The Psyche of an Artist

Manashri Pai Dukle

An insight into the relationship of women artists with the work they create and their life

Content warning: rape, violence against women

Art is a powerful instrument for understanding the psyche of an artist, their psychological state, behavioural tendencies, thinking patterns, and personality traits that drive them to create. Art and life of an artist are interdependent. Reading into a work of art is as complex as creating it and it’s an open-ended phenomenon on either side of the process. What makes an artist include their psychological wellbeing/state and experiences that have an impact on how they perceive, analyse, process and deliver their work through different mediums and means? Every work of art can be decoded and studied with respect to its content and its background (referring to the process of its creation). Art is the reflection of the artist’s mind and psyche. 

Since the “soul” or the “mind” are concepts and not physical structures, Psychology considers studying behavior to observe and interpret the mind. It attempts to understand the objective behavior of living beings, scientifically, in relation to their environment and evaluates the reasons and causes of these behavioral patterns. It investigates mental processes through scientific findings. Art, on the contrary, is a catharsis of these mental activities. The major link between art and psychology is creativity, which binds the two disciplines together. 

“When you look at some of our species greatest creative achievements, you will often find a touch of eccentricity to it.”

The “artist” has been a recurring character in fiction and real life. Artists are perceived in a certain way and defined with a preset definition by society. Countless painters, composers, writers and musicians have suffered from depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and other mental health issues. When you look at some of our species greatest creative achievements, you will often find a touch of eccentricity to it. Perhaps it’s not surprising that neuroscience has discovered that highly creative people’s brains are wired differently. Our culture often portrays artists as eccentric. An artist is considered far more likely to be an aberration than someone working in any other profession. Researchers refer to this as the “eccentricity effect.”  Two such artists are Frida Kahlo and Amrita Shergil, whose work was a result of the conflict in their mind and their traumatic life experiences.

“Art created by women is often more personal and emotionally purging with a sense of ‘feminine catharsis’, where the art conveys much more than what the artist tends to say.”

The creative merit of an artwork is often judged based on how viewers perceive the artist. Art is about accessing the deepest, most raw parts of yourself and challenging the audience. Perhaps more than any other profession, the act of creation brings artists closer to their subconscious. Statistics have shown that women are more likely (than men) to develop mental health conditions. Art created by women is often more personal and emotionally purging with a sense of “feminine catharsis”, where the art conveys much more than what the artist tends to say. Focusing on women artists, we can decode a pattern of relationships they have with the kind of work they create and their life story. 

Here are a few artists and a brief outline of their work: 

“Amrita Shergil’s persona, both as an artist of enduring repute and a woman of colourful escapades, continues to intrigue people several decades after her inexplicable death in 1941 at the age of 29.”

Amrita Shergil’s persona, both as an artist of enduring repute and a woman of colourful escapades, continues to intrigue people several decades after her inexplicable death in 1941 at the age of 29. Her multidimensional and iconic personality is reflected in her self portraits. Her vulnerability also shines through her position of being caught between a cold and conventional father and a deranged mother. She takes refuge in an artistic vision remarkable for its compassionate world view. Outspoken, contemptuous and critical of people she disagreed with, she was not only a prolific painter but also a magician with words. She proclaimed that “Although I studied, I have never been taught painting because I possess in my psychological makeup a peculiarity that resents any outside interference…”. 

Bharti Kher, another brilliant artist, focuses on creating art that reflects her own nomadic life. She was born and brought up in England, but in the early 1990’s she moved to New Delhi. She utilises the readily available “Bindi” which signifies “the third eye” worn on the forehead by the Indian women as a symbol of her identity. The “Bindi” plays the role of a basic building block for her masterpieces. She is also an expert in creating wild and eccentric resin-cast sculptures embroidered with Bindis, where her hunt for identity is prominent.

“Nalini Malani belongs to a group of artists who earned prominent name and fame internationally in the 1980s. Being a social activist, Malani’s work is based on the stories we have generally been ignorant about.”

Hema Upadhyay, took gigantic steps to establish herself among the spectacular women artists of India. She tried to reflect on her phobias, shortcomings and other real or imaginative tales through her paintings. She stated that her work was cathartic in the process. From 2001 till her death in  2015, she captivated the thoughts of art lovers with her magnificent works gaining her both appreciation as well as criticism from her viewers. Nalini Malani belongs to a group of artists who earned prominent name and fame internationally in the 1980s. Being a social activist, Malani’s work is based on the stories we have generally been ignorant about. She brought grave issues of race, class and gender in the limelight through her creations portraying her mind disputes in a visual and concrete form. 

Artist Rina Banerjee, inspired by “prakriti” (nature), constantly kept portraying the cycle of nature and the oscillations between constructing and prostrating movements of birth, death and rebirth. To depict the ephemerality of the objects which we chase, for example, she uses small glass bottles and shells to depict mobility, fluidity and a sense of guarded-home respectively in her work. 

“Arpita Singh with her enlarged visual horizon uses pink and blue that dominate her palette. Her paintings depict a wide range of emotions – from sorrow to joy and from suffering to hope.”

Celebration of humanism and intense curiosity to break the shackle of routine work, constitute the distinct features of Meera Mukherjee’s works. Arpita Singh with her enlarged visual horizon uses pink and blue that dominate her palette. Her paintings depict a wide range of emotions – from sorrow to joy and from suffering to hope. The story of her life is reflected in her works.

Anjolie Ela Menon’s paintings are easily identifiable by their bright colours and sharp outlines. Her work has constantly fluctuated over the years, from erotic to melancholy. Her work can’t be categorised in a  single genre, which inspires her to explore new territories to work with.  Every woman artist’s or for that matter every artist’s work is a reflection of their mind, life and persona. 

“Artemisia Gentileschi, a prominent artist, specialized in depicting strong and suffering women from myths, allegories and the Bible. A rape survivor, her work, shows her rage against men.”

Internationally, Artemisia Gentileschi, a prominent artist, specialized in depicting strong and suffering women from myths, allegories and the Bible. A rape survivor, her work, shows her rage against men. She was raped by her father’s colleague when she was 17 and throughout her career as an artist, she portrayed herself as a rebel.

“Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her dramatically large, sensual close-up of flowers which essentially made them into abstract works. Her flower images were often accepted as interpretations that she disagreed with, particularly from feminist critics who perceived these paintings as a veiled illusion of female genitalia.”

Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her dramatically large, sensual close-up of flowers which essentially made them into abstract works. Her flower images were often accepted as interpretations that she disagreed with, particularly from feminist critics who perceived these paintings as a veiled illusion of female genitalia. O’Keeffe was highly significant in influencing the gender balance in the artistic scene. She had a tragic life and suffered from clinical depression. Her story is characterised by suffering, professional and emotional setbacks, and by good fortune and the wisdom to take advantage of it. Though she was not thrilled with the truth of her own story and took pains to disguise her past through her work. 

“Frida Kahlo began painting during her medical treatment and she ultimately gave up her career in medicine to become an artist. Kahlo is famous for her self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds.”

Frida Kahlo is an artist with the most tragic life story that reflects through her art. Due to the grave injuries she suffered in an accident, Frida had to undergo 35 operations in her life, bear with relapses of extreme pain and could not have children. Kahlo began painting during her medical treatment and she ultimately gave up her career in medicine to become an artist. Kahlo is famous for her self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She said, “I paint myself  because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” She is undoubtedly one of the most famous modern artists and perhaps the most renowned female painter. She also remains a staunch feminist icon for generations of women. 

“Tracey Emin, a British artist, has explored a wide variety of media and her art is known for being autobiographical and confessional. Her best-known works include ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995’,”

Tracey Emin, a British artist, has explored a wide variety of media and her art is known for being autobiographical and confessional. Her best-known works include “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995”, a tent appliquéd with the names of everyone she had ever shared a bed with; and “My Bed”, a  ready-made installation consisting of her own unmade dirty bed while she was going through a period of severe depression. Her works are unconventional and convey a strong, fearless personality and attitude.

There are many other artists who are recognised for their work, the way of working, why they work the way they do and their identity or appearance, to the viewers and critics. Through the analysis of their life, mind and work relation, we can define art as a quest of the creative mind to find answers to one’s own life experiences and the invisible mind, through the visible-visual. Art and Psychology are disciplines that are connected by creativity and creative minds. 

“As an artist, I have always been curious to dwell deeper into the driving forces of what I create. My mind, how the process is wired and the relation between my personality, behavioral tendencies and my work.”

As an artist, I have always been curious to dwell deeper into the driving forces of what I create. My mind, how the process is wired and the relation between my personality, behavioral tendencies and my work. The references or the conflicts that the two entities share. When I tried to read into the relationship or the trichotomy between the mind, art, and creativity I observed a pattern of this relationship in every individual artist’s life and the work. However, the effects and reasons had a slight difference for women artists. I further tried to read deeper into this. Most women artists have been using art as a strong medium of communication to pour out their fear and oppression and their deluge of desires in their art, using it as a medium to vent. The greatest names in the art have at some point in their life gone through psychological discordance and traumatic experiences, creating art that is extraordinary. 

Manashri is an Artist, Interior Stylist, Art educator, Art Historian and writer based in Goa.

Design by Simran Mehta

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