To celebrate Tracey Emin’s vast retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery, Stylist explores the unique psychology of the artist: from Van Gogh’s borderline insanity to the fabulous eccentricity of Grayson Perry.
This week one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Tracey Emin, is opening her largest UK exhibition to date, at the Hayward Gallery in London. The retrospective by the bad girl of British art, called Love Is What You Want, will include her famous misspelt felt appliqué blanket Pysco Slut (1999), an installation exploring the afterlife through a Ouija board, new outdoor sculptures made specially for the exhibition and rarely seen pieces from the beginning of Emin’s career. Critics are thrilled at the prospect, saying the exhibition will give us a better insight than ever before into the mind of one of Britain’s most celebrated artists.
And what a mind it is. Ever since she exploded onto the British art scene in the Nineties, with her tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 [appliquéd with the names of people she had literally shared a bed with] and her unmade, rubbish-strewn bed (bought by Charles Saatchi for £150,000), Emin has gained a reputation as one of the most controversial, boundary-pushing and, by her own admission, the most ‘mad’ of the Young British Artists set. Indeed, in her 2005 autobiography, Strangeland she describes herself as a “crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman,” or “Mad Tracey from Margate”.
Never one to censor herself, she’s talked to journalists about her herpes and in 1997 appeared on live television, drunk and slurring during a debate about the Turner Prize on Channel 4 – before walking off set muttering something about needing to talk to her mum. A consummate party girl, there are images of Kate Moss cradling her breasts and she once telephoned a journalist to tell her she’d had a dream in which she was a sparrow flying with one wing and the writer was a bumble bee.
In an art world often filled with empty, made-to-shock gestures, it would be easy to dismiss her behaviour as nothing more than fulfilling the role of the eccentric artist, a character the public has come to expect. But Emin’s life and work are both openly provocative and deeply meaningful; raw, revealing and relentlessly confessional, she constantly throws her inner psyche wide open through the art she creates. This is a woman who made a blanket with the appliqué words: “Theres [sic] no one in this room who has not thought of killing”. Her just-closed collaboration with artist Louise Bourgeois, titled Do Not Abandon Me, was a collection of images that explore the themes of sexuality and fear of abandonment. Bourgeois painted 16 male and female torsos and then handed them to Emin, who added her own visions, including a woman kissing a penis and a tiny foetus in a swollen belly.
Emin’s relationship with sex, sexuality and motherhood is certainly a complex one, and it appears in much of her acclaimed art. Born a twin in 1963 in London and raised in Margate (her father was married to another woman and divided his time between the two families), Tracey was raped at 13 and in a recent interview said that she went on to sleep with a number of local boys “for revenge”. Despite being told at 19 that she would never be able to have children after contracting gonorrhoea, in 1990, at the age of 27, she fell pregnant. The subsequent abortion revealed that she was carrying twins. Emin went on to have a second abortion, which she has said was “revenge” for the first. The impact? “I felt isolated, insecure, unloved, unwanted and pretty crazy, mad,” she has said of that time. “I don’t think I felt mad because I’d had an abortion, I think I felt mad because I was angry.” In 2010 Emin had even more experiences to channel into her art: her father died and her four-and-a-half-year relationship with photographer Scott Douglas ended. These experiences, and the emotions that came with them – love, fear and anger – are displayed for all to see through her artwork, they simply fuelled her creative genius. It’s this ability to channel her experiences that makes Emin so extraordinary, says Paul Hobson, director of the Contemporary Art Society (the UK’s leading contemporary art advisory team). “She takes those experiences, loss, betrayal, vengefulness and abuse, and makes them available to the rest of us. She transforms them into something incredibly powerful.”
Emin takes loss, betrayal, vengefulness and abuse and transforms them into something incredibly powerful
Emin is not, of course, alone in this. The greatest artists across the world and throughout the ages have seen the world in a different way, using that vision to produce provocative and thought-provoking work. From Damien Hirst (famous for his animals in formaldehyde) and Grayson Perry (“the nation’s favourite transvestite potter”) to the Chapman brothers, (who created a series of mannequins of children with genitals in place of facial features) the artists’ strength often lies in pushing the boundaries of convention.
Their ability to do this, says Hobson, rests in their ability to tune into and use their emotions in a very different way to most people. “Artists are able to be honest about what they go through, to give their experiences a shape and a purpose. People in more practical occupations, the lawyers, the teachers, the doctors, don’t necessarily value the difficult or the traumatic in the same way. They have to manage their emotions in order to do their jobs. But for an artist, creation is their job.” This means a greater sensitivity, a higher awareness of feelings, and the ability to turn them into provocative, fascinating artwork. “Emin could have thought about her past boyfriends and simply had a rant to friends. Instead she used that experience to create an intimate, crafted and incredibly personal piece of work.”
Others believe that there is more to an artist’s mind than a heightened emotional awareness. Many psychological studies have focused on the minds of artists and a pattern of unhappy or lonely childhoods have often been noted. “Artists are usually highly sensitive individuals who may have experienced trauma which pushed them into art as a form of escapism, self-expression or therapy,” says Professor Gordon Claridge, professor of abnormal psychology at Oxford University. Emin, for example, has spent much of her career exorcising the troubling demons of her difficult childhood and teenage life. Likewise, Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) had to come to terms with the fact that he was named after his beloved dead brother, and told by his parents that he was his reincarnation. Edvard Munch, painter of The Scream (1893), was brought up by a militantly Christian father who told the children they would be damned for eternity, after his mother died when he was six years old. Of his famously disturbing picture he said: “Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.”
Grayson Perry, the 51-year-old Turner Prize winner who rose to fame with vases decorated with images of sex and child abuse, has spoken about how his art became therapy for an unhappy childhood. His father left when he was seven and his stepfather, a some-time wrestler, was a hot-tempered bully. “Art for me can be therapeutic. I used to call the creative part of my brain the inner shed. When I was feeling a little bit down I would climb up the stairs to my inner shed. My experience is that we have as children this unconscious mechanism that is so clever it will turn trauma into something good – that impetus to normalise what is a horrible situation for the psyche into something that then is a legacy…” he says. “All my pathways were trodden at that point, they did not become truly useful until I was an artist.”
Whether it’s a difficult experience that drives the artist or simply a mind that translates experiences in extraordinary ways, another thing that seems to bind many creatives is the inclination to outwardly express themselves however they feel fit. When Perry, for example, was made a member of the exclusive and prestigious Royal Academy of Arts this March, he came as his alter-ego Claire – wearing full make-up, bouffant wig and a multi-coloured dress. More than 80 years earlier in 1936, Dali arrived at the London International Surrealist Exhibition wearing a deep-sea diving suit, carrying a billiard cue in one hand and holding onto a pair of Russian wolfhounds with the other. He later said that his outfit was his way of showing that he was plunging into the depths of the human mind.
From the eccentricities of Dalí, Grayson and Emin to the infamous mental turmoil of artists such as Van Gogh – who in 1888 famously cut off his ear lobe before shooting himself – and Italian painter Caravaggio (1571–1610) whose dark rages led him to kill a man, it could be argued that artists have a unique psychology. And while it may sound like a sweeping generalisation, there is growing scientific proof that artists’ minds do indeed work differently to the rest of the mainstream. “Artists have a different way of perceiving the world,” says Professor Claridge. “They think in new ways, make unusual connections and live in high states of emotion. You can’t say all artists are mad, but there is a relationship between creativity and traits associated with psychiatric disorders.”
Take the brilliant Leonardo da Vinci, for example, or the exceptional Michelangelo. Both were considered eccentric in their day – the former for wearing luridly coloured short tunics and the latter for screaming at statues and living like a pauper despite his great wealth. But, interestingly, today both are believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder – a condition that was not diagnosed in Renaissance Italy.
At Oxford University, Professor Ioan James argues that the late Andy Warhol (who was both extremely creative and famously controversial) had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. “Perseverance, perfectionism, disregard for social conventions and unconcern about the opinions of others could be seen as the prerequisite for creativity but these are also behaviours associated with Asperger’s,” he says. The grid pattern of art Warhol pioneered, as well as his extreme shyness and repetitious behaviour, may be clues to a mild form of autism, according to Professor James. “The absolute flatness of his voice and his peculiar locutions are also indications.”
Among distinguisged artists the rate of depressive illness is 20 times of society at large
So is it really fair to say that medical conditions of the mind are more prevalent among artists? Does spending hours on your own with nothing but a blank canvas or mound of clay, drive you to distraction or do artists have the inherent tendency to begin with? Dr Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, certainly thinks so. In her study Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament she concluded that, among distinguished artists, the rate of such depressive illnesses is 20 times as common as in the population at large.
Brain scans reveal striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia. Researchers have also found that creative people are more likely to have a particular gene called neuregulin 1, which contributes to creativity but has also been associated with a higher risk of developing both schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Szabolcs Kéri at Semmelweis University in Hungary suggests that the gene might act as a damper on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, allowing emotions to emerge as creativity, bipolar mood swings or schizophrenic delusions.
Another study, published in The British Journal Of Psychiatry in 1994 and written by the late eminent psychiatrist, Felix Post, based on 291 eminent and creative men in different fields, found that 69% had a mental disorder of some kind. They discovered that scientists were the least affected, while artists and writers had increased diagnoses of psychosis – a general term for a mental condition which means losing touch with reality, which in extreme cases can mean having hallucinations and hearing voices.
Although it would be incredibly misguided to suggest that brilliant creativity cannot be achieved without having some sort of disorder, Professor Claridge does believe that many artists do have similar traits to those suffering with psychosis. “Many creative minds in all kinds of areas – from comedians to artists – may have traits associated with psychosis. In severe cases psychosis is an illness, but in mild form these traits allow artists to perceive the world differently – sometimes literally seeing the world differently, in colours that are richer, or even having magical thinking.” Indeed, a team of psychologists at the University of Toronto has discovered that creative brains have less of something called ‘latent inhibition’; a filtering device that screens out lots of information that comes at us every day. It could be this uninhibited processing that allows creative people to think ‘outside the box’. “This explains why artists can make random connections – say between a lobster and a telephone in Dalí. Their brain flies off at tangents and is less able to inhibit things on the periphery,” says Professor Claridge.
Another characteristic that artistic brains may share is a tendency towards manic depression, or bipolar disorder. Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock are all thought to have suffered from this condition. “People with bipolar disorder are highly emotional and fly from high to low – but those highs account for artists who paint in states of high exuberance for hours and hours at a time,” says Professor Claridge.
This is something that artist Natasha Archdale, whose nude collages have won critical acclaim, can relate to. “Sometimes I can paint for 16 hours at a time or I wake up in the middle of the night and paint. As an artist you live in extremes. Sometimes it’s torment other times it’s ecstasy and my best art has come out of my most depressed and most happy moments.” But while Natasha admits that her own personality is one of highs and lows, it can be exacerbated by the day-to-day reality of being an artist. “Being locked up on your own in your studio can make you lose perspective,” she says.
But there is another side to this. Many would argue that popular culture tends to glorify extremes, we naturally find it more interesting to read about the gruesome case of Van Gogh than the mild mannered Monet. Dinos Chapman of the Chapman brothers – who create controversial art featuring porn (including a video of two women and a beheaded dummy with a penis instead of a nose) – says that their personal lives are anything but interesting. “The truth is that artists aren’t that special. They just like to think so,” says Dinos Chapman. “They expect you to lead a rock’n’roll lifestyle, but the truth in my case could not be more different.”
For Hobson the true driver of artists’ eccentricities is us. We crave, we demand that artists are somewhere between emotional, eccentric and crazy. Why? “We go to the arts to experience emotions that are outside ourselves, to connect to the extreme,” Hobson says. It’s why we love to celebrate and mythologise Van Gogh cutting his ear libe off or Emin’s comments about abortions. They enable us to explore those extreme elements that are outside the everyday.”
In a world that so often applauds structured convention and derides those who deign to stray from the traditional path, artists offer a refreshingly different perspective, one which challenges how we see the world and gives us that release from ‘real life’ that we may need.
So while you may not be inclined to turn up an awards ceremony dressed as Stig from Top Gear, as Tracey Emin did last year, we should celebrate that we have those willing to live on the edge for us.
Words: Marianne Power