April 19, 2015
Anxiety in Art History
My creative endeavors have opened a discussion about omnipresent anxiety in my life, and how said anxiety manifests in my work. I have also been assessing painters in history and how their similar struggles correlate directly with my own. Edvard Munch has been my artistic focus recently, as he created prolific work that assumes themes that I’m currently grappling with in the studio.
According to Tracy Shawn and her article in Psychology Tomorrow, “Anxiety sufferers tend to be highly creative people with fantastic imaginations.”(1) This form of imagination can also be used by many artists (myself included) to entertain extreme, irrational “what if?” scenarios. Formal and aesthetic decisions can be influenced by the artist’s innately anxious mind, and can enhance or detract from the subsequent piece of art. Similarly, according to Shawn, “…the outward expression of creativity is an inward kind of practical self-medication.” (2)
Norwegian artist Edvard Munch produced paintings and prints from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that were heavily laden with various psychological themes. Hailing from a middle class family with severe health problems, Munch dealt with the loss of several family members at an extremely young age. This and other personal experiences likely stoked his anxiety and later fascination with death, suffering, and anguish caused by love of another. His paintings on love and death were highly successful because they dealt with anonymous subjects and the collective human experiences of “love’s awakening, blossoming, and withering, followed by despair and death.” (Watson 2)
Similarly to Munch and many artists, my most recent painting is drawn from personal relationships and anxieties. The anonymity of subject is an aspect that I wished to have in my painting of my brother to allow a wider margin of audience interpretation. In the most recent partial portrait of my brother, the removal of identifying facial features is intended to do just that, while simultaneously removing the power of the male gaze. The scale is striking and the subject is broad-shouldered, masculine, and an unnerving presence. This piece is intended to evoke a certain level of physical discomfort that can be present in social situations. It is hard for young women to feel entirely secure when navigating a world saturated with accounts of violence and assault. I have experienced unwanted attention or confrontation with men and women alike. My experiences have been predominantly with men, and this friction contributes to anxieties about intrusive male presence and gaze. The subject, though unknown to the viewer, and I share a very close relationship. The image is meant to challenge the anxiety by portraying a man who, to the artist, is familiar and comforting. The lack of identifying features invites the audience to project their own experiences into the work. The anonymity of the sitter widens the margin for audience interpretation, and the strong resemblance we share adds another layer to the piece. The resemblance welcomes the possibility that I am using his likeness as a vehicle to re-possess the male presence as my own. However, the piece retains personal significance to me, and attempts to address a universal and personal anxiety about male presence and gaze.
Edvard Munch’s most famous work, The Scream, conjures for the viewer an unidentified, haunting figure with hands clasped to his face in a screaming gesture fraught with agony. The subject is on a bridge, surrounded by frenetic, blood-red marks swirling in the sky. The piece was inspired by a hallucinatory vision that Munch experienced, and has come to be a symbol for existential musings about life and death that is a collective experience of mankind. Perhaps it is a personal expression of anguish and anxiety brought on by the death of his father and the responsibility he assumed for the family. However, it could be foreshadowing the nervous breakdown that he suffered in his later years. By keeping the subject anonymous, Munch has created an image that all humans can relate to. Anguish and agony radiate from the image, and the audience relates on a multitude of varying levels. The anonymity once again lends itself to a plethora of personal interpretations.
The struggles that artists with extreme anxiety face are countless, but above all, the introspective aspect is the most crucial. My paintings will continue to explore situations and themes that exacerbate my anxiety and to express them in the studio. As said by Tracy Shawn, “The challenge for anxiety sufferers is to be able to acknowledge their creativity, then actively use it in whatever ways they can so that their talents become a positive force rather than a negative drain.” (2)
- “Edvard Munch”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2015 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/397389/Edvard-Munch/5076/Paintings-of-love-and-death>.
- Lubow, Arthur. “Homepage | Smithsonian.” Homepage | Smithsonian. N.p., Mar. 2006. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
- Shawn, Tracy. “The Art of Anxiety.” Web log post. Www.psychologytomorrow.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.