Do Suicides Plague Artists More than Others?

A dark harbinger? One of the sordid Black on Gray Series painted by Mark Rothko before his suicide.

ARE VISUAL ARTISTS by the nature and process of their creative work more prone to depression and suicidal tendencies? Or is the idea that madness is somehow connected to artistic genius just a myth, perpetuated in romanticised narratives such as Irving Stone’s Lust For Love, about the tortured life of Vincent Van Gogh?

Van Gogh, in a fit of delirium famously shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux a broche revolver in the Auvers-sur-Oise wheat fields, and died 30 hours later.

Van Gogh, Munch, Virginia Wolff, Sylvia Plath, Basquiat, Pollock… It’s a litany of anguished souls, who happened to be artists living on the edge of sanity, plagued by manic-depressions, bipolar disorders, neurosis, cyclothymia, anxieties and other mental phantoms. Some were driven to desperation by money, personal and physical problems.

The mental febrility of artists constituted intriguing studies by Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, and even R.D. Laing, an anti-psychiatry dissenter. There was even a landmark study of the Prinzhorn Collection of 5,000 “art” based on some 450 cases of the mentally ill.

In another study of cases stretching from the 1800s to the 1900s, the Garzanti’s Encyclopedia found 59 suicides from a sample of 3,093 creative people, a ratio of 1.9% (51 men, eight women), with painters and architects showing a lower risk than the mean.

Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured genius in art, and one of his most famous paintings Potato Eaters, permanently in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Jackson Pollock, and the cult of “drip painting".

Carl Jung said: “Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realise its purpose through him.”

Locally, I know of only two cases of artist suicides, the first many years ago when an artist from a well-known collective drank weedkiller, and the other in 2014, who jumped from his 11th floor flat in Selangor.

Jeanne Hébuterne, artist-common-law wife and muse-model of Amedeo Modigliani, killed herself two days after the death of her husband, by jumping off a building.

Suffering from depression, Dezso Czigany killed his family and then himself.

Ren Hang, known for his provocative photographs on Chinese sexuality.

Of artists who shot themselves, there were also the cases of Willis Davis Caligornia (1855-March 11, 1910) on a cruise; Leno Prestini (1906-April 26, 1963); William Hollingsworth Jr (1910-August 1, 1944); Christopher Rave (1881-January 13, 1933); Ezra Winter (1886-April 6, 1949); Ren Hang (1987-February 24, 2017); Wolfgang Paalen (1905-September 24, 1959); and German Expressionist painter-printmaker Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-June 15, 1938) who was dismayed with temporary paralysis of his limbs and the rise of Nazism.

Two artists resorted to self-immolation in protest over the rise of communism. They were Romanian Liviu Cornell Babes (1942-March 2, 1989) and Lithuanian Vytautas Viciulis (1951-March 3, 1989). Babes later had a street in Brasov named in his honour.

A common form of suicide is by hanging, with the most famous being Arshile Gorky (1904-July 21, 1948) and Richard Gerstl (1883-November 4, 1908).

Armenian-American Gorky was the tragic “Jonah”, suffering several crises: his studio burnt down, he had colostomy for cancer, and his wife had an affair with artist Roberto Matta and left him with their daughters after Gorky became paralysed after an accident. Gerstl eloped with musician Arnold Schoenberg’s wife Mathile, but hanged himself when she went back to Schoenberg.

The noose brought death to artists Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-June 14, 1907); Jules Pascin (1885-June 5, 1930, also slit his wrist); Alfred Henry Mayrier (1868-August 4, 1932); Gilbert Bundy (1911-November 22, 1955); FEMEN co-founder Oksana Shackko (1987-July 23, 2018); American singer-musician-poet-cartoonist David Berman (1967-August 7, 2019); Canadian Tobi Wong (1974-May 30, 2010); and Brazilian animator “Al Rio” (Alvaro Lorenco, 1962-January 31, 2012).

Diane Arbus’ iconic photograph of identical twins.

Drug overdose is another popular lethal fix-it, the most prominent cases being Mark Rothko and Australian “bad boy” Brett Whiteley (1939-June 15, 1992).

Rothko (1903-February 25, 1970) suffered from mild aortic aneurysm, and cut his right artery on his right arm besides overdosing on barbiturates. He was depressed after separating from his wife, and his last Black on Gray paintings were pictorial harbingers.

Abraham Valdez (1905-October 27, 1924) had a cocaine overdose after being dropped by his gay mentor, while Vivian Forbes (1891-December 24, 1937) was inconsolable after the death of his gay painter-partner Glyn Philpot.

Others who died from drugs were Venice Biennale photographer Diane Arbus (1923-July 26, 1971, also cut wrist); American Cubist painter Patrick Henry Bruce (1881- November 12, 1936); Reinhard Drenkahn (1926-March 26, 1959); Malcolm Browne (1931-August 27, 2012); Florence Claxton (1838-May 3, 1920); and notorious Hungarian-born art-forger Elmyr de Hory (1906-December 11, 1976).

When the great Amedeo Modigliani died (of tubercular meningitis), his muse-model Jeanne Hébuterne (1898-January 26, 1920), a minor artist, threw herself out of her family’s fifth-floor apartment two days later, killing herself and her unborn child.

“Loverboy” Richard Gerstl, who had a torrid affair with the wife of famed music composer Arnold Schoenberg, and eloped with her, but hanged himself after she went back to Schoenberg.

Headline on the death of Australia’s enfant terrible of art Brett Whiteley in the Daily Telegraph Mirror, Sydney, dated November 5, 2013.

The ostentatious American illustrator Henry Patrice Raleigh (1880-1944), who went from millionaire (he owned a mansion and a 55-foot yacht) to pauper, jumped to his death; while bisexual Christopher Wood (1901-August 21, 1931), jumped in front of a train at Salisbury Station.

Others making the lethal free-fall were Nicholas de Stael (1914-March 16, 1955); Vilho Lampi (1898-March 12, 1936); Maningning Miclat (1972-September 29, 2000, in Manila); William Haskell Coffin (1878-May 12, 1941); Eric Pauelsen (1749-February 20, 1790); and late-starter artist Herman Brood (1946-July 11, 2001, from the rooftop of Amsterdam Hilton, also drugs problem).

Jean-Baptise Nattier (1678-May 23, 1726) cut his throat in the Bastille with an oyster knife over some pederastic charges; while Constance Mayer (1774-May 26, 1821) slit her throat with a razor when her long-time lover Pierre-Paul Prud’hon did not marry her.

Death by drowning was the “weapon” of Edmond Quinn (1868-September 1929, after surviving drinking poison four months earlier); George Ault (1891-December 30, 1948, could not sell works); and Jeremy Blake (1971-July 17, 2007).

Most horrifying was when artists took the lives of family members. This happened to American illustrator Pruett Carter (1891-December 1, 1955, who killed his wife and handicapped adult son while they were sleeping and then himself with a .45 revolver); and Jewish-Hungarian Fauvist Dezso Czigany (1883-December 31, 1937).

British Pop icon R.B. Kitaj (1932-October 21, 2007) killed himself through suffocation, while British filmmaker-photographer David Hamilton famous for the “Hamilton Blur” gagged himself with a plastic bag after being accused of rape by a model who was then underage. French Neo-Expressionist Bernard Buffet (1928-October 4, 1999) ended his Parkinson’s woes by stuffing his head in a plastic bag. Octave Tassaert (1800-April 24, 1874) killed himself by inhaling coal, and Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-March 25, 1919) gassed himself.

Those who could not take criticisms of their art or rejections were Alexander Rizzoni (1836-April 29, 1902); Heimrad Prem (1934-February 19, 1978); and Adolf Meckel von Hemsbach (1856-May 24, 1893).

Four killed themselves as a way out of debilitating illnesses: Keith Vaughan (1912-November 4, 1977, cancer); Matthew Wong (1984-October 2, 2019, Tourette’s Syndrome); King (1831-May 17, 1904); and Aceh-born Fokko Tadama (1875-May 25, 1937). Kawakami Togai, a yoga (Western)-style pioneer (1828-1881) killed himself over the secret map scandal from his department.

Other artists in the “Suicide Squad”: Waldemar Rosler (1882-December 14, 1916); Mike Kelley (1954-January 31, 2012); Max Kurzweil (1867-May 9, 1916, suicide together with student-lover Helene Heger); Ramon Sagredo (1834-July 2, 1872/1873); Oscar Bluemner (1867-January 12, 1938); Nebojsa Mitric (1931-August 23, 1989); Anita Ree (1885-December 12, 1933); Chaval Yvan Francis (1915-January 22, 1968); Karl Buchholz (1849-May 29, 1889); John Godward (1861-December 13, 1922); John Miton (1917-January 20, 1957); Andor Basch (1885-1944); and Ilse von Twardowski-Conrat (1880-1942, killed herself before being sent to the concentration camp).

This long list is enough to depress anyone, not only creative people.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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