How a mental disorder opened up an invisible world of colour and pattern

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Joseph Milton in Scientific American:

As Wain’s condition worsened, so his pictures of cats became more abstract until, towards the end of his life, they were barely recognisable as cats at all, instead becoming intricately detailed, fractal shapes full of unnaturally (at least for a cat) bright colours. The foreknowledge that they are images of felines allows the viewer to pick up on certain shapes – the pointy triangular ears and some features of the face – but without it, you would be hard-pressed to realise these are cats.

The tale of Wain’s life is a sad one. For a time he was a successful artist, but a series of poor investment decisions left him penniless and he began to develop mental health problems in the early 20th century. He deteriorated quickly, becoming a suspicious and sometimes violent man, prone to incoherent, rambling speech. In 1924 he was incarcerated in the pauper ward at Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, south London, not far from where I live. After intervention by some famous and influential figures, including Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of the day, and H.G. Wells, Wain was transferred to more pleasant surroundings. He ended his days in Napsbury Hospital, north of London, which had a garden and, happily for Wain, a colony of cats. In this environment he was able to resume drawing, and it was here he produced some of his most spectacular work.

More here.

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