Friday 31 December 2010

Mental Health Care in 1888

In a contrast to a few days ago when I was snowed up in Carmarthenshire I find myself strolling east along London's South Bank to meet my friends Frank and Melior who are taking me to see Gauguin Maker of Myth at the Tate Modern (they are Members of the Tate so I evade the eye-watering £13 entrance charge).

My first earnest discussions about Gauguin at university were not with art students but rather with moral philosophers who held him up as a classic case for posing the question about whether great art could somehow cancel out unethical behaviour. This has always seemed to me to be a pointless debate (see this post) and anyway my philosophical studies started and finished - at my choice - with the Presocratics who were more interested in cosmology and the nature of existence (ethics are a secondary consideration I reasoned publicly and, I reasoned privately, harder work).

However, that doesn't mean it isn't interesting to consider the behaviour of famous artists and the charge sheet against Paul Gauguin is a serious one to which I will offer up some defence...

(1) He deserted his wife and children to pursue his art. Well, actually his Danish in-laws chucked him out because he was making a complete dog's breakfast as a tarpaulin-salesman having lost his job as a stock-broker in a familiar-looking banking melt-down.

(2) He seduced native girls in the South Seas and infected them with disease. By modern standards his defence on this one is going to get a frosty hearing but the youth of his girl-friends was unremarkable in those days. The charge of infection is not fair as his syphilis was at a late stage and therefore (an oddity of that illness) almost certainly not infectious.

(3) He drove his friend Vincent Van Gogh to madness and then deserted him in his hour of need. This is arguably not the most serious charge but it's an interesting one for this Blog and there are some lessons for us which I would like to look at. But before that two long but important asides...

First, Vincent's mental illness is legendary and therefore still influential in public attitudes to mental illness. That influence is ambiguous: on the one hand the story is positive because he was a great artist and many people would associate that with his illness (actually a doubtful association - he himself described how his illness got in the way of his painting rather than inspired it); on the other hand there is more cruel humour about the artist's crisis, especially the mutilation of his ear, than almost any other individual case. In fact Vincent's anguish was appalling and his decline towards suicide makes unbearable reading.

Second, what was Vincent Van Gogh's illness? To reassure you I don't make a habit of throwing around diagnoses but at this distance it feels okay to speculate. The majority view is that he might have been bipolar - and there were certainly violent swings in his mood - but I wonder, especially from reading about the last few weeks of his life, if he was actually experiencing schizophrenia. He described hearing vivid, woundingly critical voices and he displayed extreme paranoia on occasions. Some of his delusions could have been caused by alcohol too. Perhaps the important point here was that he was clearly experiencing classic, mainstream, serious mental illness of a kind totally familiar to Hafal's staff and Members both in its symptoms and in the effects on his behaviour.

So back to the charge against Gauguin. It is undoubtedly true that the two artists wound each other up hugely during their stay together in a cramped studio in Arles. But if anything Gauguin was a steadying influence in organising the cooking and sorting out the finances, albeit unconventionally (they had a box with money for rent and food and a separate one for visits to the bars and the state-approved brothel round the corner).

As for the final hours of their fateful cohabitation the police seem to agree with Gauguin that he had escorted an out-of-control Vincent back from the brothel and put him to bed. Gauguin then went for a walk in the square but became aware of Vincent following him and turned to find him brandishing a razor menacingly. Gauguin got away, slept in a hotel, and legged it the next day taking care to tell Theo Van Gogh that his brother needed help.

Meanwhile Vincent had during the night sliced off a part of his ear and presented it to his favourite girl back at the brothel. Following Gauguin's departure Vincent got into a classic "revolving door" situation being taken into hospital, discharged after calming down, and then being readmitted as he went to pieces without support in the community. This stopped when a petition was signed by local people saying he needed to be kept in hospital for his own and everybody else's sake, something which Vincent himself began to realise was fair. Later of course Vincent shot himself and died in considerable pain.

On this account there isn't much to blame Gauguin for. The big story in Vincent's illness was always the role of his brother Theo whose love and care for his sibling, both emotional and practical, was exemplary over many years and caused him terrible distress as a carer with little respite. Theo went way beyond the call of duty in many respects but also grasped intelligently how he could support his brother sensitively and encourage him towards recovery and self-esteem. Arguably Theo did everything and much more than the advice set out in Hafal's Ten Point Plan for carers except to look after himself sufficiently.

For a brilliant account of the two artists' sojourn in Arles - required reading for people trying to understand how serious mental illness affects people's lives - read The Yellow House - Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles.

And what of the exhibition? Irritatingly the pictures are "curated" (dread word presaging unhelpful mucking around with the materials) according to dubious themes instead of chronologically - all very clever but confusing and self-defeating because G's work is multi-layered and doesn't fit categories in this way. In spite of this there are some great pictures. I like the ones from Brittany best - he captures some of the spookiness of a place I like to think of as a parallel universe in which Wales experienced no Reformation,still less a Revival, and is still primitively Roman Catholic. On that theme see "The Vision After the Sermon" above showing Breton peasant women having a strange spiritual experience but also note the "priest" to the right - clearly Gauguin himself - and the pert and oddly cosmopolitan "peasant" to the left with nice make-up - actually his then object of interest, a fellow artist's sister.

For a flavour of the Arles experience see this atmospheric piece including the absinthe glass and the sugar lumps through which it was necessary to pour the bitter intoxicant...

And, a taste of the exotic, this very late picture after Gauguin's own attempted suicide (arising from the pain of physical rather than mental illness)...

I won't post here anything by Vincent to compete with Gauguin but note that he worked briefly when in London for Welsh Congregationalist Minister Thomas Slade Jones (the Dutchman was a Protestant by upbringing unlike Gauguin) and sketched Rev Jones' tin church in Turnham Green...