What effects does Bohemian self-destructiveness still have on contemporary art?


Edvard Munch (1895) Self-Portrait with Cigarette
Edvard Munch (1895) Self-Portrait with Cigarette

The idea behind the essay came from an interest in how nihilistic beliefs that lead to self-destruction are a part of creativity. The starting point was alienation and anomie and what they lead to and whether this creative self-destructiveness was still evident in contemporary art. The background was Bohemia: which I outline as a time of disappointment that lead to a revolution against the bourgeois that was marked by disturbing, obsession with images of suicide and a self-destructive lifestyle. Subjects like melancholia, anomie and nihilism are also introduced throughout the essay making connections to creative self-destructiveness often involving suicide. My argument is that the Bohemian’s were assimilated with post world war II and post-cold war avant-garde painting largely in terms of visual imagery and by an stylistic affinity to Bohemian artists through a form of parasuicide—an apparent ‘attempted’ suicide without the actual intention of killing oneself.

For Netler (1957) it was Hegel who first suggested the term alienation to describe what happens to the socialized individual who becomes detached from the world of nature: including their own nature. Marx viewed labour as an alienating factor and the division of labour as creating conflicts between individuals and the common interests of all individuals. For Durkheim this relates to anomie in the sense that our own accomplishments turn into a power that is alien and opposed to us, it subjugates us instead of being under our control. This is closely related to Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, and from Freud onwards suicide was more related to sexuality and wish fulfilment. Prostitutes and important men who failed sexually were designated as groups with a high risk of suicide. Netler (1957) breaks down the consequences of alienation into three main components:

  1. That alienation is related to creativity: that creative artists are alienated individuals.
  2. That alienation is related to mental and emotional disorder.
  3. That alienation is related to altruism: i.e. estranged people are likely to be more sensitized to the pain of anonymous others and thus more altruistic.

Although for Netler (writing in 1957) the association of art, neurosis, and alienation has not been tested empirically, from the eighteenth century onwards madness and melancholy were considered the primary reasons for committing suicide and part of Bohemian artistic alienation and anomie. For Brown (2001: 183) representations of suicide where divided into two: females who were depicted as either rejected or having committed suicide for reasons of chastity, the signification in women’s suicide was also a manifest sign of patriarchy, and myths such as the deaths of Lucretia, Portia or Dido gave suicide a moral meaning. On the other side males were depicted as having hung, shot or having poisoned themselves in contrast with that of female death. After the 1850’s there was a fascination with morbidity e.g. the Illustrated Police News captured images of suicides that were accompanied by texts reporting suicides or attempts which were presented similar to fiction with the victims of the suicide not mentioned by name and the drawings not showing any similarity to the person. ( figure:1 ) But there were changes in representations from the 1780 to the 1914 after the mass slaughter of the World War I where ideas of death changed dramatically and the widespread use of photography meant that the victim could be identified clearly.

Figure 1: 'The Suicide of Alice Blanche Oswald', from the Illustration Police News, 1872, wood engraving
Figure 1: ‘The Suicide of Alice Blanche Oswald’, from the Illustration Police News, 1872, wood engraving

In the 1800’s there was a cultural collapse and a series of social crises that lead to an increase in suicide deaths in Paris. This can be seen reflected in the works of Dore’s lithograph, The street of the old lantern, that depicts Gerard de Nerval’s suicide influenced by his depression.(Figure:2) Other artists who have also interpreted what was happening at the time included Manet’s The Suicide and Lautrec’s La Pendu. Brown (2001) mentioned the lithography The Drug Addict by Eugene-Samuel Grasset that symbolised the changes of the end of the century: though it is not a suicide image it represents the beginning of a century with humankind as irrational and self-destructive. Nerval was a member of the Les Bousingos, a Bohemian group of rebels and French literary eccentrics, who insulted and attacked what was being done by Louis-Philippe’s society. The abnormal rituals performed by this group included: getting unconsciously knocked down by alcohol during feasts and dancing around a bowl of alcohol that was set on fire, spending days in the cemetery, orgies, drugs, suicide and murder. They were the children of the 1830 revolution who had been desperately disappointed by its aftermath. People were finding liberty in salons and cabarets, with the Bohemian romantics finding inspiration in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the politics of the French revolution to represent a more personal and critical view of life through art (Hussey, 2013).

Figure 2: Gustave Dore- The Street of the old lantern Lithography (1855)
Figure 2: Gustave Dore- The Street of the old lantern Lithography (1855)

McCay & Baughman (1972) analysed the works of Bohemian painters to establish if their paintings correlated with their psychological states and mental health to reveal a relationship between creativity and mental health. This relates to the association of art, neurosis, and alienation that Netler (1957) argued had not been tested empirically. McCay & Baughman quote Vincent Van Gogh as saying: “The more I become decomposed, the sicker and fragmented I am, the more I become an artist.” With Van Gogh his fame rests with the work during which he experienced hallucinations and quasi-mystical revelations. The incipient psychosis led to self-destructiveness, Van Gogh’s suicide was a final act in keeping with the tragic theme of his life. McCay & Baughman (1972) also explain that Edvard Munch’s traumatic life began in early childhood where he observed the prolonged death struggle of his mother and sister. His father was a mentally ill doctor who took young Edvard on house calls where he repeatedly saw more of the sick, aged and dying. It would appear that after 1908 Munch’s psychotic episode was treated and he responded well; but as a consequence of the treatment Munch moved away from his earlier morbid preoccupations and produced more conventional, less moving works of art. The assaults on his art and character were particularly damaging for Munch because they also came from within the medical community, but Munch argued that: “I do not think that my art is sick […] people do not understand the true function of art, nor do they know anything about its history.” For Munch the true artist rejected the ordinary details of daily life to engage with philosophical and spiritual issues. Here Munch considered illness as a paradigm for creativity, a condition where his aesthetic imagination exceeded the constraints of the rational mind. Thus sickness, insanity and anxiety were at the centre of his work: “the black angels that guarded my cradle.” They were the creative starting points for his investigations because they were non-bourgeois states of emotion: the highly emotional world of Bohemians living beyond the dictates of bourgeois life, were points of germination for progressive art, both as metaphors and conduits (Berman, 1993).

Figure 3: Paul Gauguin- Where do we come from (1897)
Figure 3: Paul Gauguin- Where do we come from (1897)

In the context of how he reached the pinnacle of his creativity in the 1897-98 Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? painting, McCay & Baughman (1972) describe Paul Gauguin as suffering from the combined effects of syphilis, suicide, and the severe depression brought on by the death of his daughter. (Figure: 3) He was approaching the decomposed, sick and fragmented state that Van Gogh had felt was necessary to “file away the steel wall that separates what one feels from what one is capable of doing.” Gauguin also wrote in 1901 that he wanted to die, and was full of despair, and that he painted it at one go and then “made haste to sign it and took a tremendous dose of arsenic.” He was able to control the psychotic break that rendered other artists incapable of creativity and retain the closeness to primary processes and unconscious material that others lost as they came to peace with life (McCay & Baughman, 1972: 4). From their study it is clear that painting and other forms of artistic expression are non-verbal manifestations of unconscious affects or feelings and that underlying genius in art is the expression of feeling. The biographies of creative geniuses tell us that, rather than having the defences to repress or destructively sublimate these feelings, the artists were able to express their material. It is only when they were overwhelmed by psychosis that their powers disintegrated and they become unable to use their skills to express their feelings.

One of the difficulties in establishing a connection with early Bohemian artists self-destructiveness and contemporary artists relates to ‘parasuicides’ and the problems of establishing a direct correlation in copying forms of behaviour. Research on the impact of suicide stories in the media has focussed on imitative suicides and on celebrity suicides, based on Tarde’s laws of imitation and Pareto’s concept of elite. But for Stack (1987) the imitation effect does not hold for artists, villains, and the economic elite. Stack cites a study by Wasserman (1984), on seven cases of celebrity suicides, that reports a significant association between the appearance of a story on a celebrity and the monthly suicide rate. This is combined with the parasuicidal effect of Hemingway and Janis Joplin; their suicide’s notoriety would be expected to trigger imitative suicides but Stack argues it did not. Stack offers an alternative explanation, via differential identification theory, whereby potential suicide victims do identify with celebrities that share suicidogenic conditions (e.g. poor mental health, marital problems, and poor physical health). Arguably Bohemian artists fall into the category of celebrities, if identification is based on common problems, then types of celebrities (i.e. famous artists) with these problems should provoke imitative suicides and possibly other forms of behaviour. For Stack it is the stories about the suicides of celebrities that trigger imitative suicides: the greater the amount of publicity, the greater the increase in the suicide rate and it is publicity that has made the Bohemian artists the basis of modern art.

Figure 4: Mark Rothko - untitled (brown and Gray) 1969
Figure 4: Mark Rothko – untitled (brown and Gray) 1969

Stack (2011) mentions Mark Rothko, who, at sixty-six committed suicide. His final years frequently suggest that he was isolating himself in a depression so deep that suicide was inevitable. Despite his critical success, Rothko felt that he was neither valued nor understood. Whether he sensed that his life would end abruptly by suicide or as a consequence of his critical medical condition: the paintings reflect his desperate situation. Possibly Rothko reflected on death as a source of solace rather than the violent act of self-destruction he spoke of. However harrowing the actual event might have been when Rothko did eventually give in to his desperation—first sedating himself with an antidepressant, and then deeply slitting his arms at the crook of the elbow—it may be that he thought it would free him from the anxious depression and emotional turmoil that had come to debilitate him completely. The pictures leave the viewer unsettled because, they suggest the perception of something that is not right—the feeling of being mistaken or deluded in wishing for some transcendent resolution. (figure: 4)

By the end of the nineteenth century suicide started to lose its meaning or its representation meaning was becoming elided with a generalised existential disillusionment. For Camus it was life itself that had become absurd (Brown, 2001). Politics have always been one of the characteristics which lead to disappointment as mentioned earlier with the French Revolution, World War l and the bourgeoisie; but religion is also something that needs to be mentioned. Critchley (1997) starts by introducing religious and political as two primary forms of disappointments leading to nihilism. When it comes to political disappointment it relates to the realisation that we are living in a violent world where according to Dostoevsky: “Blood is being split in the merriest way, as if it were champagne;” a quote which is much related with what is happening today. When it comes to religious disappointment this is described as: “that what I desire but lack is an experience of faith, namely faith in some transcendent God” (Critchley, 1997, p. xvii). Here Critchley’ comes up with a fundamental question: if God is dead, then what becomes the question of the meaning of life? This is where nihilism comes in to question, because all that we have imagined and have been thought since childhood has become meaningless. Here Critchley associates this with youth’s experience, drawing on Nietzsche to argue that nihilism is the breakdown of the order of meaning, and that all that was understood as a transcendent source of value becomes null and void—there are no skyhooks upon which to hang a meaning for life.

Saul (2006) stated the fact that some Romantics did indeed commit suicide: it seems that the logical consequence of their Romantic convictions and an almost superfluous proof of the dangerous, allegedly inherent affinity of Romanticism and death. In 1918 Thomas Mann, adopted Hans Pfitzner’s slogan of “sympathy with death” as the “formula and ultimate goal of all Romanticism,” but scholars have long known, or should have known, the falsity of this.

Figure 5: Yukio Mishima- Still from his suicide
Figure 5: Yukio Mishima- Still from his suicide

Contemporary artists are being assimilated to the self-destructive values of Bohemia because of an interest in the subject matter they used and also because the world is going through a cycle of the same events which happened in Bohemian times. Like Camus this affinity was made with modern post World War II and post cold war artists at a time that saw the threat of a nuclear war. When the war ended it was considered the death of modernity and the beginning of a decade of hedonism; but the post-war period also saw the censorship and removal of the imagery of death from society via mass media. By filming his own suicide, the Japanese film director Yukio Mishima helped to break that conspiratorial silence around suicide, putting death as something beautiful but equally a destroyer of beauty. Increasingly the media have provided the public with violence and spectacle. Andy Warhol’s suicidal images focus on anxiety about suicide and his motivation in these pictures was to negate the strength of death. In effect Warhol committed emotional suicide. His anxieties over death and suicide found expression in his Death and Disaster series, which was an interpretation of his cry for help: his parasuicide. The World Wide Web made a great impact on post modernity, suicide’s representations are even further removed from the deathlike photographic negative which Warhol imagined, but they are not, and can never be, detached from the social reality that puts them together (Brown, 2001).

Figure 6: Justin Mortimer - Theme Park (2009)
Figure 6: Justin Mortimer – Theme Park (2009)

At the beginning of the twenty first century suicide is linked to a different spirituality, a different social climate, and made problematic in terms of the economy that surrounds art in a period where people may no longer deem it necessary to be a doomed Bohemian romantic but have retained the hedonism. Justin Mortimer’s dark paintings of interiors that resemble hospitals, bunkers and after parties includes colourful balloons in his scenes—an object which is mass produced ‘happiness’. According to Mortimer these scenes should be seen as a metaphors for the worst possible after parties or as symbolic of the unease that not only Mortimer but a whole generation of figurative painters born in the 1970’s can be seen to be expressing their work today. The 1990’s saw an increase in binge drinkers and the consumption of ecstasy tablets with social commentators warning of social decay. According to Neal (2012) these can be traced to the effects of World War I and the impact of loss in the ‘war to end all wars’. The after party is the symbol of what had come after, for example 9/II and the Afghanistan war and terrorism leading to financial crises around the globe.

Other artists whose works can be seen as having similar subject matter, and which are also post-cold war artists are; Victor Man and Zsolt Bodoni. Both these artists, including Mortimer’s work, can be related in terms of their approach to painting: very monochromatic and dark, which can be assimilated to the mood which Picasso wanted to express during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in his blue and rose paintings. Their representational works capture images of death, anomie, self-destruction and war. These artists must have been inspired by these times in some way because artists of Bohemia were post-revolutionary artists. Assimilations in the works can be seen but artists today can still be going through melancholia and other form of psychological problems: Mortimer said in his interview that he is dealing with his own melancholia in his paintings.

If images of suicide say one thing above all, it is that this strange death has never had a fixed meaning. It is tempting too, to say that in the twentieth century, art stopped being a means of representation and became auto-destructive. Though artists are no longer seen as self destructed, more help is available, via advances in psychology and technology. Contemporary artists are still looking at these artists because the world is going through the same cycle—revolution against governments and images of death can be seen on the World Wide Web. Bohemian self-destructiveness has been assimilated largely in terms of visual imagery and by an affinity to ‘heroic’ Bohemian artists attitudes largely through a form of parasuicide—an emulated Bohemian mood that represents the melancholic aftermath of an exhausted hedonism.



Berman, P. G. (1993). Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette: Smoking and the Bohemian Persona. The Art Bulletin, 75(4), 627–646. http://doi.org/10.2307/3045987

Brown, R. M., 2001. The Art of Suicide. London: Reaktion Books.

Critchley, S., 1997. Very Little… Almost Nothing. 2nd ed. Oxton: Routledge.

Hussey, A., 2013. Paris : The secret History. s.l.:Penguin Books.

Lizette Larson-Miller, 2006. Death and Religion in a Changin World. New York: M.E.Sharpe.

Murray, C. J., 2004. Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. 1st ed. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Neal, J., 2012. Justin Mortimer. London: Haunch of Vension.


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