New blog out now: Cath(art)sis: how women in historical and contemporary art have used their practice to process their trauma. Read here!                                                                                                                                                                                         

Cath(art)sis: How women in historical and contemporary art have used their practice to process their trauma. Part II.

by Ruby Streek
Released: 3rd August 2022

The Drug Of Art is all about how our mental well-being can be improved through the cathartic process of making art. By documenting our lives in paint and pencil, we are able to express difficult feelings in a beautiful way and make something productive out of something painful. This is something which Tracey Emin has been doing for the duration of her career, and it is fascinating for us to look at contemporary and historical artists who are able to become world-renowned for their advanced art therapy.

The second instalment of ‘Cath(art)sis: How women in historical and contemporary art have used their practice to process their trauma’ focuses on Tracey Emin's 2019 major exhibition, ‘A Fortnight of Tears’, at the White Cube in Bermondsey. This multidisciplinary show of works - both old and new - focused on her memories of love, loss and the pathos surrounding this accompanying anger.

Aside from her films and paintings, what drew the most attention was the room full of intimate selfies of her crying whilst dealing with a period of insomnia. As soon as the show opened, friends came to tell me that they thought that the gallery felt like my then very unhinged Instagram stories and online persona. It is not the first time that comparisons have been made between my work and Emin's. My practice has often included text and textiles similar to her quilts -  so of course I felt biassed towards ‘A Fortnight Of Tears’.  She was making the same things as I, but she's rich and famous and I am not. How could I not resent it?

I eventually took myself to the show on a rainy day that would otherwise have been spent crying in the studio, picking up a bunch of eucalyptus on the way and getting my nails done after.

The White Cube is known for its impenetrable and harsh gallery space. Whilst this clinical and austere framework for the display of art is at times fitting - or indeed compulsory, against the obvious intimacy that Emin's work creates, it felt insensitive. This feeling of incongruity only intensified after watching her film, 'How It Feels' (1996), in the back of the gallery. The work could have been shown somewhere where this intimacy could have flourished and resonated with the audience, as opposed to a confrontation of emotions being oppressed.

The film follows Emin walking around London recounting the memories of her first abortion six years previously. Her reflections were made as a protest to her unfair treatment in the hands of a well off, married, religious doctor whose actions led to her having a horrific experience. Despite the piece being older than I am, ‘How It Feels’ is very current even now, especially with Roe v Wade being overtuned in the States and Irish women only receiving the right to abortions in 2018. Despite 26 years of feminist activism, we are no closer to ensuring the safety of people who can get pregnant, with young people on TikTok sharing “home remedies” for birth control and ways to declare right to abortion through becoming a member of The Satanic Temple. 

It was through the trauma of her abortion that Emin came to understand that art could not be made for art's own sake: it had to be 'intrinsically bound up with her own life' (White Cube, 2019). She would not create work unless she could justify its existence parallel to her own life, she and her work are entwined wherein one cannot exist without the other: 'I realised that I was much better than anything I had ever created... I was the essence of my work' (Emin, 2001). Art critic, Hettie Judah, believes that the brutal honesty conveyed in 'A Fortnight Of Tears' 'no longer feels confessional: it's more about asserting distinctly female tragedy as a subject for great art' (Judah, 2019), and whilst I do not necessarily disagree with the idea that Emin is demanding space for herself as a woman to feel pain within the art world - I think that the reason it no longer feels confessional is because all we, as the audience, will ever expect from Emin is the shock factor; anything less than blood and sweat and raw emotion is tame in comparison. Over the last 25 years, Emin has carved out the way for herself to have the freedom to use her practice as catharsis - and make her fortune in the process. But where would her work exist without the mining of her personal life?

Emin's way of exploring both her own and the notion of emotions has, and will, stand the test of time. Whatever feelings led Emin to create  ‘A Fortnight Of Tears’ and ‘How It Feels’ are emotions that we will be feeling until the end of humanity and thus will always be relatable.

It is clear that the process of making art is so implicitly personal and emotional - regardless of the reason it is being created - so it is to no surprise that many are able to use it as a tool to navigate and process their own emotions. But whilst melancholy is alluring and a 'muse' (Coleridge, 1823) for some artists, these women have shown a way to take real pain and translate it into radical pieces of artwork. These pieces of art are akin to religious services or wedding photos; they move the audience vicariously because each person can empathise with the pain that Gentileschi and Emin must have gone through, and the strength that it would have take to then create these intimate portraits of their lives and put them out for the world to see.

Continue below to read the first instalment of ‘Cath(art)sis’ - an insight into Artemisia Gentileschi.

Cath(art)sis: How women in historical and contemporary art have used their practice to process their trauma. Part I.

by Ruby Streek
Released: 27th June 2022

The greatest works of art are often held to be those created in period of intense  suffering for the creator; Mozart's ‘tremendous creative output [was] the result of manic-depressive disorder' (Zara, 2012) and Picasso's Blue Period was him coping with his best friend's suicide, and fans of Adele were celebrating a potential break-up album from her following the separation of her and her husband. With art therapy having become a viable therapeutic discipline in the mid-20th century, it is no surprise that many are constantly looking to visual - and auditory - art as a release from the strains of their own problems. Female musicians have long been pouring their hearts and souls into their work, with  Taylor Swift making her entire career off of the idea of revenge songs, to Ariana  Grande noting that creating songs out of her pain ‘really saved [her] life' (Grande,  2019).

‘Can't take back those hours / But I won't regret / 'Cause you can grow flowers /  From where dirt used to be' 
- Kate Nash, Merry Happy

Society has been conditioned to see women as more emotional and prone  to be subject to their feelings, and whilst the archaic notion of hysteria and contemporary equivalents are damaging to both men and women, it has meant female artists have been able to bless the world with overtly emotional and raw pieces of  work throughout time (e.g. the journals of Sylvia Plath, and the first and second Bridget Jones'  Diary films).

Over the next two blog posts, we will look at the works of two artists, beginning with Artemisia Gentileschi, who use their trauma and turn it into some of the most beautiful work in art history.

Artemisia Gentileschi is the most prominent female artist in Western art history.  Protégé of Caravaggio and the first woman to be admitted to Accademia di Arte,  Gentileschi thrived under the guidance of her artist father, becoming world renowned in a field dominated explicitly by men. However, though her talent as a  woman surely brought her the accomplishments of her era, it has to be said that the only reason that the mainstream contemporary art world knows her name is because of the withstanding records of her rape trial.

In 1610 she painted her portrayal of the  biblical story, Susanna and the Elders - which very clearly shows her disgust at the  lecherous way women were being shown within classical art - and only a year later, at eighteen years old, she was raped by her tutor, Agostino Tassi. It is thought that she is the first person to actively try her rapist in a court of law and succeed in prosecution; showing resilience when being subjected to intrusive gynaecological examinations and tortured by thumbscrews when she was making her case which ultimately saw  Tassi exiled from Rome. Instead of letting herself be ruined by this man she trusted,  she took her pain and turned it into, arguably, the most radical work of classical art. 

Between 1612 and 1620, Gentileschi painted two versions of the biblical Judith and  Holofernes. There are some small differences between the two paintings - the scale  and colours of the dresses for example - but the main composition is the same. In the later version, currently shown in the Uffizi in Florence, Judith's dress is yellow and the beheading has become far more graphic, with blood spurting out across the women as the act is committed.
Comparatively, the first, being shown in the Capodimonte in Naples, the dress is blue. From the 5th Century, the colour blue was sacrosanct; the most divine hue that hid the heavens’ paradise from those here on Earth. The church regulated the exchange of ultramarine pigment, restricting its supply and inflating the  price, to the point where blue was even more expensive than gold (Fox, 2012). Therefore, it was held that the colour may only be used of the most holy of the humans:  Virgin Mary. The colour began to signify ‘truth, peace, virtue and honesty' (Holmes, 2015), a symbol of the absolute sacred and innocent. For Artemisia to use this colour on her own dress is pivotal to understanding her trauma when creating this piece. She threw a knife at Tassi as she ‘would like to kill [him] with this knife, for [he had] dishonoured' her; and indeed the only reason the court honoured her father's prosecution is because she was a virgin before.
To paint herself in this brilliant blue, as a character who has used their sexual power - something that Artemisia had been stripped of completely - to seduce and murder the man that has wronged her, is for Gentileschi to claim back autonomy over her body, from Tassi, her father and the state, as Judith claim's someone else's head.

The Book of Judith has been used by many artists as the subject of their work, including Caravaggio, Boulogne and Klimt, but these all convey the same sense of Judith being unsure and butchering Holofernes whilst he is weakest. Comparatively, Gentileschi’s Judith is possibly the strongest  depiction of a young woman getting revenge in art. The painting is inexorably physical, from the spilling of his blood to the energy of Judith and her maid as they perform the act. Despite it depicting a classic scene from the Bible, Gentileschi drew herself as Judith and her rapist, Tassi, as Holofernes, evolving the painting from being  a mere religious depiction, to it functioning as a ‘a cathartic expression of the artist’s  private, and perhaps repressed, rage' (Garrard, 1989). This self-insertion is  revolutionary and central to Gentileschi’s progress as not only an artist, but also as a  woman. Decapitation, under Freudian theory (1922), is held as a symbolically equivalent to castration; Gentileschi is undertaking her own punishment for her rapist cathartically through her art (Kahane, 2000).

Tassi was ultimately not removed from the city, so this was Gentileschi's way of dealing with both her trauma and the lack of  justice in 17th Century Rome. Due to the paintings' placement at two prestigious galleries, the works will have been seen by millions of people in the centuries since their completion. ‘Judith and Holofernes' served as her rapist's public execution for all to see wherein there is a removal of power from him as she removes his head and both Gentileschi and Judith simultaneously transform from objects of vilification to retribution.

The next instalment of this series will be available here in a fortnight. 

Why Creativity is Important to Education

by Rebecca Hancock

Released: 1st June 2022

When we think of creativity, we associate it only within the arts, things like painting, sculpting, or music. However, creativity is a key life skill that informs our personal development. Problem solving, communication and critical thinking are all creative practices that are key in developing our cognitive processes and are also skills needed in all subjects. They are the very life skills we want our children to have and develop as they grow up.

The Drug of Art and the Michael Aldrich Foundation are working with a variety of specialist artists to run a day of workshops each with the aim of building confidence, curiosity, connection and wellbeing in young people. Whilst developing our educational programme the team exchanged stories of their personal stories. This case study is just one example of the impact a creative outlet can have in supporting children's education and the ability to form deeper relationships.

‘A boy aged 9, in year 6, was under a lot of pressure from his parents to do well in his exams so he could get into a good secondary school. He had a nanny, who was asked to encourage and support him to do his homework and to do extra revision. He didn’t want to do this and the pressure was getting to him, resulting in a lot of tantrums and a refusal to focus. He was easily distracted and was getting angry at being told to do extra homework.

The nanny, who was an artist studying at university, recognised this feeling of frustration and knew that the boy had enjoyed drawing with her. The nanny spoke to the parents, and they accepted that while the homework was important, forcing this time without any time for expression or an outlet wasn’t allowing the boy to relax and enjoy himself. They agreed that one evening a week could be given over solely for an art club with the nanny.

The parents bought some polymer clay and the boy started creating his own characters – the boy and the nanny created together and they were able to bond over their ideas and use their imagination to explore what they could do next with the characters. As the weeks unfolded, they made multiple stock-motion films, an activity that the boy had been wanting to do for a long time, and also split their characters into two teams for a football match on the table. The boy’s confidence grew and he was able to form a closer relationship with his nanny. When he was then asked to do homework on other days, the tantrums decreased and his ability to focus on a task had improved significantly. The nanny noticed a huge shift in how he interacted and the excitement that came from him. It was the first time she had felt a sense of achievement from the boy and that he had a vibrant imagination that was waiting to be embraced.’

This story shows that balancing creativity supports focus, confidence and agency. Young people's imaginations need to be embraced through talking and making and this will improve their ability to connect with others and themselves.

Losing Parys

by Alison Lapper

Released: 17th May 2022

On 13th August 2019, my son, Parys, died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of just 19.

I remember, a young policeman stood in my lounge and asked me to sit down. My first thought was ‘what has he done now’. Over the last few years, the police had often been to our house, it was always something to do with Parys and his drug use. What followed next is still to this day, a blur.

Apparently, he said Parys had been found dead in a hotel room where he had been staying, it was a halfway house used by Social Services. I didn’t believe it. I just kept saying, ‘no you’re wrong, it’s not him’. He said Parys had been identified by the landlord and I just screamed. I have never felt pain like it. I literally felt my heart break in two that day.

I went to see Parys the next day in the hospital mortuary. He was still beautiful and looked like he was asleep. I was lifted up so I could be near him and kiss him. I kept asking him over and over to ‘wake up’ …. but of course, he didn’t. He was so cold; I remember getting even more upset because he really hated being cold.

Parys was later moved to a funeral home, there they lay him on a wicker bed draped in fabric on the floor, so I could kiss him and spend time with him. The night before the funeral he came home on the same bed and lay in the lounge where we spent most of the night with him. The next day he left home for the very last time, that same day he left a huge hole in my heart that can never be filled.

Parys had suffered from a variety of mental health issues as a teenager and started taking drugs to cope with his depression and anxiety. But over time taking drugs had a profound negative impact on his mental health, and so eventually became a vicious circle.

I don’t want any parent to ever have to go through those few days, or to be left with this emptiness and loss that I will always feel for the rest of my life.

Far too many young adults are going through the same thing as Parys, and it needs to change. This is why we have created The Drug of Art to try and reach out to them.

Keep up to date with us!

Sign up to our email newsletter for news on the upcoming exhibitions, workshops and podcasts.
Opt out at any time. View our Privacy Policy. Please check your inbox/spam folder to confirm your subscription.
* indicates required

All images on this site are subject to copyright of Chalk Productions and can not be used without our permission.