Bryan Charnley: Art and the Expression of Schizophrenia by James Charnley & Nick Bohannon

Autonomy, self-expression and freedom of choice could be seen as prerequisites for life in a civilised world. Our hopes and dreams and the plans we make reflect the interface between our inner-world and our environment. Indeed, our actions often say more about us than the words we speak.

What happens, then, when someone’s internal experience leads them to draw conclusions and take steps which others may view as inadvisable? When what one person sees as acceptable risk, others see as ill advised?

The experiences we generally recognise as ‘schizophrenia’ commonly involve different perceptions and altered priorities. However, there are times when those differences somehow mask the message that the person is trying to convey. Rather than hearing the message, we notice the symptoms; rather than attending to the human state, we respond to the clinical condition.

The artist Bryan Charnley was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He decided to reduce and then stop taking the medication prescribed for treating his condition, and while doing so, to paint a series of self-portraits which he hoped would convey his internal experience during that process. No-one knew what the results would be, and a valuable source of insight is offered by the series of self-portraits and the notes the artist made in his diary.

Charnley Self Portrait series 17
Charnley Self Portrait series 17

Until recently, Bryan Charnley’s diary was the only source of information concerning the artist’s progress and intentions. New information is now available. In his forthcoming book, Bryan Charnley: A Strange Interior Journey,1 James Charnley has incorporated the artist’s journals and conversations. Along with interviews, research and art historical analysis, these provide a wider perspective on the artist and the nature of self-determination, creativity and schizophrenia.

Creative people fail. They view failure as an essential part of the journey towards success. Therefore, not only does creativity require the courage of one’s convictions, it also requires a willingness to struggle and to die a little bit for those convictions, over and over again (Kotler). Also, to create is to be seen – by oneself and by others – and to be seen, for some people, can be terrifying.

There are frequent citations of the link between mental illness and creativity (Kaufman), and some truly stunning creations have come from the minds of people diagnosed with a mental illness. Louis Wain’s cats and Van Gogh’s self-portrait after cutting off his own ear are both examples of people who were diagnosed as sick and were also wonderfully creative.

Charnley Self Portrait series 15
Charnley Self Portrait series 15

However, closer consideration reveals that it is uncertain whether Wain’s paintings developed in conjunction with his changing mental health (Drinkwater), while Van Gogh is quoted as saying in one of his last letters: “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease – what things I might have done.”(Van Gogh). Perhaps considerations of cause and effect are ultimately less important, and what matters more is the intended content of the message, and the way in which it is received.

To a great extent Bryan Charnley’s life, like the lives of so many others, was defined by the diagnosis of schizophrenia. This happened in 1971, while he was studying at the Central School of Art. Subsequent hospitalisations, electro-convulsive therapy and medication deepened the identification of the person with his condition. In his own words, Bryan had become “a schizophrene” – someone who lived outside of the normal world, separated from a shared reality. His reality involved ‘thought-broadcasting’.

This is described variously as a person hearing his or her own thoughts being spoken out loud; the experience of his own thoughts silently escaping, which may or may not then be available to others; or as the experience of other people being able to think in unison with the subject, and his being able, by some means, to share in others’ thoughts (Pawar & Spence). Psychiatric opinion is unclear. Whatever the particular mechanism, Bryan believed his private thoughts were public knowledge, and though medication numbed his anxieties about it, it did not offer a cure. As did his family, he wanted to know what had caused his madness.

Charnley Self Portrait series 13
Charnley Self Portrait series 13

After several years, in 1978, Bryan recovered sufficiently to find a flat in Bedford and begin to paint again. He demonstrated considerable ability and produced some remarkable paintings. For example, the painting Desert Car is a recognition of his propensity to collide with misfortune; Bryan explained this image as describing his inevitable bad luck: “If there was one tree in the desert, I would find a way of driving into it.”

In March 1991 Bryan telephoned his twin brother, James. They kept in regular contact via phone calls and visits when possible. Bryan, as usual, came straight to the point.

“Here’s what I have decided to do. I’m going to paint a series of self-portraits. I’m coming off the medication to do it. Show what happens as the drugs wear off, just keep on painting so that at the end you get a full portrait of the artist as schizophrene.”

James supported the idea. Bryan had weighed the dangers of stopping the medication against the strength of the concept. As the artist said: “I need to make a big statement, something that people can’t ignore. Go the whole way. I’ve been painting about schizophrenia, but I’ve been doped-up all the time. How about I let people know what it’s really like? Take the gloves off. The naked truth.”

James recalls: “A small note of alarm was beginning to sound here. I remembered what had happened in Leeds when Bryan had stopped medicating. Then he had gone out of his mind. But now Bryan spoke as if he knew what to expect, and anyway, this was going to be in a controlled situation. He would only go as far as he needed to complete the paintings. He would paint one portrait a day, no going back, no revisions, just carrying on as the drugs receded and the schizophrenia took over.”

Charnley Self Portrait series 10
Charnley Self Portrait series 10

This plan seemed viable and worthwhile, and whatever worries James might have had were outweighed by the potential of the project Bryan was proposing. James remembers: “It was worth the risk. There had been so little progress with trying to get exhibitions. So many rejections that Bryan had grown despondent. To hear him talk so positively now had to be better than the constant sapping of his confidence.”

Bryan began the Self-portrait Series on 11th of April, 1991. The first conventional portrait, painted while he was on his prescribed medication, took two sittings rather than the one he had originally intended. This deviation bothered Bryan, even when he had much more serious things to worry about. These details would have remained unknown had Bryan not been encouraged by Marjorie Wallace, the CEO of SANE, to keep a diary of his progress. The diary which recorded his thoughts and decoded the imagery of the paintings has proved immensely significant, adding much to the communicative impact of the work.

The second portrait, of 20th April, records the effects of drastically reducing his medication. Bryan had gone down to only one Depixol tablet a day – one- quarter of his normal intake. At that time, Depixol was a widely-used antipsychotic. Many side effects were associated with it, including drowsiness, loss of co-ordination, tremor, poor concentration, confusion, depression and nervousness (electronic Medicines Compendium), several of which were mentioned by Bryan in conversation and letters.

As can be seen in the second portrait, the effects of lowering the dose were alarming: Bryan had started to become psychotic. He was convinced his mind could be read, and that this was because he was sending out the information. His hold on reality is beginning to break down, and yet he finds a way to communicate what is happening to him: “I tried to express this in the painting. The large rabbit ear is because I was confused and extremely sensitive to human voices, like a wild animal.”

Charnley Self Portrait series 4
Charnley Self Portrait series 4

Worse was to come. By the third self-portrait, of 23rd April, Bryan records that has lost any ability to concentrate. This was anathema to painting, and his plans were again upset. He had expected to be painting a disintegrating ego with the sort of hallucinatory geometry associated Louis Wain’s psychedelic cats. Instead, he could only make the simplest of marks. Crude daubs of colour usurped any painterly skills.

His ability to draw had been reduced such that he could only manage to describe the most basic of shapes. Bryan’s face was reduced to an oval white mask, his empty features crossed out or taped over. The effects of drug withdrawal seemed to be getting more acute.

By the fourth self-portrait, of 24th April, Bryan writes: “Why miss a golden opportunity to describe through paint total mental disintegration?” He has accepted that no matter how crude the painting has become, it is truly expressing his condition. The division between life and art is fragile.

Bryan’s experience is so integral to the art work that he now uses his own blood. He writes: “The spots on the brain are real blood to try and get over the mental pain I was experiencing.” By now he has begun to doubt he can hold on much longer. All this is contained in the diary notes that go with each portrait.

The next diary entry is on April 29th. It records that Bryan had taken fifteen tablets of Depixol so as to try to find relief from the mental torture he was going through. The advised maximum daily dose for Depixol is 18mg; Bryan would have taken 45mgs, considered a serious overdose. For the next few days he kept taking high dosages, but they seemed to have no effect. What worked were a few kind and rational words. Bryan marvels at their effect, and writes bitterly:

Charnley_Self_Portrait_series_03
Charnley Self Portrait series 03

“The doctors just prescribe more and more drugs when the patient comes up with something he can’t handle. What I think is interesting is that the drugs, no matter how high the dosage had no effect. What made the change was rational insight, the truth. The doctors, of course, will mutter that the drugs just began to take effect, but I do not believe this for an instant. [I] Believe instead that the answer to my condition is rational insight, but the doctors seem unwilling or unable to help me here.”

James reflects: “If Bryan could not find the truth, at least he had exposed the lie. Drugs alone are not the answer. People respond at least as well to rational insights. They respond best when they are treated with kindness and understanding.”

By the 23rd May, 1991, Bryan had painted his 10th self-portrait. His journal reflects his frustration. “I really tire of having to explain my paintings. It is very much my tragedy that people cannot understand the straight-forward poetic use of symbols I am employing. One is very much up against the almost impossible task of describing in paint that which is essentially totally invisible. At this stage my central worry was thought-broadcasting.

This would pass as I gained insight and effects of drug withdrawal wore off. I was much worried about radio and television because I seemed to intertwine with their broadcasted waves and expose myself completely, which I found humiliating. People laughed at me when this happened or let me know it was for real by acute remarks. I continued my retreat from social contact.”

To accompany his 13th self-portrait , on 13th June, Bryan wrote: “The eggs have been emptied like a head stripped of its contents. It has nothing left in it, no more secrets, they went to satisfy somebody’s appetite, somebody that has power over me. They enjoyed every tasty mouthful.

Two eggs? It was the same yesterday. Needless to say I feel suicidal so I painted in Van Gogh’s crows from his final, suicide picture of the wheat field. E.S.P. horns, voices as mouths grinning. Birds come from eggs so the crows can also be like my thoughts flying away. All this sort of gossip increases my fears of telepathy, and is the main reason I feel suicidal. Still on 1 1/2 tabs Depixol (3 mg.each). On 24th May cut out anti-depressant, Tryptisol, completely.”

Charnley_Self_Portrait_series_02
Charnley Self Portrait series 2

27th June: “An extremely complicated picture, as I feel I am closing in on the essential image of my schizophrenia. I am transparent, firstly. Make crazy attempts at some sort of control over what has become an impossible situation (the man with the control stick). My brain, my ego is transfixed by nails as the Christ who could not move freely on the cross without severe pain.

My self-respect my ego my feelings about me are crucified as the Christ. From here on in enlightenment about my condition creeps in and imagery become even more difficult to find. I realised that the fear caused by the anger (symbolised by the red tied beast, muzzled because the anger arises through not being able to reply to the abuse heaped on me) this fear is causing me to hallucinate telepathy and E.S.P. which is not there.

Or not there when I am no longer in fear. I express this as best I can through the mouths on the end of the enormous bent up eyebrows. My senses are being bent by fear into hallucinations. Like eyelashes it is something about the bending taking place at the periphery of my sight. That is why I had been feeling blind all the time. Anger, ‘He’s mad at you, he’s mad’, is cause of fear, the anger being in a latent, unconscious state, but giving rise to paranoia which in turn gives rise to characteristic schizophrenic hallucinations and symptoms.

But I am still at an acute disadvantage socially. Can this ever change or will the anger always remain? I intend to record my progress with more self-portraits to add up when they are all joined together as an important document as to life at the end of the twentieth century. Self Portrait will state with depth what it is to be human and schizophrenic. One 1 1/4 tabs Depixol (3 mg. each) from 22nd June 1991.”

Charnley_Self_Portrait_series_01
Charnley Self Portrait series 1

There was an interval of eight days before another self-portrait appears, on 12th July. The writing has been transferred to the canvas, becoming one with the painting. On the map of a battlefield, surrounded by enemies, Bryan Charnley paints: “The cards are no good that I’m holding unless they’re from another world.” In Series of Dreams, he is referencing Bob Dylan’s lyrics. In the final portrait there is no text at all, other than the date: 19.1. 91, the 19th July.

The words have disappeared, along with the artist’s face. All that is left are two predominant colours – red and yellow – which seem themselves to be disappearing into the dark earth. As James Charnley has noted, red and yellow strands act as a lietmotif throughout the series, seeming to be associated with acute mental anguish. This final portrait was on the easel in his studio, where he committed suicide.

What had Bryan achieved? He had set out to illustrate his experience of schizophrenia by “taking the gloves off”. His desire was to paint the invisible in order that we might see, and in order to do that he had to “come off the medication” and risk the precipice that he was walking towards.

Did he see the danger? Or did those risks represent opportunity to Bryan? Perhaps the worst death of all, to a creative person, is the loss of his creativity. Diagnosed schizophrenic, Bryan had been given many drugs but no answers. The cure seemed to be a secret he could never discover. In his last Artist’s Statement he put it like this:

It is like everybody knows the secret

But nobody, no, nobody will tell you

Because if they keep the secret they can

Go on treating you as less than a man.

And that was just the problem. The added cruelty of his condition was that Bryan was ignored as a person, his sufferings unrecognised and given no sympathy. The schizophrenic suffers untold miseries, not least the indignity of being seen as mentally weak. By his art, Bryan tried to inform this ignorance. He balanced clinical risk with creative opportunity. Was he right to take on such a task?

How do we balance respect for someone, as a person, with the desire to control and shepherd him along a path that he does not feel is his own? When we control and try to shape someone, we change them from who they were. Each time we intervene – out of love or respect or a desire to help – a little bit more of that person is gone. However, Bryan Charnley is gone now and his paintings are left with us, like words hanging in the air. The question is have we heard them?

 

Postscript

Bryan Charnley was a talented and prolific artist. The self-portrait series was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery, but most of his work remains largely unknown. His photo-realistic paintings, the series of bondage heads, and his allegorical work represent a stunning collection of creativity and talent. For more information and high resolution images of Bryans work go to www.bryancharnley.info/


 

References

  • Patient Information Leaflet: Depixol Tablets (2015) Electronic Medicines Compendium www.medicines.org.uk/emc/medicine/5399
  • Kaufman, S (2013) The real link between creativity and mental illness. Scientific American, Oct 2013.
  • Kotler, S (2012) www.forbes.com/sites/stevenkotler/2012/10/11/einstein-at-the-beach-the-hidden-relationship-between-risk-and-creativity/#587bdd7a678a
  • Pawar, A & Spence, S (2003) Defining thought broadcast. British Journal of Psychiatry 183 4 287-291.
  • Van Gogh, V (1889) Personal communication to his brother. Letter 630. www.vggallery.com/letters/822_V-T_630.pdf

1 The co-author of this article, James Charnley, is the artist’s twin brother. His book is intended as a comprehensive source which may be referred to by those interested in Bryan Charnley’s life and art.

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