Friday, February 27, 2009

Images of Madness

Many years ago I had the pleasure of encountering Psychiatrist Sandar Gilman's books, Seeing the Insane (1982) and Disease and representation: Images of illness and madness to AIDS (1988). This was the beginning of what has become for me an obsession with how mental illness, medical, mental health & academic experts, science, and 'the self' have been reflected (projected?) in the arts and popular culture. Later, I discovered that there is an academic discipline that houses persons with similar preoccupations, Culture Theory.

One of the less admirable delights furnished by this arcane interest comes from learning how little awareness psychologists seem to have of the relationship between popular imagery and science. In an attempt to whipe out of my smugness, I am going to post some of the imagery provided by Gilman as well as those I've hunted down myself. I want to popularize popular culture's views of psychological (scientific) matters, as it were.

Images of Insanity, according to Gilman, began to show up during the Middle Ages with such stable features that a veritable iconography for the appearances of persons living outside the boundaries of sanity at the time. These were the Maniac, the Possessed, the Wild Man, the Melancholic, and the Holy Fool.

To those living in medieval Europe, madness was conceived of as a primitive power of revelation capable of upsetting the fragile illusion equilibrium and exposing the terrible perils, desolation and evil that riddled the world.

The wild man resembled an animal more than a human, which secured him a place outside of the higher realm of humanity. He carried a stick, like the Fool, and represented the chaos, isolation, and rootlessness viewed as an anathema to denizens of medieval European towns, villages and rural hamlets.

Madness was understood to bridge the world of appearances in which people lived their lives with all that was sinful, monstrous, inhuman, and unnatural. This realm of nightmare was accessible as temptations to sin, coming to the sane in dreams. The visions of madmen were the dreams of the rest of humanity. The growing preoccupation of Europeans in the late middle ages and early renaissance came in part from their experiences with the decimation and physical horrors of the Black Death, or Bubonic Plagues.
The painting on the left is a wing from the amazing Isenheim Alter, painted by Matthias Grünewald. It is called the Temptation of St. Anthony. Anthony is being tempted by everything that is eval, inhuman and unnatural. Note the Bubonic plague victim in the lower left corner. Parenzano's Temptati from 1492 is another temptation example.

Gilman claims that the renaissance portrayals of madness (and temptation) reflect the perceived threats and secrets in the world.

In the late 15th century, madness became a kind of "deja-la" of death. Foucault wrote, "It is the tide of madness, its secret invasion, that shows that the world is near its final catastrophe; it is man's insanity that invokes and makes necessary the world's end" (Madness & Civilization, p. 17).

Hieronimous Bosch's Mad-Meg (Dulle Grete) was meant to instill fear of damnation in the viewers, and I find it hair-raising today. Meg, whose insanity is clear from the iconography Bosch includes (the staff & bladder--see below--, her movement or traveling stature,and other oddities in her apparel). She is surrounded by the terrible world she represents.

Images of madness appeared in special relationships to Christianity. Sometimes the mad were believed to have unique access to holiness or divine messages. This may be a carryover from classical times when the oracles in that pantheistic context were typically delirious when channeling a deity.

On the other hand, the insane were also viewed as more susceptible to influences of the devil, requiring exorcisms to rid them of their demons. For example, the image to the left is a very old one of a saint expelling a demon from the man kneeling before him.

image on the right concerns the same theme: the woman on the right has been brought to some church setting to get rid of her madness/demon. The demon can be seen flying out of her mouth.Similarly, a saint is expelling demons from the man on the left.The demented or possessed also came to develop a special iconographic position that is evident in both of these above examples. The person suffering from possession is often held up by others as his or her head (and sometimes body) collapses backwards, arms stretched out rigidly on either side. In Raphael's Transfiguratio, in which Jesus ascends into heaven, a man whos is possessed is held up and pointed out by others as needing healing by the transfiguring god.

The same posture shows up in one of two etchings by Breugel of mad women being led away from their town. The woman on the right is raising her right arm somewhat, and leaning back into the poor man trying to steer her somewhere else than her home town. This picture also tell the story of the insane as increasingly homeless outcasts from their places of origin. This them of rootlessness will be taken up below with the theme, The Ship of Fools.

This is the position of frenzy, abandon, and loss of reason. We can find the same visual metaphor for submission to higher power for cure in the humanizing of asylums by Pinel, and then in clinic of Charot.

The image to below is a
propaganda-like painting of Pinel (for a new rational, humane treatment of the mentally ill) shows him freeing the patients of La Saltpetriere from their chains. His patient is a woman who assumes a position which both suggests her unreason, her vulnerability to patriarchial reason, and the taming of her dangerous sexuality. The association of madness with sexual wantoness, delerium, and women is not new, but took on great resonance in this context of morally righteous 'humane' treatments. The insane are also being freed from their shackles of exile, at least that was the hope. Mental illness was a moral problem, not a sign of demonic possession. Through reason, clean living, and moral training, most of an asylum's men and women could eventually return home; they had only to subject themselves to the authority of their doctor.

Later, we see this same figural relationship reappear in the imagistic pedagogy of French psychiatrist, Charcot, which took place at the same Parisian hospital. Freud spent a short time in attendance at Charot's seminars, many of which consisted of demonstrations by the master like that presented in the painting below.

This painting, commissioned by Charot, is the most famous representation of him: As the man we credit with starting the clinical/medical approach to psychology and with creating the first clinical research lab imbedded in a hospital rather than a university, this image of Charot instructing his students in the treatment of hysteria is iconic. The patient's pose, swooning with her breasts prominently in view, reflects her utter submission to Charcot's brillance. All the medical students are men; the only other woman in the room is a nurse from hysteria ward in Saltpetriere.

The painter, Paul Richer, painted himself into the center-rear of image, as well as his large, if faint, drawing of a woman in a cataclyptic pose from Charcot's
Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière. His drawing, which could be seen by every patient on Charcot's stage, is on the right.

Photographic Iconography of Salpêtriere consists of photographs taken by Bourneville and Regnard; most were made in a photographic laboratory created by Charcot for the purpose of documenting the diagnostic phases of hysterical attacks. The drawing of the woman on the left looks like our icon of possession; it was drawn by Richer from a photograph.

George Didi-Huberman in his fascinating book, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere, upacks the theatricality of his Tuesday morning lectures, as well as the performative demands of the setting. Didi-Huberman
is not alone in arguing that the "hysteria" that Charcot documented and demonstrated in his lectures was seldom found anywhere else. Freud was on to him.

The Iconography includes photographs of induced postures, brought about by a variety of hypnotic methods. The photograph of "Lethargy" on the right was prompted by a sudden flash of light.

The Holy Fool

One of the most common icons alerting the viewer to the troubled mental status of a human image, like the illuminated Psalm 52 on the left, was the presence of a staff or large stick, often with a bladder tied to its upper end. In evidence from the middle ages through the 17th century, a staff was to be found in the hands of all thought to be possessed by the Devil: fools, melancholics, witches, and madmen. The image on the left is called "A Witch and her Familiars," all of whom require staffs for identification. The cats, I assume we already know about witches.

Fools are widely scattered in medieval and renaissance illuminated texts. Most often the can be found in the minute decorations in the margins of a page--a search for fools in these contexts can be quite entertaining.

Music and dance are also incorporated into images of fools, folly, mania, and madness. The trope of Dancing Fools or Insane can be found from the middle ages up into the 19th century. I've inserted two examples:

Below is another images of a fool with staffs; this one is facing Death:

The painting on the right by Hieronimous Bosch is of a theme popular during the northern Renaissance, A Ship of Fools. While everyone on this ship of fools is intended to be a fool, Bosch also made sure that one of the figures had all the appropriate icons for the role: The seated figure on the upper right has a staff with a bladder at the end and a horned cowl. The cowl was associated with a monk's hood, but in the case of fools is marred by simulated, rather silly, devil's horns. The image to its left is a woodcut by Holbein, whose woodcuts illustrated Sebastian Brandt's widely popular book, Stultifera Navis, Das Narrenschiff, or The ship of Fools.

Rather than a state that mirrored the demonic consequences of humanity's sinfulness, Renaissance Folly came to mean flaws in an individual's moral character. The defects portrayed in the various ships of fools were those found in everyone, not just the mad. Fools lacked the tragic condition of the insane.

Perhaps only an
Idiot Fool (Holbein the Younger) would, because its doubled construction, qualify as irrevocably beyond the bounds of sanity, but that was hardly the case. Here, the fool is shown mocking death--his bladder raised to strike and his finger irreverently in his mouth. Meanwhile, death gleefully leads the fool off to the tune of dancing music played on his bagpipe.

And then, of course, there is the Educated Fool....Holbein's woodcut includes a feather-duster rather than a staff; perhaps that was the 15th century version of Ginko.

The Ship of Fools
also carries the theme of vagrancy and rootlessness, which was seen by the people of the Renaissance as flaws in character. This was a particular hardship of those seen as mad, for they were little tolerated in their communities and were sent drifting as beggars from place to place until they came more and more to be incarcerated--first into prisons along with imprisoned criminals, and then later into their own separated institutions.


Gilman describes how, at the beginning of the middle ages, the image of the melancholy
individual became the iconic figure of madness in general. One of the Four Humors, Melancholy represented an isolated life out of balance with the real world. Gibson includes a poem by the best-loved German poet of the thirteenth century, 

Walther von der Vogelweide, to demonstrate how the position of the body, as image, communicated a state of being we have come to associate as "internal." The state of the "self" described by the Minnesinger, Walther, would be readily understood as melancholic.

I sat down on a stone
And crossed my legs
And set my chin and cheek

In my hand.

Then I pondered very earnestly

How one ought to live one's life on earth.

I could not find the solution. 

from Gilman (1982) "Seeing the Insane"

Solis the Elder's (1514-1562) woodcut, Melancholicus, reflects an emblematic theme at the time; the numbing impact of the conflicts at that time between the humanism sweeping the continent and Roman Catholic tradition. The message is a negative moral judgment of melancholy: melancholy had the effect of paralysis and a state of tension due to a conflict between opposing powers, in this case between nature created by God and science made my mankind. 

Much more well known is the etching on the right, Melancholia I, by Northern Renaissance artist, 
 Albrecht Dürer, is one of my favorite works of art (which may give away my dominant Humor). The posture of the angel, pensive and darkened face, chin and cheek leaning heavily on her hand, exudes melancholy to the viewer, even those who do not know the title of the work of the iconography of melancholy. Her clenched and hidden hands suggest that she is ineffectual and her inactivity, in light of the many tools and recent scientific technologies surrounding her, can suggest the moral defect, sloth. The sleeping dog is also implies an inability to act. Finally, melancholy was associated with characteristics of passivity and excessive emotionality; e.g., the Feminine (Gilman, 1982).

The painting on the left from 1553 has the same iconography and the title is The Melancholy, painted by Lucas Cranach, a contemporary of Albrecht
Dürer. Here, too, we see the idle angel and sleeping dog, but the images of humanistic science are missing. The playful children may extend the idleness theme. In the background, inside a dark cloud, is the diabolical image of witches riding on goats and pigs. Cranach may be suggesting that melancholy was a state of suspension between two negative outcomes; the passivity of the indolent or diabolical delusions. The right path was to be found elsewhere. To provide a temporal context, Cranach was a friend to and painted a portrait of Martin Luther (1529).

1 comment:

  1. Hi , im doing my masters in Clinical Psychology ...and been reading Foucault in a study group ...your article seems very relevant, esp after reading chapter two. Im an artist as well and your article makes me want to explore how madness has been represented in the Indian context through popular art and religious art ...