New Internationalist

Images Of Madness

July 1990

new internationalist
issue 209 - July 1990


Creative artists have always been interested in madness. They use the power of imagination to explore ideas and feelings, and it is their business to investigate the outer limits of consciousness from which most of us prefer to shy away.

The methods or 'media' they have used for these explorations have evolved over time - and have been aimed at an ever wider audience. The single paintings of Bosch have evolved into the multiple images and mass reproduction of modern cinema and television.

The means of communication may have moved in a more public direction but the images have gone the other way. The crowded, bustling scenes of Bosch have become an isolated, inward-looking face, an entire body suspended in space. This paradox tells us something about how madness is seen today - isolated as an illness of the individual. Breaking out of that isolation may be one of the greatest challenges now facing our imagination.

Painting - c 1500
[image, unknown] Hieronymus Bosch
The Cure of Madness

At first sight, it seems as if this painting portrays a primitive and horrific 'treatment' of madness. The man on the left is probing inside the seated man's skull to find the cause of his madness - another title for the picture is 'The Search for the Stone'. But look again. The surgeon is wearing a funnel on his head, the woman a book on hers, where they cannot be used, and the monk looks on with detachment. Their approach is ridiculous. Only the mad man himself, strapped to the chair, looks out of the painting, engaging the viewer's sympathy.


Printing - c 1800
Francisco Goya
The Dream of Reason

[image, unknown] The great Spanish painter Francisco Goya marks a turning point, out of the Age of Reason and towards contemporary preoccupations. His series of prints entitled 'Caprices' and 'Follies' are expressions of a 'free' imagination. They are satirical and often so horrific that they were suppressed at the time.

The caption, written into the plinth on which the man rests, is ambiguous. 'El sueno de la razon produce monstruos' means 'The sleep of reason produces monsters'. But the Spanish word sueno' can mean either 'sleep' or 'dream'. So the fearful monsters are created either by the absence of reason, or by an 'unconscious' desire of reason itself. This print was probably intended as the frontispiece of a book - Goya was one of the first painters to look for a wider audience for his work.


Photography - 1930
Edvard Munch
The Fear of Death

[image, unknown] The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch said that 'the camera cannot compete with painting as long as it cannot be used in heaven or hell'. But he began to use it to express what he called 'an art which touches and grips one's own heart's blood.'

Here he sits in front of one of his own paintings which, by using double exposure, appears through the left eye in which he was going blind. It makes his whole face seem insubstantial. The intensity and bleakness of feeling conveyed in his work reflects a growing preoccupation with death.


Film - 1978
Andrey Tarkovsky

'"Everything that torments me, everything I don't have and that l long for, that makes me indignant or sick, or suffocates me, everything that gives me a feeling of light and warmth, and by which I live, and everything that destroys me - it's all there in your film, I see it as if in a mirror. For the first time ever film has become something real for me, and that's why I go to see it, I want to get right inside it, so that I can really be alive."

One surely couldn't hope for greater understanding.'

Andrey Tarkovsky, the Russian film director, quoting a letter he received, in his book Sculpting Time (Faber and Faber 1986). Tarkovsky's other films include Andrey Rublyov and Solaris. He died in 1986.

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This feature was published in the July 1990 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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