What is it that gets us into a state of equilibrium? Most likely it is the lack of anxiety, melancholy and an ability to slow down to start appreciating the simple things in life. And there are plenty of ways to tap into that, be it through philosophical teachings, bodywork or even art. An art canvas can offer us as much consolation as a great book and a favourite playlist.
It has been scientifically proven that observing a thing of beauty gives our brains a boost of dopamine, a hormone responsible for our experience of pleasure. According to Pablo Picasso: “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” And British neurobiologist Semir Zeki has evidence to back this.
The experiment involved showing the participants canvasses by Sandro Botticelli, Rembrandt and Claude Monet while running an MRT scan on their brains at the same time. It was discovered that we respond to beautiful art in the same way we do to people we find attractive. This means that every time we admire a still life or a painting of a landscape, we experience a similar feeling to that of falling in love. It makes it a lot easier to deal with worries. All that is left to do is to find artists and artworks to suit your mood.
German Romanticism for melancholy
Many artists valued a state of mild sadness and detachment, which comes with that melancholy longing, the feeling of being somewhat special. It lifts the creative spirit above the crowd of ordinary people preoccupied with their chores and allows us to look within ourselves.
There is nothing like the German Romantics to give us a better insight into this happily sorrowful state. Let us look at some of the works by Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen and The Sisters on the Balcony. The characters depicted in these paintings are doomed for eternal contemplation of a still blanket of fog, a surface of the sea and a cityscape, while paying no attention to the spectator, but also quietly inviting us to join in and dive into a deep process of self-reflection.
French pointillism for depression
If it is some uninvited doom and gloom that you are trying to disperse, the best recipe would be to familiarise yourself with the works of pointillist artists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac: Seine en Grande Jatte and The Harbour in Marseille, respectively. These artists brought impressionism to perfection with their depictions of everyday scenes and imaginative settings. Watch out for those brightness levels, for pointillists were known for not mixing their paint on the palette and applying it directly to the canvas in closely placed pixel-like strokes.
Their canvases resemble a stained-glass mosaic. The technique used here has the added bonus of stimulating our brain with the excitement of piecing together a puzzle, as we link the seemingly chaotic points peppering a canvas into a single coherent image in our minds. The festive spirits of the French high society, some life affirming summery colours and an element of a riddle seem to be the ingredients to the best remedy against sadness and melancholy.
Italian Futurism for apathy
When it comes to true apathy and lack of motivation – rather than its poetically romanticised counterparts – a firm plan of action is required. It is time to go all out and seek the help of Italian Futurism. You will find that Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Gino Severini, Giacomo Balla and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti can be your foes in tackling burnout. As the leader of the pack, Marinetti rightfully referred to himself as Europe’s Caffeine.
The works of these artists combine the visuals of frantic dynamism, clanking metal and flashing city lights. Take Boccioni’s The City Wakes Up or Balla’s Abstract Speed. It is impossible to remain still next to these electrifying paintings. Here objects seem to literally burst open from their own violet energy and might.
Another recipe against apathy is Boccioni’s sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, depicting what looks like a human robot ready to take off at a speed unavailable to a mere mortal. And if this is all a bit too much for you, do turn to Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash. This painting is fast-paced, sweet and clumsy at the same time, but, like the works of other artists in this movement, it has an energising impact on its viewer.
European impressionism for stress
There are artists whose works do not have the power to motivate us but are there to simply radiate calm. The moderate pace of life depicted in these paintings is akin to meditation, which can turn into a truly therapeutic session, which is oh so important for those too caught up in the daily grind to appreciate the simple things. The impressionists’ carefree and uninhibited art can be a great remedy for stress.
Monet’s haystacks, Renoir’s jolly aristocrats, Bertha Morizo’s idyllic family scenes and Pissarro’s Parisian streets aside, it is well worth paying attention to some examples of Impressionism outside of France, such as the works of Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla. According to him: “…art has no business dealing with anything that is either ugly or sad…Light is the life of everything it touches. Therefore the more light in pictures the more life, and the more truth, and the more beauty.
He captures elements such as children’s laughter and the smell of the sea, the hot summer air and the heat of the sand on the beach. “A Walk on the Beach”, “My Wife and Daughters in the Garden”, “Girls at Sea” – the very names of these artworks have exude a relaxing influence, taking our imaginations to the coasts of Valencia.
American expressionism for anxiety
If the impressionists’ light-hearted manner is not enough to tame your anxiety, turn to Mark Rothko. His giant canvases are nowhere near as intimidating as the paintings of the past and are much more approachable and relatable.
In looking at these works, you feel as if you joined Rothko in a silent conversation. You are the recipient of his innermost feelings depicted in bold red and morbid purple. In observing the pulsating, almost breathing shapes of his rectangles, all in different colours and with uneven boundaries, how can you not put anxious thoughts aside? What does it matter if the borders have not yet reopened, if this art is here to wipe them out altogether?
But the best recipe of them all when it comes to mental health is to follow your instincts and get inspired by the works of the artists that you are personally drawn to. The most important thing is to enjoy what you see right in front of you.