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Bryan Charnley’s depictions of schizophrenia 1 of 3

07 October 2014

Bryan Charnley was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1971, partway through his diploma course at Central School of Art & Design, London. His story will be the subject of the inaugural exhibition at Bethlem’s Museum of the Mind next year (16 February – 22 May 2015).

Diagnosed with schizophrenia

In 1971, Charnley had already suffered – and apparently recovered from – a previous breakdown. However this time his symptoms were so severe he was forced to drop out of his course.

Schizophrenia can be a profoundly distressing condition; symptoms can include the feeling of being controlled by outside forces, hallucinations and delusions. It affects 1 in every 100 people.

In Charnley’s case, the condition took him in and out of hospital for the next seven years; during this time he was barely able to paint at all.

Using schizophrenia to create art

However, when Charnley returned to painting, he increasingly made his condition the subject of his work.

His series of ‘bondaged heads’ – one of which was discussed in last month’s In The Frame – shows his interest in The Maze (1953), a gouache in the Bethlem collection by the Canadian artist William Kurelek.

The maze of Kurelek’s title is in fact the labyrinth of traumatic memories and emotions that is revealed when the artist’s head is, viscerally, sliced open.

William Kurelek The Maze

Charnley wrote of Kurelek’s work:

‘Here I saw art stripped of all esoteric and conceptual pretensions. I gladly adopted this approach, which seemed to be more vital than any current “-ism”. I found myself on an interior journey in which landscape and subject were subsumed to inner vision. This led to the large bondaged heads which, I hope, stand as an image of schizophrenia.’

Bondaged heads

Fish Schizophrene (1986, The Estate of Bryan Charnley) is one of these ‘bondaged heads’. Like The Maze, it shows a head filled with a cacophony of thoughts. Ambiguous spaces open up, one over the other, confusing the distinction between inside and out.

One feature of Charnley’s experience of schizophrenia was a fear that he was broadcasting his thoughts, or that other people could read his mind, and here he depicts that sense of anxious uncertainty.

However, whereas Kurelek shows a skull opened for the viewer’s consumption, Charnley shows the thoughts and spaces of schizophrenia projected onto the surface of the head.

Far from being opened for the viewer, the figure is wrapped up and concealed, in the process rendered both blind and dumb.

Charnley’s depiction of a ‘schizophrenic head’ perhaps echoes his experience of schizophrenia – which, he wrote, ‘blinds [the sufferer] to reality’. The head is depicted as so overwhelmed by ambiguous spaces and forms that the real, meticulously painted, world outside is blocked out.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the symbolism Charnley uses in his work to communicate the effect of his illness. 

Bryan Charnley Fish Schizophrene

Fish Schizophrene 1986, reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Bryan Charnley

Schizophrenia Awareness Week 2014

This week, on the occasion of Schizophrenia Awareness Week, the mental health charity Rethink is highlighting that people suffering from schizophrenia die, on average, twenty years before their time.

Rethink is encouraging people to get involved with raising money and awareness of the illness, to fight this statistic.

For Charnley, serious recognition came too late; however, the year after he died, his final Self-Portrait Series was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

We hope the 2015 Charnley exhibition at Bethlem Museum of the Mind will, similarly, introduce his work to a wider audience.  

For further information, support and advice on schizophrenia and Schizophrenia Awareness Week, see rethink.org

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