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Health, Sports & Psychology
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Artist insight: Yvonne Mabs Francis

Updated Wednesday 12th May 2010

Yvonne Mabs Francis talks about her experiences with mental health and how they influenced her paintings.

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My name is Yvonne Mabs Francis. I’m an artist by training. I went to the Slade in the Sixties and I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to paint for the last thirty years more or less full time. In the summer of 1969 my father died and I immediately felt ill. The first thing was sleeplessness, and this went on for a period of about three weeks, and I had obsessive thoughts that later became delusional, the delusional of the painting Liar I experienced at this time. I thought that these thoughts had made my brain protrude like horns from the top of my head. I would ask people whether they were there and I didn’t believe them, I would look in the mirror and I still didn’t believe them. I would even put my hands above my head and I still was convinced I had horns on my head.

Within about another two weeks I’d submitted myself to the Warneford Mental Hospital, Oxford. On entering it I was asked whether or not I was likely to commit suicide. I wasn’t likely to commit suicide, I’d felt quite a successful person, I felt there was everything to live for, I was simply terrified by the fact of what I’d gone through and having brains outside your head is, you must admit, pretty terrifying. I knew I was suffering something mentally so I’d gone there thinking that they would talk me through it, but none of them ever tried it at all. And I’m pretty certain that it would have worked because I remember at one stage a sister saying to me that the pieces that were sort of jangling about in my head, they would go away and in time I would feel better. And I remember just for a short moment lifting up my head and all these pieces that were in my head went to the back of my head and I felt defiant and I felt less afraid.

This just happened for a moment so I really felt totally convinced that if the doctors talked you through it, in the same way they may talk to you today about having a heart attack or any other physical illness, this would have relieved me to some extent. I appreciated it was something I had to live through but it would have helped. Mental illness is like a wall. You are behind your wall, you’re fairly logical behind your wall actually, and what you say isn’t always very easy for other people to understand, your language is, in other words, slightly disjointed or confused.

After four weeks when I was hospitalised I went up into a locked ward for more severe cases. They tried deep sleep treatment which really didn’t work because obviously you are partly conscious, and it made it even worse because the power of your body ceased with the medication that they’d given you so you couldn’t in any way sort of express your distress. What did help me, however, although I do feel at that time I was just beginning to turn the corner, was electric shock treatment. The Warneford, for all my criticism, were actually very good at electric shock treatment. Don’t ever be taken in by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it really is wrong. And they did it in such a way that you hardly knew what was happening and you felt an awful lot better afterwards. It may only be temporary but you just hold onto the better times. After about three to four weeks of this treatment I managed to be well enough to leave hospital and I’m afraid I never returned there, I never returned to my outpatients appointments because I’d simply been too horrified. In fact I’ve never walked up the driveway in all the years since then.

I painted these series of pictures at least 35 years after my experience. I did it because they would make good images but I did it also – but this was secondary – I wanted to lay to rest this silence that I felt I had over this, and these issues that I had over my treatment up there at Warneford, and to try to put over exactly what mental health delusions are. Many people talk about them, they analyse them, they work out that it’s this and that but nobody actually says exactly what it is that they’re suffering. And this is what I was very, very keen to do because I felt that that would help people, that that would have helped me when I was suffering if somebody had done this to me, and I’d hoped it would help people in the future. And in fact one comment in a book when I showed them at a gallery was that they’d had a father suffering mental health problems and they’d never up until that point realised what they were suffering. So in that way it was done to not only help people that were suffering but to help people around them to see exactly what they may be suffering.

A lot of people have asked me whether these paintings were a cathartic experience for me. Well they were not, they were done in a really cold calculating way. I was out on a mission for mental health and I was out to produce good images, and it didn’t affect me in the slightest looking back and thinking about these experiences. My paintings do have great meaning for me in my life. I don’t think I’d want to be without working. I have, as I said, I do suffer depression, not to an unmanageable extent but it does certainly help my depression, and it also gives my life great meaning. This is the problem, you know, with sort of a lack of religion is finding meaning, and for me my meaning is my work and that is a huge sort of coping mechanism.

Artwork

Liar

Liar by Yvonne Mabs Francis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis
Liar by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

The painting Liar is mentioned in the main interview with the artist. Here's what Yvonne says about the painting.

'Mirror, mirror on the wall who's the liar of us all?'

This painting shows a figure looking into a mirror but she refuses to accept that the horns on her head are only imagined. The mirror tells the truth but the figure is so convinced of their existence that she believes the mirror is lying.

Thirty five years ago just before I entered the Warneford Mental Hospital I believed that my brains had grown like reindeer horns outside my head. I looked in the mirror, constantly asked people if they existed and even felt the space above my head to attempt to examine these horns. None of these actions convinced me they were imaginary. I believed I had brains like this on my head and absolutely nothing would convince me otherwise.

Breakdown

Breakdown by Yvonne Mabs Francis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis
Breakdown by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

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Breakdown was based on something that I thought I’d read and that was if you lie the doctors see through you. Well I was absolutely desperate for this truth so I painted this picture. The figure is open and you’re actually seeing through the body. So I suppose in a way I was lying. In the background I have various stages little figures that generally sort of represent things in my life, things that I’ve used, images that I’ve used, and it ends actually with a pair of renaissance angels, which I’m always hopeful to be optimistic. I was also interested in contradictions so the lamp for instance shows a landscape. The figures inside the bubble is something to do with living rather narrowly and contained.

The Madness of Medication

The Madness of Medication by Yvonne Mabs Francis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis, used with permission
The Madness of Medication
by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

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The Madness of Medication, this was about when I ran out of the hospital when I was in an unlocked ward, of course, and somebody was running after me. Because I was so self-conscious of all the drugs that I’d taken I thought my father was a silhouette surrounded by drugs, as is seen in the picture, and what was following me was a nurse who thankfully wrestled me to the ground and took me back to the ward.

 

Artwork (continued)

The Bodily Time Machine

The Bodily Time Machine by Yvonne Mabs Francis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis
The Bodily Time Machine
by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

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The Bodily Time Machine is the one that probably attracts me the most. This was about a delusion I had where I go back, think I’m a teenager, then a child, then a baby in a womb. And then I went back before I was born, and that part was extremely terrifying, I thought I was dead, and in order to not die I entered the body of my father. I thought I became my father just in case the union between my mother and father failed I was, at least part of me was still alive. And what was interesting about this delusion was how much I’d hung onto life. I’d hung onto it so much that I was prepared to be half a person, if necessary. That’s why the statement ‘Do you want to commit suicide?’ when I first entered the hospital is simply not appropriate. And what interested me about this picture was that you met death not by time going forward but by time going backwards and hence the clock and the skull at the bottom of the painting.

Stages of Hospitalisation

The Stages of Hospitalisation by Yvonne Mabs Francis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis, used with permission
Stages of Hospitalisation
by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

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The Stages of Hospitalisation was a delusion I had when I was sitting in a room and there was a passageway outside, the door was open, and I thought I could see three lockers in the passageway. Each locker represented a stage of my hospitalisation. In one locker I was a very tall person, and in the second locker I was a very small person, and I’d tried to grow but I had what appeared like a toffee apple head where my growth had been stunted. But much to my horror, and what was the horrible part of this delusion was that the third part wasn’t in a locker, I was a head. I was just a severed head and I had long hair and the hair caught underneath the severing of the neck and it made a squeaking noise which I can still hear today.

Third Month

Third month by Yvonne Mabs Francis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis, used with permission
Third Month
by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

Here's what Yvonne says about the painting.

This painting is a following on from the Stages of Hospitalisation, where I had divided time spent in hospital by three, all in four week stages. In the third month I believed I had become a severed head: a realisation I made while sitting in a side room as the left hand figure sits in the painting.

So I had entered the third month. To my horror my third month was not in a locker but I had become a severed head which swung from side to side in order to waddle down the passageway. My long hair caught under the bleeding severed neck and mixing with the blood, was pounded against the hard corridor floor and made a squeaking noise which set my teeth on edge, a sound I remember to this day.

A stream of blood runs across the sea to the suggestion of Arnold Bicklin's, ‘Isle of the Dead’, a Symbolist's picture where death is shown as part of life’s experiences. The stylised fish and the bottle-shaped fish, float in a cage on top of the water, while the bird, unappreciative of it’s freedom, hovers demanding to be in their places.

 

Artwork (continued)

The Electric Bed

The Electric Bed by Yvonne Mabs Francis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis, used with permission
The Electric Bed by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

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The Electric Bed was from the time that I was put into a small room, and as I said I was locked in it, and it also appears in Double Deaths. But what they had outside the room was a sort of box, a sort of electrical-type box. I used to look at it at night because I believed it was connected to my bed and I would die at midnight, precisely midnight. I was totally convinced that I would die of electrocution and I used to lie, wake in the morning and my body was simply lying straight, which would have been a good sort of bodily position for electrocution. The date on the meter is approximately around the time when I was suffering. It shows the 9th August, it is my birthday, but that was around the time that I was suffering, I put that up.

Double Deaths

Double Deaths by Yvonne Mabs Francis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis
Double Deaths
by Yvonne Mabs Francis
[Image copyright: Yvonne Mabs Francis]

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Double Deaths is a quite a complicated picture and it’s based on a renaissance painting by Uccello. It shows a Jewish pawnbroker and a Christian woman who redeems a cloak with consecrated bread. The Jewish pawnbroker burns the bread in the fireplace and blood flows from the fireplace, and which is seen in here. This relates to the fact that I was put into a room, I was locked in. I simply banged on the door to be let out in absolute total fear. And what I thought was happening behind the door was that the nurses were pulling up a coffin in which I would fall into. I also believe that my mother was there, my mother was still alive, and I thought a doctor would come in and inject her at the same time I fell into the coffin.

The reason why I used Uccello was the form that it made, the small room with the large opening here which is shown in the original painting. I was also interested in the belief that there was blood running from the bread. I’m afraid I’m a complete believer in Richard Dawkins so this is just not to me believable. And what I want to suggest that may be very unpopular with some people but religious beliefs have a relationship with delusions.

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