Kay Redfield Jamison speaks on creativity and manic-depression

Hopkins psychiatrist to examine the lives of painters like Vincent Van Gogh

April 16, 2010

Madness vs. genius

In ‘The Swan Thieves," author Elizabeth Kostova writes about a gifted painter who is afflicted with bipolar disorder.

She made up her story. Kay Redfield Jamison actually lived it.

Jamison, a psychiatrist at the John Hopkins University who has chronicled her battle with manic-depressive illness, is scheduled to speak Monday night at the Walters Art Museum on what she hypothesizes is a link between creative genius and the particular form of mental illness characterized by frenzied bursts of energy and near-catatonic lows.

She holds an endowed chair at the Hopkins School of Medicine and has written more than 100 scientific articles on bipolar diosorder and creativity. Jamison also has published five books in the popular press, the best known of which are "An Unquiet Mind" and "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament."

Her talk at the Walters will take a look at such artists as the painters John Ruskin, Edwin Landseer and Vincent Van Gogh and examine the evidence that they might have been mentally ill.

"A possible link between ‘madness' and genius is one of the oldest and most persistent of cultural notions," Jamison writes in an email. "It is also one of the most controversial.

"The lecture will give an overview of the evidence for significantly increased rates of depression, bipolar illness, and suicide in writers and artists, discuss possible reasons for these elevated rates, ethical concerns, and the advantages of modern treatments."

As Jamison indicates, some researchers have posited that mental illnesses other than manic-depression may represent the truest link to creativity. Others wonder whether it is possible to diagnose painters, composers and writers after they are dead, as Jamison does in her books.

And many artists dispute the whole notion that creative people tend to be crazy, because they fear the perception will cause them to be even more marginalized in society than they are right now.

But, author William Styron — who himself was afflicted with bipolar disorder — thought Jamison was on to something. He wrote that she "is plainly among the few who have a profound understanding of the relationship that exists between art and madness." Mary Carole McCauley

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison will speak at 7 p.m. Monday, April 19 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Tickets are $20-$25. Pre-registration is required; call 410-547-9000, ext. 305 or go to http://www.wamwc.org.

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