‘The Self’, schizophrenia, and self-portraits


Content Warning: This article contains discussion of the issues surrounding Schizophrenia.

There can be a tendency to interpret the behaviour of schizophrenics in clinical terms, to see ‘symptoms’ and ‘deficiency’. However, Bryan Charnley’s seventeen self-portraits that he created as he experimented with medication for his schizophrenia, eventually stopping completely, expose truths about the human experience that should not be swiftly labelled as ‘insane’. The self-portraits are an exposition of a profound and common alienation of living in modern society.

When a schizophrenic retreats from our shared human experience, they gain a unique perspective on how society functions and how it can isolate the individual. In Charnley’s penultimate painting he lays bare his ontology. He shares the paranoia not solely of a schizophrenic, but one of alienation and fear that is common in the Modern city. Charnley displays (with a fearful depiction of a city map closer to a soldier’s map than a self-portrait), a relationship in which urban life and paranoia are intimately linked in our own symbolic creations of the outside world.

The ever-growing abstraction as Charnley’s ego crumbles allows an interrogation of his own isolation. While each painting is an articulation of his intense alienation from society, the social is present everywhere; each arrow, each floating mouth is an indictment from the outside, each blank face a signifier of his disembodiment. As the objective social logic of urban life and medicine crush Charnley’s self-perception, his art becomes a desperate deus ex machina. The set of notes that he kept refer fleetingly to his drug intake, insisting that his art is an arena in which his identity is not defined by his medication but rather by his creative output. Charnley projects an abstract, symbolic and subjective identity onto his works in an attempt to isolate the boundaries within his disembodied, divided self.

“It is the relationships between people that affirm our existence”

Instead of seeing a ‘symptom’, we now see Charnley’s true self expressed. When in his delusion he is left aphasic, the loss of his authentic self leaves only visual symbols for Charnley to fully communicate with the viewer. A motif of mouths in bondage and nailed shut exhibits the withdrawal from speech. His frustration in trying to properly communicate his experience is one I believe all people have felt at some point in their life. The project is a venture to communicate the incommunicable and through this, Charnley allows us to understand our struggle within ourselves.

It must also be recognised that part of the form of Charnley’s paintings is his easing off his medication. It is a deep irony that in delving into the murky waters of his subconscious to find his ‘real self’, the ‘schizophrene’, that Charnley’s last painting is no longer an abstraction of his ‘self’ but negates the self entirely. The last piece is covered in a vulgar combination of brown, yellow and red; Charnley found the permanence of his being in pain and anguish.

Despite his courageous efforts, Charnley’s roving ended tragically with his body being found next to his final piece in the series. For all the light that was shed on the condition of man and schizophrenia, Charnley’s existential reaction to living life in urban, modern capitalism highlights the failure of humanist individualism. The introspective search for ‘the real’ exorcised his demons, however, Charnley found peace with his inner self beyond the canvas. In his notes he talks of an infinitely powerful exchange with his brother that lessened his torment, noting “this was the first real help I had been given in my illness”. I would argue that Charnley proves that searching for inner transcendence or projecting meaning onto objects (art) will only alienate us more. In one way, Charnley understood that it is the relationships between people that affirm our existence.

Image Credits: Bryan Charnley via Creative Commons

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