In this review of a book on modern art written by psychiatrist Joseph Schildkraut by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, I was seized by the word "redemptive" which the physchiatrist Schildkraut used to connect spirituality and depression. It is often hard to see the forest for the trees if you are not sitting on the physician's side of the table.
Joseph J. Schildkraut b. 1934
The Creative Mind Reader
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: December 31, 2006
Joseph J. Schildkraut had been peering into a murky Rembrandt etching called “Saint Jerome in a Dark Chamber,” when he started wondering about the artist’s mental health. In the picture, the bright light outside a window doesn’t penetrate the gloom where Jerome sits at a table reading, head in hand, “in a manner,” as Dr. Schildkraut would write, “typical of melancholia.”
In a paper for The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2004, the doctor analyzed the image as “essentially communicating” to him “in the same way that depressed patients did when, in their labored speech, they tried to describe what was going on in their minds.” He continued: “They often couldn’t describe what was there, and when they could, they couldn’t relate one mental representation to another. And most important, they would often say: ‘I can see the light out there in the world, but the light just doesn’t get into my brain. My mind remains dark — it is black.’ ”
You might call this Dr. Schildkraut’s Van Gogh hypothesis. Virginia Woolf, Tchaikovsky, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among other depressed or suicidal geniuses, have fueled the theoretical connection between mental illness and artistic creativity. Today brain scans are starting to pinpoint the actual physiology of specific mental processes, both unhealthy and creative ones. Compulsive gambling can now be linked to problems in the frontal lobe. The cortical region that controls the left hand is often enlarged in the brains of violinists.
Dr. Schildkraut trained as a psychiatric researcher in the era before M.R.I.’s and Prozac. A kid from Brooklyn, the son of parents who never went to college, he attended Harvard, where one day he wandered past the window of a Cambridge bookstore and fell in love with several reproductions of paintings by an artist he thought was a woman named Joan. After working up the nerve to inquire inside, he learned, among other things, that Joan Miró was a man. For $5, he bought the posters, pinned them to his dorm-room ceiling and began a lifelong fascination with the psychology of art.
In the meantime, he helped to revolutionize the psychiatric profession. As a young researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland, he noticed that depressives who didn’t respond to talk therapy often came to life after taking certain drugs. A groundbreaking paper that he published in 1965 suggested that naturally occurring chemical imbalances in the brain must account for mood swings, which pharmaceuticals could correct, a hypothesis that proved to be right. “Psychopharmacology was still new,” his wife, Betsy, recalled, “and the hypothesis was widely doubted. But he was a dreamer.”
Schildkraut spent decades as a professor at Harvard, founding a neuropsychopharmacology lab at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, which served patients who couldn’t afford to pay for medical care. When research into genomes and DNA began to change medicine and another generation of scientists started to take over the field, he decided, being, as his wife put it, an old-fashioned intellectual, to focus on his early passion: he returned to Miró, who, Dr. Schildkraut came to believe, was depressive, citing the artist’s description of himself as “tragic and taciturn.” Miró’s signature blobs and squiggles, he said, served as an escape for the Spanish artist and healed his soul. Miró experts and relatives weren’t too happy with this analysis, which came out in a book, “Depression and the Spiritual in Modern Art: Homage to Miró,” which the doctor helped edit, but then a grandson of Miró’s contacted the doctor and affirmed the artist’s condition.
Dr. Schildkraut also mused on the grumpy, gloomy Abstract Expressionists, combining stories of their lives with views of their art to find among them “a high prevalence (about 50 percent) of depressive disorders and preoccupation with death.” By bringing (suicidal) artists like Rothko, Gorky and Pollock “into direct and lonely confrontation with the ultimate existential question, whether to live or to die,” he wrote, “depression may have put them in touch with the inexplicable mystery at the very heart of the tragic and timeless art that they aspired to produce.”
If there was a bright side to depression, Dr. Schildkraut saw it. “Depression in the artist,” he noted, “may be of adaptive value to society at large” — meaning it could inspire great paintings, symphonies and novels. That’s a controversial idea, insofar as it raises a moral dilemma: does treatment, while benefiting the patient, come at a cost to culture?
But this wasn’t how Schildkraut framed the issue. He saw a deep, redemptive connection between spirituality and depression. For him, depression was not a weakness but simply “one of the things that humans happen to be capable of experiencing.” It had its uses. “Depression turns you inward,” he explained. “In some senses the artistic calling becomes easier with a depressive illness.”