Mental health and art: Jackson Pollock

Mental health is certainly an aspect of medicine and human health on the rise in terms of esteem and regard, it has transformed from a societal taboo to an increasingly accepted element of human behaviour and nature. A key part of the Conservative Party’s manifesto in 2017 detailed mental health, with a specific emphasis on targeting approaches to mental health in the work place, and global initiatives to provide treatment for such illnesses are blossoming. This is a movement that has almost exclusively witnessed considerable development in the last few decades, with the 1983 Mental Health Act being a major milestone in the consideration of mental health within the UK in a healthcare setting. Thus in times preceding the current many of those whom suffered from such adversities were ostracised within their societies and these individuals were largely cast aside due to misunderstandings surrounding the causes and helplessness of their conditions.

This is a prevalent theme looking at artists of the past, the ‘troubled artist’ mantra frequently associated with the creative geniuses of the modern world is by no means a recent emergence, the only innovation within this labelling is the progressed societal understanding of the factors that contribute to the description ‘troubled’. This interconnection is something expressed in the writings of Lord Byron, implying, on the extreme, that mental health disorders are present universally in creative minds.

“We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched”.

While this notion is perhaps slightly romanticised and hyperbolic, it is evident that mental health issues have grasped numerous artists throughout history as their victims. In the 17th century architect Borromini, who worked under Carlo Maderno on Saint Peter’s Basilica, committed suicide, potentially, as has been frequently suggested by the likes of Jake Morrissey, on account of his lifetime in the shadow of widely-renowned and favoured Bernini, and it is widely accepted that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from bipolar syndrome on account of the writings of figures such as WN Arnold, with his self-inflicted amputation of half of his left ear being the most infamous of his alleged episodes.

However, in this extract I want to explore Jackson Pollock, who, working predominantly in the 1940s and 50s until his tragic death in a car crash in 1956, was comprised in an era at the very beginnings of mental health considerations. He was at the forefront of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and has been labelled the most famous artist in the US, posthumously displayed in esteemed galleries on a worldwide scale, for example in the Guggenheim in Venice, and reports surrounding his painting, ‘Number 17A’, rumoured to be sold for $200million in 2016. The modern view of him often overlooks the mental struggle that overtook many of his later years, favouring a glamourised view of his life and turbulent lifestyle.

The reality, unfortunately, differs from this substantially. The years up until his death featured ongoing troubles with both bipolar disorder and alcoholism- two largely intertwined problems. Alcohol in many ways was a self-welcomed escape from the hardships dictated by his bipolar disorder. His latter years, on account of this, witnessed regular trips and prolonged stays in New York to access therapy unavailable to him at his home in the Springs, which he shared with this notable wife, Lee Krasner. However, lacking the understandings of the psyche in the way modern medicine is able to it is unlikely this proved of substantial assistance to his troubled state, Pyschoanalysis, arguably coined by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century was only partially accepted and growing in respect, as Freud’s student, Jung, alongside others were remodelling Freud’s conception of the mind in the decades that followed, disabling clear and agreed conclusions about the methods needed to treat mental illness. His abuse of alcohol was largely characterised by the high demand for his paintings provoking ongoing pressure to produce works, a highly unfortunate consequence of his great fame and renown as it was ultimately substance abuse which led him to his death in an alcohol-related car crash in 1956.

The innovation apparent in his work- the drip paintings which he developed in the mid 1940s were unprecedented within the Abstract Expressionist avant-garde- could be viewed as a product of Pollock’s ongoing dismissal of the normality associated with artistic technique at his time. Hans Hoffman, a respected art teacher and artist, to which his wife was a student previously, visited his studio on the invitation of Lee Krasner in 1940. Hoffman was unimpressed by his lack of endeavour to work from nature as was widely accepted to be the starting point of great works, artists such as Caravaggio, who now have international renown, are known to have exclusively worked from life despite criticism of their choices of models. Pollock’s response and retaliation to such critiques was ‘I am nature’, a perhaps presumption remark, but it could be argues that it was his entire denial of forms which facilitated his unrivalled abstraction, a key agenda of the American Art movement at the time. While his contemporaries and his wife included, competed in fulfilling the dictated and accepted ideas of the movement, namely abstracting forms in a manner to achieve a greater thought and suggestion that the obvious visual, it was Pollock’s denial of these means which in fact defined the movement to the modern viewer.

In many ways his story highlights a common misassumption distorted ideas of mental health: his success and at-a-glance positive situation may not appear one of someone of deep internal suffering and hardship, however, these two aspects are not necessarily mutually dependent. This is a narrative that is not uncommon, and can be applied to not only Pollock’s contemporaries such as Mark Rothko, but also those who preceded him, such as Edvard Munch, who is perhaps rare in the fact he, to some degree, explicitly made his mental struggles evident in ‘The Scream’, a tribute to the fear he faced at the hand of ongoing nightmares and visions of the macabre.

Jackson Pollock, Number 17A, 1948
Jackson Pollock, Summertime: Number 9A, 1948

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