Art Mirrors Life: Expression, Connection, and Mental Health

Traditional forms of healing have always focused on interconnectivity – to nature, to others, to ourselves, and between energetic and physical body systems. Significant advances in modern medicine have enabled us to dissect the human body down to previously imperceptible detail, giving us an ever-expanding understanding on the inner workings of human life. While this […]

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Davood Roostaei, Nostradamus, 1995. © Davood Roostaei.
Davood Roostaei, Nostradamus, 1995. © Davood Roostaei.

Traditional forms of healing have always focused on interconnectivity – to nature, to others, to ourselves, and between energetic and physical body systems. Significant advances in modern medicine have enabled us to dissect the human body down to previously imperceptible detail, giving us an ever-expanding understanding on the inner workings of human life. While this is advantageous, a reductionist view of the human body often fails to acknowledge the inherent interconnectivity of the human organism, and its natural connection to others and the environment. Coupled with a modern lifestyle typified by increasing work demands and heavy reliance on personal technological devices to both satisfy and seek reprieve from such demands, traditional ways of connecting have nearly become obsolete. 

2020, a year sure to be synonymous with social isolation, has made our human need for connection glaringly obvious. The fabric of society appears to be unraveling before us, with rising unemployment, polarizing perceptions on numerous aspects of public policy, and significant exacerbations of mental illness, substance use, addiction, and overdose. As Gabor Maté famously notes, “the opposite of addiction is connection”. It is no wonder these health issues have also reached unprecedented levels amidst a global crisis. 

The arts have long been a remedy for soothing the troubled human soul. Artists notoriously express their emotions through their work, be it through music, poetry, or visual arts such as sculpture or painting. The archetype of the ‘troubled artist’ is easily conjured, as the history of the artist is embedded in each piece they construct, conferring additional context through which one might evaluate the work. It is in our ability to relate to these works that establishes our subjective assessments of them – the viewer is inherently implicit in the meaning extracted from the work. 

Piechowski-Jozqwiak et al. (2017) explored the neural mechanisms through which this process is made possible. The creation and reception of art, establishes a dialogue between the artist and spectator, serving as “a universal means of communication bypassing time, cultural, ethnic, and social differences”. This ‘active’ dialogue is postulated to be made possible by the concept of mirror neurons, through which “our neuronal activity matches that of what we observe”. Piechowski-Jozqwiak et al. notes that the mirroring system can be visual, tactile, auditory, and also emotional, which is in line with the notion of a connection between the artist and the viewer via sensory stimuli embedded in the artwork. 

As Jackson Pollock once famously said, “Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is”. In viewing his paintings, we too are able to infer who he was. Pollock had his own struggles with mental health, suffering from both bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Pollock received psychiatric care from Jungian analyst, Dr. Joseph Henderson, to whom he submitted 83 psychoanalytic drawings over the course of his treatment. These earlier drawings were reminiscent of folk art, using various symbols as a means of communicating his inner world – a stark contrast to the concealed motifs of his infamous drip paintings. It is noted that some of his most prominent works were produced in a period of mental wellness, which enabled him to create his masterpieces with exactitude. 

True to Pollock’s notion of artistic self-embodiment, Francis Bacon’s oeuvre is teeming with distorted imagery, which Zeki and Ishizu (2013) surmise, illustrates the alienation the artist likely felt given “his own tastes”, which were likely “regarded by Church, state, and society as an evil which should carry a deep sense of guilt”. Bacon’s work indeed is evocative of isolation and inner turmoil, and the artist himself admits to his aims of “shocking the nervous system” of the observers of his work. For Bacon, “nearly all reality is pain”, a perspective that can be felt viscerally throughout the totality of his works. 

In contrast to the darker motifs of Bacon and Pollock, David Hockney’s oeuvre exhibits a more joyful quality. A major contributor to the Pop art movement, Hockney employs exuberantly bright palettes and masterful use of light to bring to life otherwise common-place scenes in his artworks. The masterful simplicity of his work, coupled with colourful imaginings of everyday scenes, evokes youthful delight that is simultaneously serene. With over 60 years at his craft, Hockney still finds interest in his work, stating “The world is very, very beautiful if you look at it – but most people don’t look very much”. His optimism shines through his works, a characteristic that has clearly resonated throughout the art world and beyond, given his tremendous success as one of the most sought-after living artists today. 

Optimism and beauty can be exemplified in different ways – instinctual, objective beauty vs. subjective beauty, which is reliant in large part on context for interpretation. This dichotomy is not mutually exclusive, and in fact typically exists simultaneously in the observation of art and nature. 

Context and thoughtful interpretation are hallmarks of Davood Roostaei’s Cryptorealism. His work at first glance appears to be of abstract-tachist influence, though upon closer examination, clear motifs emerge. Roostaei, like the aforementioned artists, paints what he is, conveying through art what he has seen and experienced throughout his life. Roostaei studied art at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Tehran before being incarcerated for 2 years in 1981 for art which was deemed to be subversive by the regime. After his release, he sought asylum in Germany in 1984 where he continued his artistic pursuits and developed his current methods. Employing many art techniques from the Old Masters to Surrealism, Roostaei realized he required a new style, through which he could best render all that he had seen and experienced. As such, he developed Cryptorealism in 1990, inspired by both his political and artistic experiences. Roostaei aims to convey his message of tolerance and unity in his work, through levels of seemingly hidden imagery that one must closely examine through exuberant splashes of color. He believes that art should have a sacred status and raise us to a higher moral and spiritual plane. Roostaei’s work is intense and evocative, often revealing a commentary of modern life through the overlaying of seemingly unrelated motifs. Roostaei’s own artistic self-discovery has led him to forego the use of a paintbrush since 1986, preferring to paint only with his hands, giving him a more visceral connection to his work, and indeed, with the viewer. 

From Pollock to Bacon, Hockney, and Roostaei, the human condition in all its forms can be felt across the visualization of its expression on the canvas. As in previous times of uncertainty and isolation, we can look to contemporary art in all of its many forms for therapeutic validation of our shared experiences. Through art, we can forge emotional connections, with artists past and present, that are perceived by the mind to be as real as they were experienced in direct dialogue with the artists themselves.


Piechowski-Jozqwiak, B., Boller, F., & Bogousslavsky, J. (2017). Universal connection through art: Role of mirror neurons in art production and reception. Behavioural Sciences. doi:10.3390/bs7020029  Zeki, S. & Ishizu, T. (2013). The “visual shock” of francis bacon: an essay in neuroesthetics. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00850

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