Schizophrenic Artist Bryan Charnley Paints Self Portraits Of His Own Illness Right Until He Committed Suicide

Bryan Charnley was a British artist whose popular series, “The Self Portrait Series” captured and reflected the effects of Schizophrenia. Bryan Charnley’s Self Portrait Series intended to portray the ‘humaneness’ of the sufferer and to depict the traumatic experience of the victim through a universally common visual metaphors.

Bryan John Charnley was born on 20th September 1949 in Stockton on Tees. He is one of the twins. He stayed with his parents in London, Chislehurst in Kent, Cranfield, where his father worked as a Senior Lecturer, and finally in Bromham near Bedford. He was a talented painter right from his young age. In the summer of 1968, aged 18, he suffered his first nervous breakdown, but he was able to complete a pre-diploma course in art at Leicester school of art later that year. He gained admission at Central School of Art and Design in Holborn, London in 1969 but was not able to complete the course due to another nervous breakdown which was later diagnosed as acute schizophrenia. He lived with his parents for six years from 1971-77 undergoing various treatments including ECT (ElectroConvulsive Therapy or Electroshock Therapy).

Bryan Charnley
Image source: www.bryancharnley.info

1978 saw Charnley shifting to his own accommodation in Bedford. He recommenced painting determined to succeed as an artist. This period saw him flirting with prevalent styles in the art world. 1982 saw a change in Charnley’s focus, from flowers, he switched to Schizophrenia, he began to use schizophrenia as his subject. This was because he was greatly influenced by the (collection of) paintings at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind (then Bethlem Royal Hospital). Bethlem Royal Hospital purchased four of his paintings for their permanent collection in 1984.

Charnley had a solo exhibition at the Dryden Street Gallery, Covent Garden in London 1989 and he also exhibited two of his paintings, Angel, and Straitjacket at ‘Visions’ exhibition at the Royal College of Art in 1990.

The little success and the recognition he obtained as a painter were outweighed by his daily struggles with his illness and the strong medication he was prescribed to counter it. His final work Self Portrait series was painted as he experimented with varying dosages of his medication – Depixol and Tryptisol. His last 17 portraits graphically display his steady decline and the terrible suffering he endured as he cut/played with his dosage. Charnley committed suicide in 1991 with his final self-portrait still on the easel.

All paintings are oil on canvas and measure 20 x 20 inches (51 x 51 cm.). Marjorie Wallace who intended to write an article about his Self Portrait Series encouraged him to keep a diary which would help to explain the imagery.

The Self Portrait Series was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1995.

To know more about the artist and his work, click here

1. 11th to 16th April 1991charnley

Conventional portrait painted in two sittings. Is it a good likeness? Drug dosage was two 3 mg. tablets of Depixol daily plus two 25 mg. Tryptisol. I was sleeping a lot. 11th to 16th April 1991.

2.  20th April 1991.paranoid

Cut back to one 3 mg. tablet of Depixol withTremazepam tablets to get some sleep. Very paranoid. The person upstairs was reading my mind and speaking back to me to keep me in a sort of ego crucifixion. I felt this was because I was discharging very strong vibrations which could easily be interpreted. 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. I also felt I was being read generally by E.S.P. I had cut back to one tablet of Depixol on 17th April 1991 and was now just beginning to feel the dramatic effects of such a sudden withdrawal.

3.  23rd April 1991.dumb man

I had originally had the idea for a series of self portraits from Louis Wain’s series of portraits of cats that changed strangely as he became more and more psychotic. They seemed to show a disintegrating ego. I expected something similar, that is the reliance on a sort of hallucinatory geometry but instead found that I was almost completely unable to concentrate so the painting takes on the crudeness of bad graffiti. I ascribe this to the fact that Depixol strengthens concentration and so its removal means that the power of concentration breaks down. However I would mention that this, as in Louis Wain’s case was not my problem when I originally became ill but seems to have resulted from Depixol dependency. Still on one tablet of Depixol plus sleeping pills. I had come to the conclusion that most people around me had some extra sensory perception ability which gave them access to my mind. In this respect I was like blind man. Hence the crosses on the eyes. They also let me know verbally what they had pi ked up from my thoughts. I was like a dumb man in this respect and hence the cross over the mouth. The crossed out dates are because I was becoming obsessed that I had taken two sittings rather than one on the first self portrait.

4.  24th April, 1991. disintegration

Why miss a golden opportunity to describe through paint total mental disintegration. Painted the day after the last portrait, the horns of E.S.P. are supposed to function as mouths. Total lack of concentration meant a graffiti effect again. The spots on the brain of the head are real blood to try and get over the mental pain I was experiencing. I was smoking heavily, hence the pipe. No eyes to see what is really going on and a stitched up mouth. The blood is my own. I stabbed the base of my thumb. Not the kind of thing you are able to do on the tranquillisers. Still on only one tablet of Depixol and sleeping pill (tremazepam) but know I cannot go on much longer.

5. 29th April, 1991.smoking

Things had really being getting out of hand. A strange spiritual force was making me feel I should not smoke or I would incur a disaster. This was driving me crazy as I am normally a heavy smoker. I walked and walked, throwing my pouch of tobacco away. I had taken 15 tables of Depixol on 24th April to try and throw off the spiritual demands which were driving me crazy along with the E.S.P.but to no avail. I kept taking high dosages the next few days but nothing was having any effect and I felt I might have to got to hospital. When I arrived home from one of my long walks my twin phoned. I told him how I felt and he said some words of truth that completely cut through the situation to the bone and rendered the spiritual forces thankfully impotent. I wrote, to complement “Love hurts” of 23.4.91, “Love is Strange” because this was the first real help I had been given in my illness. Everybody else seemed to try and make me feel worse. It is also reference to the statement by Christ that love is the truth. I wanted really to say that truth is power, is beauty, is love but left it as it is because I think the song of the same name is so great any way. The doctors just prescribe more and more drugs when the patients 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 beauty of truth. The doctors of course will mutter 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. Certainly many different schizophrenias exist and some cannot be attacked by rational insight for reason has broken down but why should everybody be lumped in the same druggy boat? I am overwhelmed by things I cannot understand. Understanding what was going on, the truth of the

6. 2nd May,1991.pupa

After the mental release the chemistry of drugs really began to take effect and though I had now cut back to my dose when I started, 6 mg. Depixol, 60 mg. Tryptisol, I was almost completely without energy. This explains the simile technique. I hadn’t the energy for anything else. This is expressed by the pupa. The torpid state in insects. The spirit, expressed by a bird is crushed by the maggot. My Oedipus complex is represented by the hooded phallus. My conflict of thought expressed by the man with two heads, one is a nose. The clothes line is to say that all my dirty washing, or thoughts are on display. The split crosses are a reference to schizophrenia being a type of ego crucifixion. The man with the hat is watching me and keeping everything under his hat. Additionally the split in the cross expresses lack of real direction, of a split in the will, as with the man with a nose head.

7. 6th May,1991.Target

I feel like a target for peoples cruel remarks. Especially negroes. What is going on? I had sweet talked a girl to suicide because I had no tongue, no real tongue, and could only flatter. This is very much involved with why I am ill. The nail in the mouth expresses this. The people around me cannot understand how I was so stupid and cannot forgive me. I can only say that I cannot socialise at all because of my weakness verbally and this is been, produced a tragedy. Thus I am a target. The nails in my eyes express that I cannot see whereas other people seem to have extra sensory perception and I am blind in this respect. Love hurts. I keep well way now from women on the advice of my psychiatrist. On two Depixol tablets plus two tablets of anti-depressants, Tryptisol.

8. 14th May,1991.ego

The ego splitting like a cancer cell as it comes under attack, a gory mess. The Roman soldiers leg expresses my fear of the Mafia who maintain their tyranny by attaching great importance to the sanctity of a woman’s good heath and good name and thus get a foot in the door for murder and organised crime. I also feel Rome was the real decider and actually crucified the Christ. My ego is being crucified. My feelings, my Oedipus complex is summed up by the leg of an Italian. Italians are very up tight about their daughters and I injured one through my ignorance of social mores. The girl, who broke her back in a suicide attempt, was not Italian but if she had been I expect I would have been brutally and effectively dealt with Thus the Roman leg generates anxiety. I am on the wrong side anyway and cannot hope for anything but total defeat as the sacred cow must never die. I am a target with no hope of victory only total humiliation. I completely acquiesce to this but am still deeply hurt all the time.

9. 18th May,1991.heart break

From 10th May I had cut down to one anti-depressant (tryptisol) and so was not sleeping so much. My mind seemed to be thought broadcasting very severely and it was beyond my will to do anything about it. I summed this up by painting my brain as an enormous mouth, acting independently of me. The trouble seemed to me rightly or wrongly, to stem from a broken heart on my left so I painted a great mass of gore there to express this. The foot that connects to this is pushing the mouth open for the thoughts to be broadcasted. I feel I am always divided against my self by myself. Again the nail in the mouth expresses my social ineptitude and an in ability to socialise which makes me a target. Still I feel I am giving off strong personality vibrations, hence the wavy lines emanating from my head.

10. 23rd May,1991.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. The blue of the portrait is there because I felt depressed through cutting back on the anti-depressants. The wavy lines are because just as I felt I was safe a voice from the street gutted me emotionally by its E.S.P. of my condition. (I was feeling proud of the painting and he showed he knew this convincingly enough to convince me I must be giving off very strong thought messages or vibrations of some readable kind). I was pleased that I was able to express such a purely mental concept as thought broadcasting by the simple device of turning the brain into a mouth that I painted it again. One is very much up against the almost impossible task of describing in paint that which essentially totally invisible. Symbols come to be employed and the appropriate one must be found, also it should have a poetic charge attached to it. Yet still people are too ignorant to see. 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.

11.  24th May,1991.broken heart

Perhaps a broken heart is the cause of it all. Certainly it hurts. This is expressed best as I can on the left side. The spiders legs on the right are to express my inhibitions and the feeling that comes over me as my thoughts surface and broadcast. Scary. I feel all the time now that I am getting nearer to a more acute expression of my schizophrenia. From 19th May 1991 I had cut down to 1 1/2 tabs of Depixol plus one tab 25 mg. of Tryptisol.

12. 8th June,1991.truth

The spiders legs seem to be my central condition. I attempted to suggest that they radiated out and became less potent as they departed from my brain. I found that this idea that they sort of dissipated as they removed from the core comforting. The flaming darts of E.S.P. made vocal and right a the point of the birth of the thought too in this case. The white parts represent my thoughts. The triangles meet to produce the discharge of a rational thought that feels like truth and a flaming dart from someone pierces it at inception. The spiders legs represent inhibition, social and otherwise. Is this is truth of my condition? I was to find out otherwise but it was certainly part of the truth.

13. 13th June,1991.suicidal

People crane their necks to try and appreciate technique, raving about Picasso’s which is poetic discharge via symbols. They swallow a camel to strain a gnat and say I cannot paint, that my technique is at the service of my imagination. Perhaps it should be the other way round but then I find Picasso peculiarly bland stripped of his technique. Well the later paintings anyway. There is nothing wrong with my technique except when I have to try too hard because of the demands of the imagery. People keep me in misery because they keep coming up to me with some gossip about my past and I know nothing of theirs. 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, some body 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.

14.  19th June,1991.intrusion

Do they just want to party? An intrusion into my mental interior life, like everybody has a foot in the door. Nailed mouth and tongue tied I have no effective reply to them.

15. 27th June,1991.crucified

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

16. 12th July, 1991.besieged

The central text reads: The cards are no good that I’m holding unless they are from another world This is a line from Series of Dreams by Bob Dylan, the last track on The Bootleg Series, Volumes I-3.

17. 19th July,1991.anguish

There was no commentary from Bryan Charnley for his two last portraits. It is assumed that these two colors (Yellow and Red) is indicative of his acute mental anguish.

Images Credit: Bryan Charnley

[source www.bryancharnley.info,en.wikipedia.org]
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