This summer, as with every summer, most of us will take a moment to soak in the balm of the sun and relax in the calming hush and mutter of birdsong and breeze with any anxiety drifting and imminent threats not even registering in the deepest recesses. Similarly, you are likely to see the seemingly ridiculous sight of someone escaping the presence of a wasp. That is simply the way that some people react because for them it is perceived as an imminent danger. The zen-like calm that the rest of us exhibit seems unfathomable to them. It is as though we are able to mystically disavow the impending threat of the minuscule and harmless creature through almost supernatural means and achieve peace of mind. But what if peace of mind is an impossible refuge because the mind itself has become the enemy?
When reading Bryan Charnley’s final diary entries this appears to be the dilemma that he continually faced. Part of his mind could recognise the problem and experience the pain and distress of alienation, paranoia and loneliness yet these distressing conditions were being generated by his mind. The enemy is inside, internalised and very strong. His inner dread and anguish had become his reality in a nefariously exaggerated analogy of someone fleeing a wasp, forced to hide it from the world, and retreat into an insular realm of torment and doom. Even with the continued insistence that his delusions were merely the imaginings of a fevered mind, they became a reality which he could not seek the mercy of. He could not arrive at the seemingly unfathomable zen-like calm of experiential reality. How do you even begin to face this enemy? It is no accident that the penultimate painting in Bryan Charnley’s Self Portrait Series was of a battlefield.
He had, in a very real way, battled against succumbing to madness, but this tormenting muse – that proved to be both a scorching captor and creative flame – was not arrived at in a linear journey. Bryan Charnley’s tortuous path is as complex one with a depth of character almost as abstruse as his chaotic dance upon the canvas, and it is one that his twin brother James has been trying to understand ever since.
“If I could describe my brother in one word,” James muses, in his book Bryan Charnley: Art and Adversity, “it would be ‘resolute’.” Speaking with James, he tells me: “Bryan had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia and such a nomenclature brought with it a whole catalogue of woes, not just the medical condition but the stigma of madness, drug therapy and isolation from society.” Each of these Bryan battled with a determined fortitude. However, there was a time – a time before the annals of notebooks, poems and before the fog-lifting light of retrospect had illuminated otherwise – that the descriptive would’ve been “troubled”. In the searching that has followed Bryan’s suicide, it has become clear that his anguishes were transcended by a creative stream that blessed treacherous pastures with a munificent harvest of wildflowers even in the darkest of mental droughts.
Sadly, there is no getting away from the fact that these droughts were plentiful. From the subtle pains of life as the less outgoing twin to the guilt of LSD-induced episodes of psychosis, the attempted suicide of his lover Pam Jones which he immortalised in the artwork ‘Leaving by the Window’, and the slow despair of failing to garner the desired level of acclaim in the art world, Bryan’s life was assailed by hardships. But ever since he turned to art it forever remained a coracle of salvation amid the tempestuous seas of his life. Thus, with the fickle winds of fate within his sail, Bryan arrived at the conclusion that the opus of his life in art would be a series of self-portraits that documented his experiences as he withdrew from his Schizophrenia medication and tackled the daemons of the condition head-on.
The mission statement of Bryan Charnley’s Self Portrait series was simple: “I intend to paint a series of self-portraits which will stand as an important document as to life at the end of the twentieth century… Self Portrait will state in depth what it is like to be human and schizophrenic.”
The wider call of his work contained multitudes. As Bryan wrote in 1988, three years before his suicide, when he decided to transition from photo-realism: “Increasingly I became aware that my paintings had no bearing on the darker aspects of my life which threatened to overwhelm me… I came across the idea of art as a form of exorcism and the theory that the cave paintings of early man were painted to gain control over the animals portrayed… I saw that painting my inner upheavals was perhaps to gain some measure of control over them.”
This journey into the condensed visual poetry of the unconscious mind culminated in the Self Portrait series and on the first instalment he completed a conventional painting on a regular dosage.
By the second portrait, he had halved his dosage and the effects were instantly recognisable on the canvas. The sudden withdrawal prompted profound Schizophrenic effects. His accompanying diary entry to the portraits reads: “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.” His painting was an attempt to express this, “[sic] The large rabbit ear because I was confused and extremely sensitive to human voices, I felt like a wild animal. I also felt I was being read generally by ESP.”
By the time of his fifth self-portrait, things started to seriously decline as Bryan began to dissociate from reality and form. The diary entry reads: “A strange spiritual force was making me feel that I could no longer smoke or else I would incur a disaster.” In an attempt to remedy his descending condition, he increased his dosage to no avail. However, interestingly, in what is his longest accompanying diary entry, he also elucidates a semblance of hope which is reflected in the words sprawled sporadically upon the canvas like drifting mantras to cling to and keep sight of in his cloudy floating psyche. “Love is strange,” Bryan writes is in reference to the advice that his twin James had given him, which “was the first real help I had been given in my illness… It was also a reference to the statement by Christ that love is the truth.”
The advice that James had given him over the phone was so innocuous that when he read Bryan’s diary entry for the portrait, he had no recollection of what he had told him. Later, he discovered a notebook in which Bryan had written the advice down. “On the front cover Bryan had written his name on the dotted line provided,” James says, “On the line below marked ‘Subject’ he had scribbled ‘Diary of a Madman’.”
As it turns out, Bryan wrote that the simple words James had imparted were “go on experience.” He writes: “The vile hallucinations stopped straight away and I was able to have a smoke without the whole world exploding. Collapsing around me. Causing intense suffering to myself.”
However, this relief was fleeting and by the time of the 16th self-portrait the diary entries had stopped, and the paintings no longer depicted a human form, but a mere chaotic splurge of symbolism. Remarkably within this melee of the self-evident torment is the Bob Dylan lyric: “The cards are no good that I’m holding / Unless they are from another world,” from the bootleg track ‘Series of Dreams’.
James tells me: “He never lost faith in Dylan right through his career. I think he kept him alive.” These references annotate the mental crutch of culture within Bryan’s life and the similar cognizant boon he aimed to achieve with his art.
The 17th and final self-portrait came a week after and it displays simple streaks of notably fiery colour stretched across the canvas. Ten days later, he committed suicide. James says that “the accepted narrative [is] that if you do not take the medication you will go completely mad and end up killing yourself. Yet the last time I saw Bryan he was in good form. He had completed all but two of the portraits…the seamless, inevitable flow towards self-annihilation that is read into the paintings was just not there.
“While medication withdrawal may have been a factor contributing to his death, the main causes lay elsewhere… Bryan’s psychic torment was intensified by life problems… Bryan’s suicide on 29 June 1991 was on the same day Vincent van Gogh ended his own life on 29 June 1890…whether this was coincidental or deliberate what is certain is that both artists were tormented by madness and loneliness.”
In the end, in layman’s terms and in in the first person as I ditch the usual royal we, what I see in Bryan’s final works and indeed to a large extent in the slaloming precursors that went before, is a collection of some of the most immediately arresting and captivating pieces of art you are ever likely to come across. What they are, it seems to me, are personal corroborations and a reconciliation of the impossibility to express the inexpressible through anything other than symbol, appropriated iconography, and metaphor, which is, ultimately, poetry. Thus, indelibly entwined with his paintings is the undeniable fascination of the curious human condition to clutch at a meaning out of reach.
This makes Bryan’s grasp both painful and life-affirming because, when you consider it, the art in itself is its own singular miracle not in spite of the horrors that spawned it, but as something, barring transcendental tendrils, that stands completely aside from it. That someone could face the harrows of their own sliding sanity and the bedevilling meshugaas of delusion and still manage to create anything at all is a remarkable thing indeed. The fact that they now colour our lives with interest, no matter how morose, and importantly elucidate the experience of mental distress, transfigures them with beauty and meaning in of themselves, beyond the creativity and skill of the brushstrokes, in a resolute sanctity of art’s soul salvation.
Ultimately, perhaps Bryan’s last ever diary entry is the most telling; as he wrote: “I find myself in some strange subterranean world ruled by loved.” Even still, with the darkness that tormentingly howled around him, there were glinting flickers of deliverance in art and the love that he received, as he once said himself, “The only answer to madness I know / see the stars through the scars.”
The brand new second edition of Bryan Charnley: Art & Adversity is now available and you can find out more about his work, here.