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Art and Medicine

By Dr Jim Chambliss

It is often said that a picture speaks a thousand words.

Contemporary medical technology provides incredibly intricate pictures of external and internal human anatomy.

However, technology does not communicate holistic representations of the social, behavioural and psychosocial impacts associated with illness and the healing process.

Studies have shown that increased reliance on reports from expensive laboratory tests, radiology and specialised diagnostic technology has resulted in inadequacy of physical examination skills; decline in patient empathy, and less effective doctor/patient communication.

Having commenced in May this year and continuing until July 8, continuing professional development workshops which explore and promote the value of art expression in the development of observation skills, human sensitivity and relevant healthcare insights will be presented at the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition of the original works of Vincent van Gogh.

The program will incorporate empirical research to illustrate the way neuropsychological conditions can influence art and creativity. The objectives of the workshops are to:

 • advance understanding of the impact of medical, psychological and social issues on the health and wellbeing of all people;

 • promote deeper empathy and compassion among a wide variety of professionals;

 • enhance visual observation and communication skills; and

 • heighten creative thinking.

Over the last 15 years, the observation and discussion of visual art has emerged in medical education, as a significantly effective approach to improving visual observation skills, patient communication and empathy.

Pilot studies of implementing visual art to teach visual diagnostic skills and communication were so greatly effective that now more than 48 of the top medical schools in the USA integrate visual arts into their curriculum and professional development courses are conducted in many of the most prestigious art galleries and hospitals.

The work of Vincent van Gogh profoundly illustrates the revelations of what it means to be uniquely human in light of neurological characteristics, behavioural changes and creative expression through an educated, respectful and empathic perspective.

The exact cause of a possible brain injury, psychological illness and/or epilepsy of van Gogh is unknown.

It is speculated by numerous prominent neurologists that Vincent suffered a brain lesion at birth or in childhood while others opine that it is absinthe consumption that caused seizures.

Two doctors – Felix Rey and Théopile Peyron – diagnosed van Gogh with epilepsy during his lifetime.

Paul-Ferdinand Gachet also treated van Gogh for epilepsy, depression and mania until his death in 1890 at the age of 37.

After the epilepsy diagnosis by Dr Rey, van Gogh stated in a letter to his brother Theo, dated 28 January 1989: “I well knew that one could break one’s arms and legs before, and that then afterwards that could get better but I didn’t know that one could break one’s brain and that afterwards that got better too.”

Vincent did not, by any account, demonstrate artistic genius in his youth. He started painting at the age of 28 in 1881.

In fact, his erratic line quality, compositional skills and sloppiness with paint were judged in his February 1886 examinations at the Royale Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp to be worthy of demotion to the beginners’ painting class. His original drawings and paintings were copies from others’ art, while his sketches in drawing class showed remarkably different characteristics.

Increased symptoms of epilepsy and exposure to seizure triggers (absinthe and sleep deprivation) ran parallel with van Gogh’s most innovative artistic techniques and inspirations following his move to Paris in 1886 to 1888.

These symptoms increased, accompanied by breathtaking innovation following his move to Arles, France in 1888 and his further decline in mental and physical health.

In Paris he was exposed to the works of many of the most famous impressionistic and post impressionistic painters, but so much of his new techniques and imagery were distinctly innovative in detail without traceable influences from others.

While in Paris his work transitioned from drab, sombre and realistic images to the vibrant colours and bold lines.

His ebb-and-flow of creative activity and episodes of seizures, depression and mania were at their most intense in the last two years of his life when he produced the greatest number of paintings.

His works are among the most emotionally and monetarily valued of all time. Vincent’s painting of Dr Gachet (1890) in a melancholy pose with digitalis flowers – used in the treatment of epilepsy at that time – sold for $US82.5 million in May, 1990, which at the time set a new record price for a painting bought at auction.

Healthcare professionals and art historians have written from many perspectives of other medical and/or psychological conditions that impacted van Gogh’s art and life with theories involving bipolar disorder, migraines, Meniere’s decease, syphilis, schizophrenia, alcoholism, emotional trauma and the layman concept of ‘madness’.

What was missing as a basis to best resolve disputes over which mental or medical condition(s) had significant impact on his life was a comprehensive foundation of how epilepsy or mental illness can influence art and possibly enhance creativity based on insights from a large group of contemporary artists.

Following a brain injury and acquired epilepsy I gained personal insight into what may have affected the brain, mind and creativity of van Gogh and others who experience neurological and/or psychological conditions.

The experience opened my eyes to the medical, cognitive, behavioural and social aspects of two of the most complex and widely misunderstood human conditions.

Despite having no prior experience or recognisable talent, I discovered that my brain injury/epilepsy had sparked a creative mindset that resulted in a passion for producing award-winning visual art.

I enrolled in art classes and began to recognise common topics, styles and characteristics in the art of contemporary and famous artists who are speculated or known to have had epilepsy, such as Vincent van Gogh, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Giorgio de Chirico.

Curiosity for solving the complex puzzle of how epilepsy could influence art led me to pursue a Masters in Visual Art which included a full course exclusively about Vincent van Gogh.

I subsequently obtained the world’s first dual PhD combining Visual Arts, Medicine and Art Curation at the University of Melbourne.

The PhD Creative Sparks: Epilepsy and enhanced creativity in visual arts (2014) was based on the visual, written and verbal insights from more than 100 contemporary artists with epilepsy and provided:

 • objective and subjective proof that epilepsy can sometimes enhance creativity – supported by brain imaging illustrating how that can occur;

 • a comprehensive inventory of the signature traits of neurological and psychological conditions that have significant interpretive value in healthcare practice and consideration in art history;

 • the largest collection of images of the visual narratives from people with epilepsy;

 • comparative data to distinguish epilepsy from other medical and mental conditions; and

 • the Creative Sparks Art Collection and Website – artandepilepsy.com.

Interest in these research discoveries and art exhibitions provided opportunities for me to deliver presentations at national and international universities, hospitals and conferences. Melbourne University Medical School sponsored an innovative series of workshops through which to teach neurology and empathy by an intriguing new approach.

 Jim Chambliss has a dual PhD in Creative Arts and Medicine and has explored the ways epilepsy and other health conditions can influence art and enhance creativity.

Information about his Art and Medicine Workshops involving Vincent van Gogh can be obtained by visiting artforinsight.com or artandepliepsy.com