The Artists Who Turned Their Trauma Into Great Works

A list of artists and some of their works that reflect their relationship with trauma, through which they expiate or exorcise their obsessions.

Gabriela Castillo

There are key moments that, no matter how terrible or impactful, mark people for life. For some artists, these moments become inspiration for their works or perhaps their works become the catharsis for these moments.

Art has multiple functions and objectives. One of them could be to provide certain psychological support to the creators, a kind of tool to negotiate with the trauma of their childhood, youth, or even their present.

Rene Magritte: The Lovers, 1929

In 1912, when Magritte was 14 years old, his mother committed suicide in a river and he was shown her body, which had its face covered by her wet dress. Shortly after, he began to paint, and some speculate that this image inspired the faces covered by a cloth in his painting The Lovers and other works with the same theme. Some experts say that the story of the dress is an invention of the surrealistic artist’s nurse.

Magritte - the artists who turned their trauma into great works

Salvador Dalí: The Ants, 1929

In his book The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, the artist recounts how as a child he saw ants devouring a bat that he kept in a jar. Later, he saw a hedgehog suffering the same fate. Observing that nothing was left after the ants, made a big impression on him and these insects are present in much of his work. They are even in some of his most famous paintings, such as The Persistence of Memory or The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. In others, they appear less subtly and become protagonists, such as in the two versions of The Ants (1929 and 1936), and in Ants, Nails, and Flies on Nude.

Ants dali - the artists who turned their trauma into great works

Joel-Peter Witkin: Face of a Woman, 2004

This photographer, originally from New York, witnessed a car accident as a child when he was leaving his house with his family to go to church. In the accident, a girl was decapitated, and her head rolled to Witkin’s feet. This event would lead him to become one of the most controversial and censored photographers in the United States for photographing mutilated arms, legs, breasts, and heads, corpses, and people with deformities. Despite how macabre his photographs are, his intention is for them to be beautiful and moving, and for the reflection of the grotesque to be seen as something beautiful.

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Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1619

Since the teachings of art academies were exclusive to men, Orazio Gentileschi, the father of the Italian painter contemporary to Caravaggio, assigned her a personal tutor: Agostino Tassi, who abused her when she was 19 years old. This experience perhaps influenced the ferocity of her paintings. Some see in her interpretation of the myth of Judith a way of expiating her trauma.

Artemisia - the artists who turned their trauma into great works

Max Ernst

When the painter Max Ernst was a child, he suffered from a very high fever that caused him hallucinations. In one of them, a nightingale chased him, which gave rise to the painting Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale. In another, the spirals of his bed’s wood formed an eye that watched him. The hallucinations impacted the artist, who from that day on, observed things, let his visions flow, and painted what he imagined.

Max ernst - the artists who turned their trauma into great works

Perhaps art doesn’t make us better or worse people, but it does free the mind and shape the individual, who in turn shapes the work. In a way, it saves us from ourselves.