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  • Writer's pictureTom Robinson

Genius and madness: Are they really related?

Updated: Jan 29, 2022

There was an article in the Guardian on Monday about the famous Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose painting 'The Scream' has become one of the most iconic images in the world.

The painting has even become the inspiration for the 'fearful' emoji which features on the iPhone, (added at the bottom of this page).

There has been a long debated conundrum associated with The Scream concerning the author of a tiny pencil inscription in the top left corner of the painting which reads - 'Can only have been written by a madman'.

The comment was originally thought to have been written by Munch himself but was then later attributed to a vandal, however, recent analysis suggests that it is indeed the work of the master himself.

Munch specialist, Mai Britt Guleng, believes that the inscription reveals something about Munch's state of mind, since it displays a combination of 'irony and vulnerability', and hints at the relationship he had with his sometimes fragile intelligence.

Having grown up in fear of inheriting a mental condition that ran in his family, Munch was encouraged by his nihilist mentor Hans Jaeger, to paint his own emotional and psychological state, thus giving rise to his distinctive and recognisable style.

There has long been a notion that genius and madness are linked together somehow, and there are undoubted links between the creative professions and mental illness (most notably bipolar disorder), where being 'extraordinary' is considered de rigeur.

A 2012 study which followed 1.2 million patients, backs up this claim, finding that bipolar disorder is more common in individuals with artistic professions such as dancing, painting, writing and photography.

In hypomania (the state that occurs before the onset of full mania), there is such a rush of creativity that washes over you that it gives rise to ingenious and innovative concepts and ideas which only another bipolar patient can truly appreciate. It's a blissful and addictive higher state of consciousness that few people get the chance to experience, which (even though the flip side is horrific), some people would never ever give up.

After reading about Munch, I started thinking about other famous artists and creative geniuses that have been reported as mad or borderline insane.

Legendary composer Ludwig Van Beethoven was prone to bouts of suicidal lows and energetic highs all the way through his life. He would rattle off symphonies, concertos and overtures when manic and then drink himself into oblivion in an attempt to numb his suicidal thoughts when down and depressed.

Mozart was another composer with creative genius who is also thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder. It is rumoured that he wrote the music to accompany the opera 'Don Giovanni' at such speed that the ink was still wet on the orchestra's pages on the opening night. At other times he was reported to have behaved in bizarre fashions by writing rambling letters containing inappropriate content and dashing about frantically while only sleeping for a few hours at a time.

Other creative geniuses who displayed features of mental illness include Vincent Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Nijinsky and Michelangelo which definitely suggests a link between creativity and mental illnesses.

If you would like to read the article in the Guardian about Edvard Munch and his painting 'The Scream', then you can find it here.

Are you diagnosed with a mental illness and in a creative profession as a result? Or do you know someone who is? I would love to hear about it, so do please let me know.

Please keep the interesting articles and stories coming, and as usual please share these posts so that they can reach others.

Thanks for reading,

Speak to you soon,


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