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Van Gogh experienced art therapy

August 13, 2015
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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If you are old enough, you might remember when art therapy became a common component of mental healthcare, especially in psychiatric hospitals. I remember, as when I started my career in the 1970s, psychiatric hospitalization often lasted weeks or months—rather than our current stay that lasts days—and provided a broader range of services.

In the multidisciplinary book I edited, “A Clinician's Manual on Mental Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach” (Addison-Wesley, 1982), Virginia Austin wrote a chapter on “Art Therapy in Evaluation and Treatment.” It would have been unthinkable at the time to not include a chapter on art therapy.

I even had the narcissistic fantasy, left unfulfilled, that one of my patients would produce fantastic paintings, like so-called self-taught outsider artists. One example was Martin Ramirez, who was hospitalized at DeWitt State Hospital in Northern California for the last 15 years of his life, from 1948 to 1963. He was encouraged by a visiting professor of psychology and art. Ultimately, the medical director saved about 140 drawings and collages from the last three years of Ramirez's life.

Nowadays, there are museums all over the world that specialize in outsider artists, many of whom have mental disorders. A best friend of mine has his house filled with such art.

Even with no indication of lack of efficacy, over time, cost cutting resulted in the reduction of art therapy, as well as such related treatments as music therapy and occupational therapy. The current emphasis, as we all know, is on quick symptom reduction with medication.

Expression without words

Art therapy can be defined as the therapeutic practice that uses art to help elicit, understand, and work through personal issues. It seems to be especially helpful with patients who have difficulty putting their problems into words and who are comfortable making art. Young children, in particular, often meet this criteria.

I was reminded of all of this when my wife and I recently had the good fortune on vacation to go see the exhibit Van Gogh and Nature at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. It features many of this professional artist’s famous nature paintings that he did after he checked himself into a mental hospital in 1880. He then stayed in Saint-Remy in France for about a year, calmed down, regained his concentration, and was encouraged to paint. For the most part, these particular paintings of nature depicted a vital and benevolent nature rather than the implied malevolent paintings of nature that he did outside of the hospital, perhaps parallel to his changing states of mind.

Not long after he left the hospital, Vincent Van Gogh, without the structure and life support of the hospital, apparently committed suicide. Of course, his was likely not formal art therapy since the field did not exist at the time. In fact, there was not much of any formal psychiatric treatment at that time, but the therapeutic aspects of his painting seem obvious.

About the only sanctuary for art therapy nowadays is with people suffering from dementia in residential facilities. It may well behoove behavioral healthcare to bring it back more into our settings. It really is not that expensive.

Of course, doing art can be therapeutic for any of us. It can be a medium for mental health besides a treatment for mental illness. It can relieve undue stress, lessen anxiety, increase self-esteem, and lower blood pressure.

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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...