by Andrew Arnett
Bryan Charnley (1949-1991) was a first rate artist afflicted with schizophrenia. He used his exceptional talents to explore the strange regions inside his own mind, as it succumbed to mental disorder and questionable treatments by medical institutions.
Charnley was born September 20, 1949 in Stockton-on-Tees, England and grew up in and around London. In 1968, at the age of 18, Charnley suffered a nervous breakdown while taking courses at Leicester School of Art. He completed his studies there and in 1969 gained admission to the Central School of Art and Design in Holborn, London but was waylaid by another nervous breakdown, this time diagnosed as acute schizophrenia. As a result, he discontinued his formal education.
Charnley moved back in with his parents during the years of 1971-1977, while undergoing bouts of hospitalization and treatments including ECT (ElectroConvulsive Therapy or Electroshock Therapy).
He moved to Bedford in 1978 where he began his painting career in earnest. His first works were representational and experimentations in various styles.
In 1982, influenced by a collection of paintings displayed at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Charnley changed the focus of his art inward, taking inspiration from his dreams, visions and struggles with schizophrenia.
Charnley created a distinctive style and achieved artistic success with his visionary art. In 1984, the Bethlehem Royal Hospital purchased four of his paintings for a permanent collection. In 1989 he had a solo show at Dryden Street Gallery, Covent Garden in London and the following year, had two paintings in the Visions exhibition at the Royal College of Art.
Nonetheless, Charnley was in a life and death struggle with his mental demons and the mind numbing regimen of drugs which were being prescribed to him. Charnley’s career culminated with a final series of Self Portraits which he painted whilst varying the dosages of Depixol and Tryptisol, his primary prescription drugs at the time.
In July of 1991, upon completing his 17th Self Portrait, Charnley committed suicide. As such, the 17 Self Portraits paintings stand as a graphic record of a mind in disintegration.
How much of this disintegration was caused by schizophrenia and how much reflect the often horrific treatments used by the medical institutions is still a matter of conjecture? Certainly, electro shock treatment has its downside. Depixol (under brand name Flupentixol), though legal in the UK, is not approved for use in the United States. One of its side effects is akathisia, a movement disorder characterized by a feeling of inner restlessness and inability to stay still. Complications include suicide.
Let’s take a closer look at Chanley’s Self Portrait Series, accompanied by diary notes he kept during the painting process.
Self Portrait # 1 was completed on April 16, 1991. Chanley describes the painting as a “Conventional portrait painted in two sittings.” He notes that his drug dosage during this painting was two 3 mg. tablets of Depixol daily, plus two 25 mg. Trytisol. He commented that, as a result, “I was sleeping a lot.”
Self Portrait # 2 was completed April 20, 1991. Chanley had cut back to one 3 mg. tablet of Depixol with Tremazepam for “some sleep.” In his diary, he writes:
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.
As a result of his discomfort, Chanley dropped down to one tablet of Depixol on April 17, 1991, and was beginning to feel the dramatic effects of withdrawal.
Self Portrait # 3 was completed April 23, 1991. Chanley was on one daily tablet of Depixol plus sleeping pills. Chanley notes that he was inspired to start his self portraits series from Louis Wain’s portraits of cats whilst the artist succumbed to psychosis. Chanley expected a similar disintegration of the ego. He writes in his diary:
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 a blind man. Hence the crosses on the eyes. They also let me know verbally what they had picked 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.
Self Portrait # 4 was completed on April 24. Chanley is still on one tablet of Depixol a day, plus Tremazepam, for sleeping, but he notes “I know I cannot go on much longer.” In this painting, Chanley stabs the base of his thumb so as he can bleed on to the canvass, over the eyes and forehead. Describing this painting, Chanley writes:
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.
Self Portrait # 5 was completed on April 29, 1991. At this time, Chanley, a heavy smoker, describes a “strange spiritual force” urging him to not smoke tobacco. He increased his dosage of Depixol to 15 tablets in an effort to “throw off the spiritual demands which were driving me crazy along with the E.S.P. but to no avail.”
Chanley continued taking high doses of his medication for the next few days. He then received a phone call from his twin, who gave him positive feedback which he describes as, “some words of truth that completely cut through the situation to the bone and rendered the spiritual forces thankfully impotent.” Chanley writes on the canvas the words “Love is strange,” explaining in his diary:
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?
Self Portrait # 6 was completed May 2. Chanley had cut back his dose to 6 mg. Depixol with 60 mg. Trytisol. He notes that he was completely without energy, which is expressed in the painting by the pupa which is the “torpid state in insects.” In his diary, he states:
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.
Self Portrait # 7 was completed May 6. Charnley was taking two tablets of Depixol and two tablets of Tryptisol, an anti-depressant. Describing this painting, he writes:
I feel like a target for people’s cruel remarks . . . 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.
Self Portrait # 8 was completed May 14. He describes this painting as, “The ego splitting like a cancer cell as it comes under attack, a gory mess.” He goes on to write:
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 . . . 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.
Self Portrait # 9 was completed on May 18. At this time, Chanley had cut down to one tablet of the anti-depressant Tryptisol. As a result, he was not sleeping much. He had the feeling that his mind was still “broadcasting very severely” and expressed this by painting his brain as an enormous mouth. He goes on to write:
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.
Self Portrait # 10 was completed on May 23. Chanley had been cutting back on his anti-depressants and the blue emphasis of this painting exploited the growing depression he felt as a result. The wavy lines connected to his head represent a voice telepathically attacking him from the streets outside.
It appears the “E.S.P.” intrusions into his psyche were, at this stage, becoming progressively worse. Chanley notes in his diary:
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.
Self Portrait # 11 was completed on May 24. Since May 19, Chanley had cut down to one and a half tabs of Depixol with one tab of 25 mg. Trytisol. As his schizophrenia worsens, Chanley observes that his ability to express in painting his suffering becomes more accurate. He writes:
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.
Self Portrait # 12 was completed on June 8. Chanley explains the painting thus:
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 the truth of my condition? I was to find out otherwise but it was certainly part of the truth.
Self Portrait # 13 was completed on June 13. Chanley was on 1 1/2 tabs of 3mg. Depixol, and had already cut out Tryptisol. In this diary entry, Chanley takes a swipe at Picasso while acknowledging the influence of Van Gogh. It appears, from these paintings and his diary notes, that his situation is becoming untenable, as suicide looms. He writes:
. . . 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.
Self Portrait # 14 was completed on June 19. Chanley’s diary notes for this painting are as follows:
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.
Self Portrait # 15 was completed on June 27. Chanley was taking 1 1/4 tabs of 3 mg. Depixol daily. He feels, in this painting, that he is “closing in on the essential image of my schizophrenia.” The man holding the control stick is Chanley trying to control his own mind, which he confesses is “an impossible situation.”
Despite his increasing delusions, Chanley displays a remarkable degree of self awareness. He writes in his diary:
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.
Self Portrait # 16 was completed on July 12. There were no diary entries for this painting. There is writing on the canvass, which reads, “The cards are no good that I’m holding unless they are from another world,” a line from Series of Dreams by Bob Dylan, from his album The Bootleg Series, Volumes I-3.
Self Portrait # 17 was completed on July 19. No diary entry was left for this painting. Chanley committed suicide shortly after this date.