Madness is Red, Madness is Blue, Madness is Red and Blue
A Bipolar Visual Art Diary: an exhibition of contemporary art
By: Kurt von Behrmann
(Accompanying this project is a book, Madness is Red, Madness is blue that chronicles one man’s struggle with bipolar disorder)
The crazed artist, the mad scientist, or the idiosyncratic writer are clichés. Images of social outcasts bravely struggling to make their dreams reality are the stuff from which great drama, art, poetry and history emerges. Although these are exaggerations, not all creative people suffer from mental illnesses, there is a type of truth contained in those stereotypes that points to the possibility that careers demanding innovative solutions can be best served by minds formed from difficult circumstances.
Once seen as only a negative, there is new research emerging that sees a link between the artistic temperament and mood disorders. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison in her book, “Touched By Fire,” looks to the connection between artistic achievement and manic depression, now referred to as bipolar disorder. Dr. Redfield’s detailed research looks to clinical studies to support the theory that artists like van Gogh, Byron and Woolf were suffering from mood disorders that drove them to creative heights and ultimately devastating lows.
After learning that I suffered from Bipolar disorder, I had to see myself and my work from a radically different perspective. The realization that many of my pieces were created in a mania of activity that could start at ten a.m. ending at four a.m. had escaped me. I did not realize my creativity was fueled by mania. Unknown to me, I was a stereotype of the “mad” artist who was wildly going from high to higher and then low to lows. Knowing that my work was created while I was struggling with a serious mental illness explained a great deal. It also left many unanswered questions.
How was I going to create knowing that I was working for close to thirty years with an illness that has roots in the psychiatric world and the medical health world? Who was I now? Was my creativity the exclusive product of my own ecstatic highs and despairing lows? Was my work reaching new highs as I was reaching new lows?
Another question that came up later was if I would see my work deteriorate faster that age could explain? If I was creating during all of this, what was next?
At what point would the creative spark be extinguished when the illness reached uncontrollable levels? What was going to happen to the work, and what was going to happen to me were not abstractions. These were not rhetorical questions. They were pressing issues that I had to directly face.
What came from the soul searching, the therapy sessions, visits to psychiatrists and group sessions was that the creative drive was present. The ability was there, but different. The work was going to change because I had to change. For me it was simple, change and try to live, or give up and die. All the habits, coping skills and understandings of myself and the world were in flux. Things I thought were real were illusions.
In a very odd way, being mentally ill made me more aware. Once the medications took effect, I was able to see things with greater clarity. I was also able to control myself. The driving emotions were not so strong as to make me irrational. I could discipline myself in a way I could not before. After a steady decline in reading, I would be too restless to read more than a page or two on the world wide web. Now I was reading books again. Things I could not do, I was able to do.
The impact on the work was notable once I started to paint again. I could discern details as I had not before when I was in mania.
This is not a criticism of my older work. There were some achievements there. I created some challenging work while ill and not knowing it. My fear was would I be as good now as I was then. Would the drugs and treatment mean my art vanished? There is an old line, “scare away the demons and the angels flee.” Would my ability pass with the demons?
When I began painting, there was a quiet to the work, and an authority. I felt that there was a lot more to say and I wanted to say it. Sadly, I was running short on canvas and paint. What I was not running short on was creative drive.
After many years of saying “I am going to write a book,” I actually started one. I had started before, but the whole thing just felt, well insubstantial. I wasn’t saying anything. I was writing, but not writing in my own blood. Once I started Madness is Red, Madness is Blue, I had something to say and the means to do it. Even when raw and hard to read, there was more truth in my book than my first abortive attempt to writing. I was actually growing as a writer of fiction. I had a story to tell.
The paintings tell a story as well. The new paintings are about subtlety, they are about alienation, they are about forces in contrast, they are about the dual nature of life itself, the highs and the lows.
What I am proposing is to create a suite of 19 paintings, drawings and poems that deal with the issue of the duality of up, down, high and low. I am looking to discuss the poles between depression and exhilaration.
Many of those ideas found themselves in Toulon. A multimedia painting, Toulon brings together shapes and paintings into a multimedia creation. Using that work as a template, I would like to continue that idea. The notion of abstract forms representing people struck me. I wanted to continue what I had started and move forward with that.
In short the project can be described as below:
Paintings and Constructions
I am looking to create 19 paintings, some constructions, some basic canvas on painting work that describes the idea of forces at work and in motion. The rectangular forms that informed my work will be employed here. There will be a few figurative pieces, but taken from a more abstracted base. I flow between figurative work and abstraction. The works will be about three fours abstract and the remainder figurative. Even when I work abstractly, the shapes have their roots in the human form.
As a means to an end, the drawings are my way of working out ideas for paintings as well as being art on their own. These drawings help me to create and serve as testing grounds for new ideas. They do form as finished works. In the process of creating, some of the drawings do find their way into my exhibitions. For this project, I see 19 drawings to accompany the 19th paintings. I usually produce a lot of drawings, so there could be many more. How many make it to the 19th to be shown depends on how complete the drawings are to stand on their own. But I do see at least 19 drawings.
For every show, I make a statement that lets the viewer know what my objective was with the work, and why I chose what I chose to display. The statement serves as a cohesive bound that allows me to address ideas that may not be obvious to viewers, or maybe subtle. When viewers go through the process of seeing the work, they may see things I intended, but are not totally sure that their assessment matches my objectives. The artist statement gives that insight. Statements are also helpful for those not accostumed to contemporary art. Work that extends to new arenas can be difficult. Statements act as an informational tool and an educational one.
What to a large extend shaped this project was the book I am working on, Madness is Red, Madness is Blue. The idea of discussing bipolar disorder in a book and then creating imagery from that is an exciting way to work. To do this in contemporary art would be interesting. The number 19 is important in that the book will contain 19 chapters.
To illuminate each work, there will be poems that sum up what each painting is about. When I created the 19th avenue psalms, I actually read a few poems at the opening. The idea was that each painting would have its own poem to illuminate some aspect of the work. For the each drawing and painting in this exhibition there will be a poem composed specifically for it.
The exhibition deals with the theme of bipolar disorder from an artist who is suffering from bipolar illness. Every work will focus on an aspect of the illness. The defining features of mood disorders can be translated via works that depict strong opposing forces in motion, or still isolation to depict those quiet introspective moments to the downs of depression.
The 19drawings and 19 paintings will be mood pieces. After the work is completed, they will be presented in a solo exhibition where the project will be shown. At the opening there will be new poems and the book should be finished by the time the show is up for exhibition.
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness and a physical one. Ranging from depressed states that can reach as low as suicide, to exhilarating highs that can motivate to high levels of function, the mood swings are dramatic in intensity. Some can experience multiple mood changes in the course of a day. Mood shifts can take place over hours, days weeks and months. Rapid cycling takes place were moods change many times in the course of one day. There are even mixed episodes between depression and mania.
Once termed “manic depressive disorder,” the name bipolar comes from German psychiatrist Karl Leonhard in 1957. Leonhard was also the first to introduce the terms bipolar (for those with mania) and unipolar (for those with depressive episodes only).
Dramatic changes in mood, moods that range from suicidal depression to energized euphoria can turn daily life into a literal emotional roller coaster. Due to the fact that this is a difficult illness to diagnose, mental health care professionals can have difficulty discerning bipolar from other mental illnesses, it is difficult for those with the disorder to know they have it. Bipolar disorder can go on for years undiagnosed.
Bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million in the United States, or about 2.6 percent of the population, ages 18 and older in any given year. 25 is the average age for the onset of bipolar disorder. (stats from the National Institute of Mental Health)
Singer Actor Rosemary Clooney was one of the first celebrities to be open about the illness. In recent times, Former Illinois Representative, Jesse Jackson Jr’s revelation that he was being treated with the affliction has made bipolar more high profile.