Art and Anxiety

By Magdelena Polak

Anxiety. A term usually attributed with the end of the 19th century and figures like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Arthur Schnitzler, Edvard Munch. The general feeling of unrest in regards to the future development of Europe was essential in the birth of psycho-analysis and the emergence of Expressionism, taking Art one step closer to 20th century Modern Art. Figures like Jean-Martin Charcot made it acceptable to talk about emotional anxiety and hysteria and it would be his pupil Sigmund Freud who really coined the concept of the subconscious and our unarticulated fears.

However, the idea of a sense of alienation and personal emotional anxiety, a phenomenon, which had come to dictate the art world in and around 1900, was arguably not something new. This article will explore the work of Goya, Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch, and attempt to bring them together due to their mutual sense of personal anxiety and emotional alienation.

Francisco de Goya was born in 1746 and died in 1828. A follower of the Enlightenment, he was an intellectual, revolutionary, and master of etching. Being the most active at the end of the 18th and the begin of the 19th century, he really is a transitionary figure between the age of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Despite the peak of his career being First Painter to the Spanish King, he was arguably one of the most alienated artists to ever have lived. He lived at a time when Spain was under huge social strains. The conservative ruling Spanish monarchy tried (sometimes very brutally) to consolidate its rule and oppress the movement of the Enlightenment that had swept over the boarders, having originated in France. Having started off as an intellectual that was enthused by the idea of rationality and the questioning of the human self, Goya quickly came to understand the atmosphere of conservative social oppression through, for example, the stressing of religion. It must have affected him emotionally to paint a portrait of the Royal family and at the same time a portrait of his fellow Intellectual Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, knowing that they stood for completely different ideals. This feeling of standing between two opposing visions might have aroused a sense of unique loneliness, a sentiment which must have been fortified through his premature deafness and literal alienation of society. In his work, we can see his struggling with emotional alienation in his etchings Los Caprichos, especially plate no 43, called The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters. In this etching, Goya imagines himself asleep amidst his drawing tools, his reason dulled by slumber and bedeviled by creatures that prowl in the dark. One can argue that in this etching series, Goya attempted to convey his own personal feelings of anxiety. Considering the title, it seems to argue that if left alone with one’s own thoughts, the subconscious, if one will, will breed monsters of our own making. The fact that one of the monsters, the owl that is flying right above his head, is looking straight at us, implies that the monsters of his dreams also threatens us. The lack of characterisation of his “monsters” also makes them more accessible to us as spectators. While our fears may not be the same, we are united in our fears’ source, which is ourselves. For a concept that had not yet been coined yet, to me this sounds a lot like emotional anxiety, as developed by Sigmund Freud 100 years later. 

Time Jump of 90 years. The painting: Vincent van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. The setting: Arles, South of France. The context: Van Gogh had moved to Arles earlier this year, disgusted with urban Parisian life, and attempted to create an Artist colony removed from the pressures and emotional exertions created by Bourgeois society. Having finally persuaded his long-time friend Paul Gauguin to visit him, the two had had an argument, which caused Van Gogh to having sliced his ear off. After having just returned from the hospital, Van Gogh’s biographer Gregory White Smith argues that this self-portrait is, above all, a plea to his doctors that he should not be sent to a mental asylum, as was repeatedly suggested by the rest of Arlesian society. White Smith argues that van Gogh, following his release from hospital, was anxious to persuade his doctors that he was indeed perfectly fit and able to take care of himself and that, despite his momentary lapse, it would not be necessary for them to have him committed, as had been suggested, to one of the local insane asylums; hence the winter coatand hat, to keep warm as they had advised, and with the window ajar still getting that much-needed fresh air into his system. Arguably, this self-portrait screams anxiety and emotional distress. The fear of being committed for who knows how long, the emotional engagement with his fight with Gauguin, the isolation from his brother Theo, who lived in Paris. While one cannot attribute his art as being part of the Age of Anxiety, I firmly believe that the reason the painting conveys, similarly to Goya’s etching, the extreme sense of loneliness and emotional duress of being misunderstood by
society, thus being alienated.


Let us conclude with Edvard Munch. Perhaps the most memorable representative of Northern Expressionism, his work really shows how anxiety became a feature of late 19th century art. Taking as an example his iconic painting The Scream, 1893, we can detect how Munch used art to express his inner troubles and personal anxiety. These inner anxieties can partly be ascribed to his struggling feelings towards his upbringing. Having been born into a deeply religious family, Munch described his father’s religious faith to be “on the border of insanity”. The internal conflict of having been raised in such a conservative household, while at the same time being drawn to a bohemian, intellectual society which would look at Nietzschean discourse and stand in direct opposition to his upbringing’s ideals, causes one to believe that Munch’s inner turmoil was processed in his art. In fact, he himself was quoted as having said that “without anxiety and illness, I should have been like a ship without a rudder”. In this quote, Munch really puts anxiety at the centre of his artistic being, he described it as the root of his artistic creations. What is so fascinating about Munch’s work is the fact that his Scream does not deal with a specific fear of something, but rather fear itself. The painting is the depiction of a panic attack. The idea of the subconscious, and its central role in daily life, as suggested by many intellectuals at that time, is really put forward in this work.  

“The unconscious activity of the mind is scientific proof established beyond any doubt… Even in daily life, our conscious mind remains under the direction of the unconscious.”
— Jules Héricourt, 1889

If we assume that art is the communication of an emotion and that emotion originates in the subconscious, then Goya, van Gogh and Munch are united. Each of them discussed the theme of alienation and emotional anxiety. Though in different contexts and historical time periods, one can argue that the idea of the subconscious and its consequence on art had existed long before it was vocalised by psycho-analysts.