THE CREATIVE LIFE OF ROBERT SCHUMANN, 2002

Dimensions variable
Mixed media

Installation of tape drawings and sculpture at Florence Lynch Gallery

I became fascinated recently with a graphic image that I found in Kay Redfield Jamison’s "Touched with Fire", a book on the interrelationship between manic depression and creativity. The image is a timeline of the creative life of the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann that charted the years of his composing life, the opuses he created in each year, and notations indicating the rhythms of his hypomania and depression. Much of my understanding of this disorder, gained through my own with someone important to me, was reflected in that march of numbers: the disorder’s imposition of its pattern on a life, its dialogue with life and death, its particular manifestation in a particular life. Initially I wanted to use the timeline as a secret visual code to privately reference manic depression. I read about how brain chemistry and functioning is currently understood; the ways that emotions are produced in the brain and how the brain “makes” feelings. I read personal accounts of depression and mania. I researched Robert Schumann’s life and music, German Romantic music and literature. I listened to Schumann. I learned that Schumann’s great Liederjahr, 24 song cycles and songs composed in a burst of creativity in 1840, were coincident with a hypomanic rhythm that culminated in a deep, dark, clinical depression four years later. But I also learned that his mood disorder was not the entire story behind his productivity. A mass of other factors were also involved, most notably his predicament with his beloved, the virtuoso pianist Clara Wieck. Schumann needed to earn money in order to marry her, and the lied was the most marketable category of music in his day. The process of composing the songs was his main expression of love for Clara, from whom he was agonizingly separated for long periods of time. Looking at it from a musicological perspective, the song was the ultimate musical embodiment of German Romanticism. Jamison’s Schumann timeline had opened up a dynamic involving psychology, brain chemistry, love and art that overwhelmed my initial call for simply a private image of illness.

Because I am a visual artist, I wanted to find visual schema that communicate the interrelationship of these many forces — the workings of sunlight on mood, for instance, or the firing of the synapses — that contribute to the understanding of bipolar disorder. To understand how these chemical reasons and electrical firings relate to mood and thought, one has to conceptualize and visualize things we cannot literally see.

In my further reading on this subject, I found even more instances of graphic visualization. The diagrams of Joseph LeDoux and other authors became part of the repertoire for my work. I thought that by utilizing these drawings, some of their content would be communicated was well. These images are hard-won distillations of ideas and research. They show us a different way of conceiving phenomena. To lift the visual schema out of its context somewhat enables us to see it purely visually for a moment but also brings us to certain insights: that conceptualizing reality is always a construct but it is these constructs that enable us to act.

Our constructions and our constructing selves are subject to physical forces, both literally and figuratively. The seasonal changes in the amount of sunlight during the year can trigger mania at peak sunlight and depression in the winter months. The map declinations of magnetic North in contrast with geographical North provide a literal and metaphorical connection to manic depression. Literally, magnetic force transmitted by transcranial stimulation has been used to reverse mania and depression. Metaphorically, the divergence between North and True North suggests a way in which one can lose one’s direction emotionally. Another apposite physical law that is crucial to an understanding of bipolarity is that which rules the swing of a pendulum. A psychiatrist who works with such patients told me that to live well with the condition it is necessary to quiet the motion of the pendulum, to limit the swings of the arc to a range of emotional equilibrium. The sweep of scale from microcosm (synapses in the brain) to macrocosm (magnetic force and sunspots) was intriguing to me. On neither scale can you actually see the phenomenon in front of you. But they can be visualized.

If these images have meaning as a visual conceptualization of a real idea, then what happens when they are taken from their contexts and made to interact? How much of their contexts accompany them? Do the images make something new when separated from their original contexts? How much do we need to understand of their original meaning?

In constructing visualizations of the various forces involved in manic depression, I hope to activate the space between those who struggle with psychiatric conditions and those who do not, thereby closing the distance between them. In this way, I hope to encourage acknowledgment of our own fears of this experience, whether for ourselves or for others, and simply see mental illness clearly and with compassion.

The more general subject of how an artist puts the “juice” of his/her experience into art and redeems pain through art, finding a way to convert his/her deepest passions and beliefs into art, and transmogrifying pain into beauty is one that is very close to me. Schumann made a life threatened by mental illness into a life that produced riches that are still being mined and luxuriated in by others. His was a life that could have been turned in on itself, yet he harnessed his demons: he made them soar into song.

 
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