The tortured artist is a common trope found in most media. A link is made between mental illness and creativity, which is often portrayed as a superpower. Thematically speaking, think of the inspiration narratives around autistic savants and the romanticisation of depression. In real life and throughout history, you get the stories of Vincent Van Gogh, Louis Wain, and Mark Rothko as examples. Works like Evrard Munch’s “The Scream” explore the raw, painful emotions that can come with mental illness. However, more often than not, the portrayal of mental illness in art has been stigmatised and limited to what people not suffering from mental illness believe it looks like. Studies have found that mental illness does not automatically equate creativity, and real-world examples have shown that it may be a harder rather than an easier endeavour. As we begin to understand more and more how mental health works, artists are allowed more agency in their work and in getting their voices heard, and in how they are portrayed by others. Artists Yayoi Kusama, Isa Genzken, and Gabriel Isak’s work portray what it is like for them in different ways.
At almost 92 years old, Yayoi Kusama has been in the art world for a long-time. She began drawing as a young girl despite her mother’s expectations that she should grow up to marry well instead of becoming an artist. Her career began in the late 1950s when she made the bold choice to move from Japan to New York at the age of 27 and it has since been as long as it has been notable. Kusama became an important figure in pop art, and minimalism in the 60s and was among the first to experiment with performance and action art, and her installation work and sculptures have been exhibited all over the world. She is accomplished in other mediums too, such as music, design, writing, and fashion, and has explored themes including mental illness, repetition, obsession, creation, destruction, sex, and feminism. In her bright red bobbed wig and unique fashion sense, she is instantly recognisable. Her unforgettable dot-filled work has been all over Instagram and the internet at large in recent years.
Kusama has also lived in a psychiatric hospital since 1977. She is of an older generation than Genzken and Isak, and it’s been largely unclear what condition she has exactly. It’s been theorised that she has schizophrenia (she has described having visions and hallucinations) or OCD (possibly explaining the dots), but she has confessed that it’s the anxiety that really gets to her. Dubbed “The Princess of Polka Dots,” it all started when she experienced a hallucination as a young girl, in which a field of flowers started talking to her, their heads registering as endless dots into which she was rapidly disappearing. It gave her a sense of calm, and it’s been a defining way through which she sees the world. She’s said that: “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.” For Kusama, her iconic polka dots are her safe space. One example of this are her popular ‘Infinity Rooms,’ which she creates by filling mirrored rooms with hundreds of flashing coloured LED lights. Agency is something people with mental illness have lacked throughout history and Kusama’s journey has been about fighting for this said agency and contrary to what some might believe, living in a psychiatric hospital did not mean an end to her story, instead, she says: “It made it possible for me to continue to make art every day, and this has saved my life.”
Isa Genzken is a German multi-disciplinary artist known for her pioneering sculptures which have ranged from the precisely abstract to crumbling debris over the years. Since the 70s, her artwork has looked at themes such as everyday material culture, the human experience in contemporary society, and turned a critical eye towards modernist architecture and urban environments. Genzken has said that she considers Leonardo Da Vinci as an artist-hero of hers and similarly she has tried her hand at multiple mediums like photography, found-object installation, film, and painting and her work frequently takes inspiration from the aesthetics of Minimalism, punk culture, and assemblage art. Notably, she has used her own medical X-rays as materials for her art. Like Kusama, she has long suffered from mental illness and has only recently begun to open up about how living with Bipolar Disorder and alcoholism has been like for her.
However, mental illness is not as obvious a theme in her work as it is for Kusama. Instead, her works can be best described as cryptic and this is how Genzken likes it. Rather than spoon-feeding the viewer the explicit meaning of her piece, she prefers to hold a mirror up to the viewer and has said that, “I like to put things together that were previously unconnected. This connection is like a handshake between people.” One undercurrent that can be seen in her sculptures is vulnerability. They are not overpowering and there is little sense of order in them. Think a giant steel rose, the aforementioned X-rays showing Genzken drinking and smoking in them, or a bunch of busts of Nefertiti wearing modern paraphernalia like sunglasses and earpieces. Power and a sense of order are not qualities that would have been used to describe Genzken’s life a few years ago before it was known that she had Bipolar. There were rumours, of course. Gallerists found her difficult to work with, she spent periods living on the street. A doctor once told her she would never get out of a psychiatric hospital if she kept on drinking. It is assumed that tortured artists are creative because they suffer, but this was not the case for Genzken, and her art career continued to hit countless obstacles until fighting her alcoholism and starting to take medication for her Bipolar helped her get back on her feet. Already an art star in Europe, 2013 saw her rising to prominence across the pond following a critically acclaimed retrospective in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Gabriel Isak was born in 1990, by far the youngest of the three artists talked about in this article. He is part of a generation of artists whose work is not only influenced by mental health but actively raises awareness of it. Isak first started doing photography in his teens as a means of self-expression but found his creativity fading as he began to suffer from depression. Aspects of photography that had once enticed him no longer interested him, and he sunk into apathy. “It’s difficult to create while you’re depressed,” Isak explained to an interviewer, “but once you start to, it’s almost the best source of therapy to create images like these.” After seven years of depression, he enrolled in art school, moved to San Francisco, and started creating again. The result was a series of self-portraits depicting his inner world as it was during those seven years. Now, inspired by surrealist painter René Magritte, Swedish photographer Julia Hetta, Carl Jung and Jean-Paul Sartre, and themes like human psychology, existentialism, and surrealism, he photographs and paints blue-ish, melancholic worlds filled with anonymous figures he invites the viewer to emphasise with, digging deep and finding their own fears and desires reflected in his artworks.
In Kusama and Genzken’s lifetimes, the attitude towards mental health has changed drastically. The reality of mental illness may still be a foreign concept for some, but it is now treated by a new generation of artists like Isak with unfiltered emotional honesty and deep introspection about what this means for society as a whole. This changing landscape gives the public the opportunity to appreciate Kusama and Genzken’s works in a new light, and hopefully, greater understanding.