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In The Frame: Bryan Charnley and the art of schizophrenia

09 September 2014

In preparation for our upcoming exhibition on Bryan Charnley, volunteer Kirsten Tambling has written a series of exciting and informative blog posts.

In 1983, the 34 year-old Bryan Charnley suddenly changed artistic direction. All at once, he abandoned the immaculately finished, photo-realistic paintings of flowers that had made up most of his work up till that point. Asked why, he simply replied ‘Life’s too short’. He now turned to a new type of painting, using a strange visual language of symbolism and metaphor to communicate the thoughts and feelings going on in his head.

Dismissing the art market

Charnley’s shift was as profound as it was abrupt. Since 1968 he had suffered from a debilitating mental illness, diagnosed in his first year of art school as paranoid schizophrenia – an illness that can include hallucinations, delusions, confused thoughts and changes in behaviour. Forced by his illness to quit his studies at London’s Central School of Art and Design, he had endured several years of hospitalisation, broken up by odd jobs, before finally returning to painting in 1978, determined to make a living as an artist. Five years later, he abruptly abandoned all attempt to court the art market with the ‘flower paintings’ he thought it wanted, deciding instead to make his mental experiences the centre of his art.  

Charnley’s work, from his earliest beginnings to his symbolist peak, will form the subject of our inaugural exhibition at the new ‘Museum of the Mind’, the first in a rolling programme of temporary shows exploring a range of different artists. Bryan Charnley: the Art of Schizophrenia will includes a range of paintings lent by the artist’s surviving twin – many of them not seen in public before – alongside well-loved works in the Bethlem collection, such as Moonlight Maiden (undated) and Brooch Schizophrene (1987).

‘Brooch Schizophrene’

Inspired in part by William Kurelek’s The Maze, which he saw in the Bethlem collection, Brooch Schizophrene is one of a series of ‘bondaged heads’, here described by the artist’s brother:

‘As many sufferers from [schizophrenia] will testify, they are a prisoner of their condition, which keeps them apart from society and bound up with their own troubles. This is a form of bondage and this was the title which Bryan gave to this series of paintings. The sufferer is without a voice and what he sees is disturbingly affected by his own mind. This experience is very difficult to communicate, the emotional and conceptual upheavals are invisible to the outside observer.’

Charnley tried to represent this feeling in his paintings by depicting ambiguous spaces inside the head that, in a cacophony of conflicting images, open up wider exterior spaces beyond. Brooch Schizophrene is full of ears and windows, with exterior spaces – a riverbank, an ocean – opening up from inside the head. In the background is Bedford’s suspension bridge, a familiar sight from Charnley’s home town, painted with careful realism, though partially blocked out by the images and worlds beyond visible in the sufferer’s head.  

Bryan Charnley’s ‘Pam and Me’

Image © The Estate of Bryan Charnley

Also represented in the exhibition will be earlier works, such as the 1982 painting Pam and Me, a double portrait of Charnley and his partner, Pam. Here, all the early influences on the young artist are visible: the Hockneyesque composition that might remind viewers of the great Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971, Tate Britain), and the tinge of anxiety that permeates another double portrait, Stanley Spencer’s Self Portrait with Patricia Preece (1937). Pam is a figure who recurs in Charnley’s art; a few years after this picture was painted, she jumped out of a window in a suicide attempt, and never recovered. Charnley was devastated, and many of the paintings that followed feature a green-clad woman somewhere in amongst the immense details.

We’ll be writing about different aspects of Charnley’s art in the run-up to the exhibition. What would you like to know?  Email [email protected] or contact us on Twitter @bethlemheritage to let us know!

Bryan Charnley: The Art of Schizophrenia opens at the Museum of the Mind in Spring 2015. 

Tagged in: schizophrenia, pam and me, kirsten tambling, in the frame, exhibitions, bryan charnley, brooch schizophrene,