, of standing outside of her illness, of identifying with the objects she was making rather than identifying herself with the illness that was only a part of her.
This echoes one of the main lessons of humanistic psychotherapy – that physical symptoms can come to be used as a useful way of drawing a client’s attention to an unconscious buried aspect of themselves that has been invisible to them up to this point – the visible wound becoming a catalyst for conscious activity.
Agnes Martin’s art speaks to the human potential to mindfully transcend limitations and create a fulfilling practice out of life itself. Her work radiates the possibility that mindfully presencing ourselves in life will keep sane and in the world.
It is perhaps not a surprise that a schizophrenic came to live in the desert for most her life, a space of isolation, separation and evacuation, almost a reflection of the potential result on the mind of schizophrenia. Perhaps living in an already evacuated space, Martin was more able to hold the line between consciousness and unconsciousness. There was less distraction. Here she could be with herself and find her own way of maintaining herself in the world.
The photograph of Agnes Martin used on the exhibition leaflet shows a stocky woman dressed in dark clothing standing in the desert, her gaze directed above where the camera is pointing, as if she has noticed something above and outside of what we as onlookers can see. Her attitude is intentioned and questioning, watchful and alive to the moment, holding herself and her world intact – perhaps Intentioning herself into presence.
This exhibition ran from 3 June – 11 October 2015 at Tate Modern. Further details of the exhibition can be found on the Tate website.