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Bryan Charnley’s depictions of schizophrenia 2 of 3

09 October 2014

Yesterday we began our exploration of Bryan Charnley, a British artist with schizophrenia whose illness formed the focus of his art. Charnley will be the subject of the inaugural exhibition at the Museum of the Mind in February 2015.

Over the years following the ‘bondaged heads’ series discussed yesterday, Charnley produced a number of paintings that explored his experience of schizophrenia, including To The Farm (1987).

Here, the double face, either side of a third self-portrait, reflects the sense of shifting and uncertain identity Charnley felt as a result of his illness.

Bryan Charnley To The Farm

To The Farm 1986, reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Bryan Charnley

Using symbolism to communicate

However, the inside of the head shows a series of visual metaphors designed to express precisely how the artist was feeling.

For Charnley, maggots and insects often represent torpor, or lack of energy; the spider’s legs spreading out from his neck echo his fear that he was projecting his thoughts.

He hoped his viewers would spend time looking at his paintings and unpicking this symbolism, part of his conviction that art should primarily aim to communicate.

Painting with schizophrenia

Charney’s brother James has linked this interest in logical symbolism directly to Bryan’s experience of schizophrenia. He writes:

In one respect Bryan was almost forced to retain a high degree of organisation and analysis in his work – having been diagnosed as schizophrenic he was looked upon as being irrational, not to say mad. This is an added humiliation to a frightening and devastating condition.

The ruthless logic of these images looks back to Charnley’s statement, on discovering the work of ‘Bethlem artists’ Kurelek and Louis Wain that ‘here I saw art stripped of all esoteric and cultural pretensions’. Devastating though his illness was to him, from the mid 1980s Charnley began to feel he was achieving his artistic goal to communicate its effects.

Tomorrow we will conclude this series by looking at Charnley’s final artistic project, the Self Portrait Series.

Schizophrenia Awareness Week 2014

This week, on the occasion of Schizophrenia Awareness Week, the mental health charity Rethink is highlighting the fact 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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