mental illness

Music, Art, and Spirituality by Chris Hall

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913.

“Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.”  Ludwig van Beethoven

“Painting is a thundering conflict of different worlds, which in and out of the battle with one another are intended to create the new world, which is called the world of art. Each work arises technically in a way similar to that in which the cosmos arose – through catastrophes, which from the chaotic roaring of the instruments finally create a symphony, the music of the spheres. The creation of the work is the creation of worlds.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Blood Promise (recorded live in 1997), by Swans, composed by Michael Gira, from the album Swans are Dead.

Ah!  If I could only make a painting that sounds like this song, I would retire my paint brushes forever! Like a good painting, listening to this song requires time and patience. It builds slowly, then at a certain point, it overwhelms and consumes. You lose yourself in spiritual, transcendent experience. The first part of the song is the sound of mankind's universal experience of pain, but then at the 8:17 mark, the bottom drops out, and you begin to float, you make the first hesitant steps at flying, at escaping, trying out your wings for the first time, fighting for joy, demanding entrance into heaven, the right to be dissolved into the universal void . . . only to begin again, born again, reincarnated.  This song gives me the shivers and puts goosebumps on my skin.  Today I want to write about music, art, and spirituality, while referencing two of its most famous practitioners, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wassily Kandinsky.

“Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.”  Ludwig van Beethoven

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” Ludwig van Beethoven

Music has always been an important part of my life.  I may have been born with a crayon in my hand, but it was music that gave me the inspiration and courage to use it.  I was born on December 16th, 1975.  I share this birthday with my brothers Ludwig van Beethoven and Wassily Kandinsky.  Like both of these artists, music is a big part of my life.  When I paint, I always have music on – it allows me to loosen up, to more easily channel my primal-self, that deeper part of myself where I act more on instinct than intellect, where I can better pick up on unconscious inspiration.

“With few exceptions, music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist's soul, in musical sound.”  Wassily Kandinsky 

While it is more known that musicians have attempted to portray visual imagery through sound (both figuratively, as in Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and abstractly, as in Alexander Scriabin's synesthetic oeuvre), it is less well known that artists have pursued painting with an eye toward music.  Wassily Kandinsky is one of these artists.  But music is by nature abstract.  How does one paint sound?  What shape does it take?  What color is it?  Wassily Kandinsky was profoundly inspired by music, and it is thought he may have even experienced synesthesia, where a person gets their senses confused, and they literally can hear colors, or see sound.  Kandinsky's synesthesia may have inspired him to create the first truly abstract works of art.  In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), Kandinsky sets up a color theory in order to merge ideas of music and art, with an eye toward using art as path toward spiritual transcendence.  

“Each color lives by its mysterious life.”  Wassily Kandinsky

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
Wassily Kandinsky

“The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with the treble.”  Wassily Kandinsky

“The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural... The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Musical notation by Ludwig van Beethoven.

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Like Beethoven and Kandinsky, I believe in the power of music and art to elevate notions of spirituality in people, and like them, I often seek spiritual transcendence through my work and the work of others.  Who can not listen to the fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy and not get the feeling of spiritual transcendence!  

Excerpt from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy, taken from the film Immortal Beloved (1994).

Art is as a noble profession, a profession I want to protect from pop culture banality and commercial interests.  These people are the real killers of art.  It seems so strange that I have so much in common with Beethoven and Kandinsky, in terms of personality and a deep love of music.  Of course we are all artists as well, but what is more fascinating is that we also share the same motivations for making art, and share a belief in the possibility of it being divinely inspired.  Perhaps there is some truth to this whole astrology thing.  The website thesecretlanguage.com claims to have collected and studied the life stories of 20,000 people over 40 years, and this is how they describe people born on December 16th:  visionary, imaginative, guided, impractical, out-of-touch, and troubled.  The website also has this to say:

Those born on December 16 are among the most imaginative people in the year. This is not to understate their physical side, however, which is highly developed and stakes out its claims on their personality as well. As a matter of fact, one of the major themes in the lives of December 16 people concerns transcending physical limitations of the body and reaching for the stars . . . December 16 people are not the easiest to live with. Emotional problems of all sorts plague them, usually as a result of their own complex nature. Those who live with them must be extraordinarily understanding and sensitive to their needs, not the very least of which may be a need for periodic solitude . . . Often December 16 people feel guided or even instructed by a higher power in whose service they find themselves. This power may be social, religious or universal in nature, but ultimately liberating for them. Through this association they are freed from their earthbound problems at least for a time . . . December 16 people are capable of feats requiring titanic energies. Once they are directed towards an inspiring but also realistic goal, there is little that can stop them from achieving far-reaching success in their work. Yet, they can be easily sidetracked and fall prey to all sorts of slights, real or imagined, annoyances and (to them) trivial problems involving other people’s feelings, to which they are not always the most sensitive. Living on what may or may not be a high spiritual plane or metaphysical cloud they can have trouble relating to those mere mortals busy with more mundane and petty considerations . . . Explosive reactions alternating with remoteness or indifference, manic periods followed by depressions, the highs of laughter and the depths of deep silence are all colors found on the December 16 palette. The most successful of those born on this day find expression for their high idealism and feelings through creative work, hobbies or social activities. Thus they are able to communicate with and touch their fellow human beings through shared interests.

Not exactly glowing reviews, especially the whole prone to mental illness and depression thing, but if I am honest with myself and my flaws, and I am, I have to admit this is very accurate.  And this is where art comes in for me.  Art (music, visual art, and writing) is not only a catharsis for me, it has allowed me to confront my flaws, and to hopefully work at getting beyond them.  Art, then, is my path toward spiritual growth and transcendence.  Art is my religion.

“Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and... stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to 'walk about' into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”  Wassily Kandinsky

If you enjoyed the live version of Blood Promise by Swans (recorded 1997) above, I hope you may enjoy the studio version below, released in 1994.  It is a very different song, and short, about four minutes long.  It is the kind of song I think I might like to fall in love to.  

Blood Promise from the album The Great Annihilator (1994).

Jackson Pollock Part One by Chris Hall

“Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.”  Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is a legendary figure in 20th century art.  He was the first American artist to gain an international reputation as an innovator without having studied or worked in Europe, the birthplace of modernism.  His challenging abstract imagery and unusual painting technique are still controversial today.  Pollock is best known for his unique style of drip painting.  Regarded as reclusive, he had a volatile personality, and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life.  In 1945, he married the artist Lee Krasner, who became an important influence on his career and on his legacy.  Some have argued that the troubled and reclusive Pollock would not have been successful without Krasner's tireless efforts to promote him.  Pollock died at age 44.  Along with other American celebrities who died before their time, such as Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, his life has become mythologized and become a part of American collective identity.  

Pollock's Shift from Radical Politics to Mythic Visionary

Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the youngest of five sons.  He grew up in Arizona and in Chico, California.  While living in Echo Park, California, he enrolled at Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School, from which he was expelled for protesting the  school's special treatment of athletics and the ROTC.  During his early life, Pollock explored Native American culture while on surveying trips with his father.  Pollock would count Native American art as his first and primary influence.

Growing up in California, Pollock's interest in art was supported by his father, Roy Pollock.  Jackson became interested in the work Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Another influence was his art teacher at Manual Arts High School, Frederick Schwankovsky.  Schwankovsky, who was a Communist Party member, would go with Pollock to Communist meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center in East Los Angeles and to spiritualist Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, where he learned about the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics and perhaps gained an interest in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.  

In 1930, Pollock followed his older brother Charles, and moved to New York City, where they both studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.  Benton's rural American subject matter, know as Regionalism, would have little lasting influence on Pollock's work, but his rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence were more lasting.  Benton used Pollock as a model for a steel worker in his mural America Today (1930 – 1931) in the New School for Social Research.  While Benton was not a Communist, he was sympathetic to leftist and progressive politics.  His art champions the working class and many parallels can be drawn between his work and Socialist Realism.  During the Great Depression, a lot more people were open to radical politics as a possible solution out of economic woe.  Pollock recalled his father frequently defended the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Pollock, who grew up in a left leaning family, found in Benton a surrogate father figure.    

1933 was a watershed year for Pollock, America, and the world at large.  Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States, and Pollock watched as Diego Rivera painted his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center.  Soon, Pollock's taste for avant-garde art and radical politics led him to break away from Benton.  Pollock was becoming more interested in the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco.  All three were known for their radical politics, with Rivera and Siqueiros being active members of the Communist Party.  

In 1936, Pollock attended Siqueiros' political art workshop and quickly became a part of his inner circle.  Siqueiros was a Stalinist and would later attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940.  Pollock collaborated with Siqueiros and his entourage in creating a float for the May Day Parade which featured a Wall Street capitalist holding a donkey and elephant, indicating that both parties were controlled by big money and thus were enemies to the people, and a large ticker-tape machine being smashed by a hammer emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle.  When the Great Depression began to ease, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal and his WPA programs, many people, including Pollock, began turning away from radical politics.  Siqueiros's experimental techniques, however, (such as pouring liquid paint) would have a lasting impact on Pollock's art.

From 1935 to 1943 Pollock worked for Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, the visual arts arts arm of the Work Projects Administration.  The FAP's primary goal was to employ out of work artists.  These artists were hired to primarily to create art for public spaces.  The FAP was divided into mural arts, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts.  Pollock worked for the easel division.  By 1936, the FAP employed over 6,000 artists.  FAP artists created more than 200,000 works of art.

“I don't paint nature.  I am nature.”  Jackson Pollock.

In 1938, Pollock had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for four months for alcoholism.  Recent historians have speculated that Pollock might have suffered from bi-polar disorder.  Whatever the reason, from 1938 to 1942, Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy, first with Dr. Joseph Henderson, and later with Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.  When World War II broke out, Pollock's Selective Service status of 4F for medical reasons (neurosis) kept him from being drafted.  Henderson engaged Pollock through his art, encouraging him to make drawings exploring Jungian concepts and archetypes.  These would later feed his paintings and shaped Pollock's understanding that his pictures were not only the outpourings of his own mind, but also, perhaps, the universal expression of mankind's modern condition and the terror of having to live in the shadow of nuclear war.

During this time, Pollock grew more interested in mythology and began using his art and dreams as healing tool and a method to explore the inner self.  Henderson and  Staub de Laszlo had also reawakened Pollock's interest in Native American art.  Some Jungian analysts believe in the controversial theory that a colonizing people inherit the racial memory of the natives they displace.  Henderson and Staub de Laszlo encouraged Pollock's exploration of Native American inspired art.  Pollock began attending demonstrations of Native American sand painting at the Museum of Modern Art and attended a workshop hosted by the Austrian-Mexican Surrealist in exile, Wolfgang Paalen (which, incidentally, was also attended by future Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottleib, and William Baziotes).  Paalen was famous for his fumage technique of making images from the smoke produced by candles.  He was also an expert on Native British Columbian Totem art.  Paalen's lengthy article, Totem Art, would later be a significant influence upon Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1936, Pollock had for the first time briefly met Lee Krasner, but the two would not meet again until 1941.  In time, their relationship would bring Pollock some of the few spells of calm and happiness he would ever know.  Despite hs personal problems, Pollock remained bullishly confident in his art.  Krasner, impressed with Pollock's work, introduced him to her teacher, Hans Hofmann.  Hofmann was equally enthusiastic, and a friendship between the two men soon developed.  Once, Hofmann was said to have remarked that Pollock needed to work more from nature, to which Pollock replied, “I don't paint nature, I am nature.”

Mark Rothko by Chris Hall

Mark Rothko was an American Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painter.  With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his considered to be one of the most famous postwar American artists.  Rothko's art grew from representational to amorphous mythological subjects, to pure abstract, non-objective fields of color and light.  Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), in 1903.  Fearing that Mark Rothko's older brothers might be drafted into the army on the eve of the First World War, the Rothko family emigrated  to Portland, Oregon, in the United States.  

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but when the scholarship was not renewed after his first year, Rothko worked as a waiter and delivery boy to pay for his education.  He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, and moved to New York City to study art. Rothko enrolled in the New York School of Design, where he worked with instructor and abstract artist Arshile Gorky.  Rothko thought Gorky a domineering figure, and so he left to take classes at the Art Student's League, taught by cubist artist and instructor Max Weber.  Under Max Weber, Rothko began to view art as a tool for emotional and religious expression.  Rothko's early influences were the works of the German Expressionists and the surrealist artist, Paul Klee.  Rothko also met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.  The Rothko family did not understand his decision to be an artist, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.  Rothko, however, like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, many other artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.

When World War Two erupted, Rothko felt that a new art was needed with a new subject matter that would have social impact, yet would also be able to transcend the confines of political symbols and values.  Rothko also wanted this new subject matter to complement his growing interest in form, space, and color.  He temporarily stopped painting in 1940 and immersed himself in studying Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the works of Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others.  From this was born Rothko's “Mythomorphic Abstractionism” period.  

 Rothko's interest in using mythology to transcend the troubled times was not unique.  Gottlieb, Newman, and Pollock were at a similar crossroads in their art, using mythological symbolism to bridge the gap between representation and pure abstraction.  They were all interested in dream theory and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and believed that by using mythological symbolism they could transcend specific history and culture.

Rothko had a noble goal in mind for his art.  He wanted to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness, which he believed resulted from a lack of mythology.  Rothko felt his art could free unconscious energies in the viewer, which were previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.  In this respect, Rothko viewed himself as a modern day “mythmaker,” and proclaimed  that "the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.

Rothko debuted his new paintings in 1942, at a show in a New York City Macy's department store.  In response to a negative critical review of the show by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto where they stated, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."  Rothko and Gottlieb also fired a broadside toward those who would prefer a less challenging art, writing that their work “must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

In June of 1943, Rothko and his wife Edith separated.  Rothko suffered a long depression following his divorce.  Thinking that a change of scenery would help, Rothko returned to Portland.  From Portland, Rothko traveled to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the artist Clyfford Still.  At this time, Still had already eschewed surrealist representation in favor of pure, non-objective abstraction.  Rothko looked at Still's work and saw his future.  Rothko's experiments in unconscious symbolism had run its course; abstraction would be the next step.

In 1945 Rothko painted Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, showing his new-found interest in abstraction.  His new work possessed a more organic structure, often featuring blurred blocks of various colors.  They were devoid of any reference to the figure or the landscape.  Rothko thought that these new works, by shedding figurative qualities, had a life force  of their own and contained the “breath of life.”  Rothko discovered his trademark symmetrical rectangular blocks of two or three opposing and contrasting, yet complementary colors in the winter of 1949.  He also began to use large, vertically formatted canvases, which he intended to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting.

Rothko viewed his work as living entities.  As he began to achieve success, he also began to be increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.  Of this, Rothko would write, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.  It dies by the same token.  It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.  How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” 

Beginning in 1950, Rothko started to meet with financial success and fame.  Despite his success, Rothko felt himself isolated and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist began to developed.  He feared that the people purchasing his paintings were doing so simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by his collectors, critics, and audience.  Compounding his isolation, many of his friends began to abandon him, Rothko's new fame and patrons not sitting well with them.  Old friend Clyfford Still even asked for the return of his of gifted paintings.

Rothko defended himself against accusations of selling out.  He maintained that his work was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Some people, however, did understand Rothko's work.  New friend and poet Stanley Kunitz saw Rothko as "a primitive, a shaman who finds the magic formula and leads people to it." Great poetry and painting, Kunitz believed, both had "roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting" and were, at their core, ethical and spiritual.  Rothko was insistent upon the proper interpretation of his work and worked hard to spread his message.  In 1958 Mark Rothko spoke at the Pratt Institute and gave his recipe for a work of art:

1.  There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death. 2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist. 3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire. 4. Irony, This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else. 5. Wit and play... for the human element. 6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element. 7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.  I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

That same year the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had completed their new building on Park Avenue.  Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building's new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.  Other three months Rothko completed forty paintings in a series of dark reds and browns.  Shortly afterward, Rothko, with his new wife Mell, sailed to Europe aboard the SS Independence where he joked with Harper's Magazine publisher John Fischer that his true intention for the Seagram's murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”  He hoped that his paintings would make the restaurant's patron's "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."  Upon his return to New York, Rothko and Mell visited the nearly completed Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko became upset with the restaurant's dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for his work.  Rothko quit the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company.  

By the 1960's the art world began to turn away from Abstract Expressionism, turning their gaze toward the next big thing, Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.  Rothko labeled Pop artists as “charlatans and young opportunists,” and wondered aloud during a 1962 Pop Art exhibition, “Are the young artists plotting to kill us all?”  On looking at Jasper Johns' flag paintings, Rothko said, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”  Rothko knew that his fame would be fleeting, and that he would eventually be replaced, but what he could not fathom was that he would be replaced by Pop Art, which he found sterile and vapid.

Rothko spent his last years working on a commission for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which he believed would be the artistic pinnacle of his career.  He would never see the installation of his work.  Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year's Day, 1969, and he moved into his studio.  On February 25th, 1970, studio assistant Oliver Steindecker found Rothko's body lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.  He had sliced open his arms.  An autopsy also revealed that he had overdosed on anti-depressants.  He was sixty-six years old.  On February 28th, 1971, at the Rothko chapel dedication in Houston, Dominique de Menil said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."  I believe Rothko would have agreed with him.  Initially the chapel was to be Roman Catholic, but within three years the chapel expanded to become non-denominational. 

On Art and Suffering by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch,  Despair , 1894

Edvard Munch, Despair, 1894

In the eyes of art history, Munch’s best work came out of his suffering.  His work after 1910 is generally regarded as weaker than and not as expressive as his earlier work from the 1890's and 1900's.  Is suffering necessary in order to make good work?  Many artists believe this, perhaps because suffering is all they have known, and we artists insist on our wounds (and the world isn’t friendly to artists and the expression of emotions).  I once believed that good work could only come out of suffering, too, but I refuse to believe completely in it anymore.  As someone who has experienced mental illness in the form of major depression and anxiety, I understand this notion to a great degree.  But there is nothing romantic about depression and anxiety.  Looking back, maybe my suffering gave me some clarity, insight, and empathy after the fact, but while being depressed, or in the throes of an anxiety attack, it is impossible to make art.  It is a torture to want to keep on living, let alone hold a paint brush.  I don’t know exactly how other artists work, what makes them tick, what makes them produce art.  Speaking for myself, it is important for me to be happy while having a little bit of an edge and some sensitivity.  I remember being on lithium for a short time, years ago, and how I could not produce any artwork because I felt emotionally numb, so maybe there is some truth to the necessity of suffering.  Maybe a little suffering is good for the soul, but only a little.

Why is contemporary art wary of art as catharsis and the expression of human emotion?  Why is it afraid of color?  In today’s rationally minded art world, perhaps they are afraid of that which is unquantifiable.  They are afraid to look into themselves and recognize that they, too, are feeling creatures, with darkness, anxiety, potential sadness, or worse.  No, if there are to be any emotions in today’s rationally minded society, it can only be emotions that are useful and can be exploited, bright, cheery, happy emotion.  Everything else must be quietly swept under the rug.  While in grad school I was surprised to learn that some of my more emotional and cathartic work would be received not with empathy, but with disbelief that anything of this kind of expression could be genuine.  There is no longer any respect for expressions of suffering.  All one has to do is look at the many parodies, products, and memes out there today of Munch’s The Scream to understand this.  One of the pictures below is of artist Takashi Murakami mocking The Scream.  He should know better.  Clearly he has no respect or empathy for Munch or his work.  Munch must be rolling in his grave.

Munch isn’t the only one to suffer posthumous humiliation.  There are endless parodies, products, and memes concerning Van Gogh’s ear as well.

Early Influence: Edvard Munch by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter and printmaker born December 12, 1863.  The themes of much of his work include love, anxiety, infidelity, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death.  His work is viewed as an exemplar of the fin-de-siècle anxiety and apocalyptic attitudes of the time as they show not physical reality, but psychological reality.  

Munch believed himself born into a cursed family.  Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, and his sister Sophie died of the same in 1877.  Munch himself was often ill and spent a lot of time away from school.  Supported by his father, who was a medical officer in the military, the Munch family grew up poor, and they frequently moved from one small apartment to another.  Mental illness also ran in the family.  Another of Munch’s sisters was diagnosed at a young age, and Munch would later spend 8 months in a hospital in 1908.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Munch needed art to help explain suffering.  Munch would write, “In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”  Munch’s choice to be an artist was not supported by his father or his community, who frowned upon his bohemian and non-traditional ways.  Munch began by painting in a more Impressionist style, and based on his talent his secured a scholarship in France, where he would see the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh.  Both became very influential on his work. His new work showed signs of what would be later called Expressionism.  His stated goal was "the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.”  At first Munch sold very little, but managed to make a little money by charging entrance fees to people who just wanted to see his controversial paintings.  He was also a little loath to part with his work, which he called “his children,” because he viewed his whole body of work to be a single expression.  In order to make sales he began transcribing his work into wood-block prints and lithographs.

In 1893 Munch painted The Scream, generally thought to represent the universal anxiety of modern man.  Concerning the genesis of the work Munch would write:  

"I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

He later described the personal anguish behind the painting, "for several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, 'The Scream?' I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again."

Munch met with some success, particularly in Berlin with his Frieze of Life exhibition in 1902.  Of this time in his life Munch would write in his journal, "After twenty years of struggle and misery forces of good finally come to my aid in Germany—and a bright door opens up for me."  Life seemed to be finally going well for Munch, and he even almost married the wealthy and “liberated” Tulla Larsen, but Munch’s self-destructive and erratic behavior caught up with him and he began to spiral out of control.  There were heavy drinking, fights with other artists, and even an accidental shooting that lead to Munch losing the use of his middle finger on this left hand.  

In the autumn of 1908, Munch began to hallucinate and hear voices.  His anxiety and depression, compounded by heavy drinking, finally forced him to enter a hospital under the care of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, who prescribed for him a new form of electroshock therapy.  He stayed in the hospital for 8 months before being released.  Meanwhile, Munch’s work was beginning to be appreciated abroad.  He had a show in the United States and even conservative Norway started to warm to his work.  Munch could finally return to Oslo and support his remaining family.  As shown in his 1909 painting The Sun, Munch’s Dark Night of the Soul was over.  

After his stay in the hospital, many felt Munch’s work changed.  Art history would show that much of his great work was behind him.  World War I saw Munch’s loyalties divided.  He loved France, but many of his friends were German.  He nearly died in the Spanish Influenza pandemic, but would survive to make more art for two more decades.  In the 1930’s Hitler’s Germany declared Munch’s art to be degenerate, and removed his work (82 of his paintings) from all their museums.  His German patrons, many Jewish, lost their fortunes and some their lives when the Nazis came to power.  Fortunately for Munch, he began to find new patrons in Norway.  Most of Munch’s work would avoid the flames and would be sold back to Norway.  

In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old.  Norway’s Nazi puppet government offered Munch the figurehead position of its Honorary Board of Norwegian Artists. Munch refused and the Board was dropped.  With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation.  Munch died near Oslo in January of 1944.  He was 80.  Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo, who would erect a museum for him in 1963.  In a strange twist of fate, the Nazis in Norway hijacked Munch’s corpse, and instead of a simple burial in a family plot, Munch was given a state funeral with gigantic Nazi insignia and flags, giving the people of Oslo the impression that Munch was a Nazi sympathizer, which he clearly was not. 

Edvard Munch was very influential on my own work as a young artist and student.  I would honor his approach to painting as path toward self-examination and discovery.  I was not interested in physical realism, but psychological realism.  I would even emulate his style, using his sinuous, radiating line work and his apocalyptic color in some of my paintings.  Although Munch informed much of my early work, I would like to think I have grown away from making work based solely on my own reality.  I still create artwork for my own self-discovery, but I also want to be critical of my times as well.  Hopefully this new work will fare better than Munch’s work after 1909.  

Yayoi Kusama: Queen of Polka-dots by Chris Hall

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My first impression of Yayoi Kusama’s work was not favorable.  What I saw was phenomena art, kind of like Op Art . . . no real substance beyond just what you see.  It seemed to me that her work had a 60’s psychedelic design flavor to it.  I knew she was associated with Pop Art and had exhibited alongside both Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, both artists I do not care much for.  I also knew that she had no problem translating her art into pop culture consumer products.  She is shameless promoting her collaborative efforts with Louis Vuitton.  

Then there are the endless self portraits, photographs of her in front of her work.  I thought her art was kind of narcissistic.  Her outlandish clothing blurs into the paintings behind her, and blurs the line between fine art and fashion.  I am not one to really care about fashion and outward appearances, I’ve always been more concerned with what is deeper and inside, nor am I one to care much about cults of personalities.   I’ve always thought her self-portraits literally got in the way of the paintings behind her.

Yayoi Kusama is the Queen of Polka-dots.  Where Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are cold and pharmaceutical, Kusama’s art at least has a celebratory feel to it.  I’ll giver her credit for that.  This is a reflection from the peace and love idealism she embraced in the 60’s.  Still, I could not get past that a lot of her work was reminiscent of a fabric pattern.  

All of these negative things really colored my perspective of both her and her work.  So, it was to my surprise when I discovered that she had once identified with the abstract expressionists, this was before she changed allegiances to Pop Art in the 1960’s.  She made some really good work.  In reading about her, I found she could be really deep and psychically aware.  Here is a really good quote from her concerning one of her paintings, Flower (D.S.P.S.), 1954:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.

It is clear that Kusama is sensitive to her surroundings, a signature of a good artist.  Perhaps this sensitivity is why she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital ever since 1977.  What about the polka-dots?  They are more than just decorative elements to her.  This is what she has to say about the dots:

A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.

This might not always translate to me in her work, but I like that in her heart she still has an appreciation for symbolism (many in contemporary art do not).  I have also learned to like some of her recent installation work.  I find that it can be beautiful and even, at times, sublime.  Her work sometimes suggests to me self-obliteration, infinity, losing yourself, and dissolving the ego into the universal void.  There is some spirituality hidden in there!  This is not your average everyday Pop Art!  

It is good to be skeptical . . . just do not allow it to overwhelm your curiosity. I am glad I dug deeper into Kusama's art and gave it another chance.  I've learned to appreciate both the substance and motivation behind some of her work. Unfortunately we do have to be willing to get past work such as her video piece Manhattan Suicide Addict (2010) in order to access it.

The Art of Suicide by Chris Hall

I recently read over a list on Complex.com, of the top 25 Performance Art Pieces of All Time.  I found many expected works of art, both good and bad, ranging from Joseph Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) to Pussy Riot’s 2012 Punk Prayer.  Acconci’s Seedbed was there, as was Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.  As much as I would like to discuss the merits and flaws of each inclusion, as art, I feel more compelled still to question the presence of one inclusion at all.  I am thinking of Yukio Mishima’s suicide (1970).

Yukio Mishima giving his speech to the soldiers just before he committed Seppuku.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director.  He is considered one Japan’s most important authors of the 20th century.  Indeed, he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  

But Mishima was a troubled soul.  Having survived WWII, he became a fervent rightwing nationalist; he pined for the pre-war days with its samurai mythology, bushido code, veneration of the emperor, and other traditional Japanese values.  Mishima formed a militia called the Tatenokai (Shield Society) on October 5th, 1968.  Two years later, on November 25th, 1970, Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai, visited the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Force.  Once inside, they barricaded the office and tied the commandant to his chair.  Mishima then stepped out onto the balcony with a prepared manifesto and a banner listing his demands, and then addressed the group of soldiers gathered below.  His speech was intended to inspire a coup and restore power to the emperor, but instead the speech was received with mocking and jeers.  Finishing his speech, Mishima then returned to the commandant’s office where he committed the ritual of Seppuku (self disembowelment with sword followed by a beheading).  Later it was revealed that Mishima had been planning the suicide performance for at least a year and had composed a ritual death poem in preparation.  

While Seppuku is a kind of performance it is also a ritual with a long tradition, going back to the 12th century.  It was reserved for samurai who would rather die by their own hands than face dishonor and be captured by their enemies, as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed a serious offence, or performed by a samurai to atone for a great shame.  Did Mishima view his Seppuku as an art piece (did he hope to inspire change by his act) or did he view his act as a something more private and personal, an act of reverence for samurai tradition?  Did he know he would fail to inspire a coup and was seeking to atone for this failure?  Perhaps it was all of these things.  If it was a final work of performance art, I can think of no greater conflation of life and art.

Kathy Change during happier times, before she committed self-immolation.


Similar in circumstance to Yukio Mishima’s suicide by Seppuku, Philadelphia artist Kathy Change death by self immolation on October 22, 1996 on the University of Pennsylvania campus might be argued as being art action.  Born Kathleen Chang, she legally changed her name to Kathy Change to indicate her commitment to political and social change.  Change’s life was defined by acts of political activism as art and also bouts of mental illness.  For twenty years Change was a fixture in Philadelphia, giving street performances on the University of Pennsylvania campus and in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  She would sing, dance, play guitar and keyboard, wave handmade flags, and give speeches, all while dressed in different outlandish costumes.  Her performances were meant to education the audience on various government and economic issues of the day, and to wake people up from their complacency.  Perhaps feeling like her work was not getting through to her audience, she decided on final act . . . but was it art as suicide or just suicide as an act of despair?  Is art as suicide truly even possible?  Like Mishima, the suicide act was meticulously prepared.  She practiced with meat and different accelerants before settling on gasoline.  Unlike Mishima, we do know that Change had hoped that her self immolation would wake people up from complacency and inspire them to take action on the formation of a new government.  In a packet she delivered to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and to several of her friends, she writes:  

I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people…as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. . . . Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world.  America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.

With a history of mental illness, it is difficult to say whether her suicide was a matter of free will and artistic agency.  Much depends on how one perceives not only mental illness, but also the act of artistic creation.  But if she felt she had to kill herself because of a suicidal urge, that is a depression perhaps brought on by her perceived failure to change the world, perhaps, she decided to make the most of it, and turn the act into one final work of art.  

Artist Ray Johnson with painting.

I think of one final example of the possibility of art as suicide, Raymond Edward “Ray” Johnson’s suicide on January 13th, 1995.  Known primarily as a collage and correspondence artist, Ray Johnson was a seminal figure in the history of Neo-Dada and early Pop Art.  On January (Friday) 13th, 1995 Johnson was seen diving off of a bridge in Sag Harbor, New York, and then backstroking out to sea.  Earlier that day Johnson checked into a hotel in room number 247 (2 + 4 + 7 = 13).  The age of his death was 67 (6 + 7 = 13).  Witnesses have even suggested that the exact time of Johnson’s jump also added up to 13.  Could it all have been a strange coincidence, or was this Ray Johnson’s final art action?  We will never know for sure, as Johnson did not leave a suicide note.  Johnson’s body was found washed up on the beach the next day.