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Jim Aitchison: Melancholia, Meaning and Meaninglessness

26 January 2019

Jim Aitchison is an artist and composer, and has worked with artists and institutions such as Gerhard Richter, Antony Gormley, Tate, RA and the Royal Academy of Music. He has also experienced decades of mental health challenges and many years of psychotherapy of one kind or another...

Jim Aitchison, After Melencolia I, 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper 

It was my wife, who is a therapist, who set about persuading me to acknowledge the specifics of my internal weather as it affected my previous creative work, and to start unfolding and documenting this terrain more explicitly in visual form.


Confrontation 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper

Process Figure, 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper

Two years ago I began to be more unwell than previously and formal creative work became increasingly impossible. Encouraged by my wife, only what I could manage and find immediately to hand was possible. Thus, a sketchpad, oil pastels, whatever was around me, and the café as studio, became the prevailing mode; access and minimum fuss essential. The untying of image from sound, allowed more material to emerge: first, primitive internal ‘creatures’, figures and faces, often cut, scratched and annexed in some way internally, or blurred, insubstantial and deathly.

Older Woman 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper     


Middle Aged Man, 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper

Liberation from words also came. The conventional therapy room experience is one often drenched in verbiage. A pad and drawing materials imposes an immediate moratorium upon the residual word-noise; the empty page offers no assumptions, false hope, or help. You simply have to start. A café minus one’s devices also bypasses the usual pressing interruptions at home. 


Examination, 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper 


Axon Figure, 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper

Composing Art Music is usually a process involving months of intricate semi-administrative labour, requiring several others to realize the finished result, which may or may not work. Getting straight onto paper and achieving something visual in hours has an immediacy that gives far more impact in the here and now. There is also the sense of being able to control something while enjoying vicissitudes of chance in the context of absorbed flow. 


Albrecht Dürer 1514, Melencolia I,, Minneapolis Institute of Art

My visual activities give me accessible spaces to set down concerns and discover new things in the process of making. Albrecht Durer’s famous engraving, Melencolia I, captures trials human beings must navigate: impasse, inertia, failure, and futility in the face of ultimate extinction. It has been enormously helpful to be able to render aspects, particularly the baleful solid: to trace it, feel it, scrape it, and grope ineptly towards its elusive structure freehand, giving it a kind of form within a space that can be held more securely in the mind at a size not overwhelming. Its ambiguity also renders it applicable as a symbol for many unknowables hard to articulate.

 Two Seated Figures and One Standing, 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper


Moving Group, 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper

A version of Melencolia I also transferred out into my feelings towards the wider world of people, and the hidden contradictions and confusing motivations therein. And so came images of folks moving and stationary in outside spaces, with shapes placed around them indicating for me the unsolvable enigma of separation and/or brief inconclusive intersections, all within the context of solitary impermanence. Finding a form for disquiet and yet still uncover beauty and richness in the making yielded a frail layer of hope. This is embodied in conjuring pre-imagined form, and also in making new discoveries on the page. It hits the spot in ways that words cannot, but is never an ‘answer’; perhaps there is some acceptance of the way things are, and how my understanding develops, which is perhaps all one can hope for.

Mourning and Melancholia IX (after Freud), 50 x 60cm, poured ink and oil pastel on paper


Contrapunctus XIV (after Bach), 50 x 60cm, poured ink and oil pastel on paper

Perhaps two issues that obsess me prompted the most recent phase: the ocean of questions that plague me about mental health intervention, and my failure to integrate sound and image convincingly in my work, things that I suspect relate to a trait of being considerably polarized internally. My exploration of these led me to take text from Freud’s famous 1917 essay, Mourning and Melancholia, and similarly, notation from Bach’s unfinished Contrapunctus XIV from the Art of Fugue, and subject each to intense visual distortion. Thus ‘meaning’ in an important text of psychoanalysis and the notation of famously unfinished music were both rendered seemingly ‘meaningless’ and unreadable - though some might feel that the reverse is the case. I also applied the same technique to some of my own correspondence with various people working in mental health and the arts, and to parts of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. I loved the way that the original text or notation completely disappeared into strange landscapes of wholly retinal experience. I am deeply preoccupied with the damage caused when words and actions do not match. The process above models a bearable version of this dissonance in visual form that I find fairly unbearable in life. 


Letter IV, 25 x 25cm, oil pastel on paper


'Iatrogenesis II' (after chapter 7 of the contents page of the Health and Social Care Act, 2012) 42 x 30cm, oil pastel on paper


Currently, I am collaborating with filmmaker John Gray, Berlin-based dancer Fred Gehrig and psychiatrist Professor Rob Poole, creating work exploring the effects of mental adversity on creativity. Having delivered some fairly substantial past projects, it came as a huge shock to discover what happens when dealing with the arts establishment when mental adversity strikes at one’s capacity to coordinate applications. Unfortunately, I don’t think that I am alone in experiencing that ‘mental health awareness weeks’ do not translate into practical help for those thus afflicted. Once again, I found fascinating resonances with translating words into contrary and/or ‘meaningless’ outcomes. This is a point at which the privacy of one’s internal creative domain passes through, first, one’s domestic environs, then the therapeutic world, and then bumps up against the wider world. I suppose my current work traces this strange chain of transformations as it struggles through very different terrains of varying habitability. The difficulty comes in making sure to protect the private internal benefits of making art objects if they come into contact with the external world of culture. 

If there is a suggestion of caution above, I believe there is also hope, and it teaches me to reflect upon the way in which I understand the work in relation to myself and to others. I am also reminded to keep awareness of the space that working visually gives me: the fingers buried in stuff, the resistance of pigment against paper, object contemplating object, form against mind. These frictions create energy for a game that hauls me out of word-labyrinths that have rarely been helpful, and provide a wholly different kind of language for simply being with what is. At the least, making work passes time in a completely absorbed, pleasurable and constructive way, even when struggling with the material. At the most, I uncover images that articulate conditions, situations, relationships, feelings and patterns in ways that I had not conceived of before, and still could probably not adequately explain in words. Without recourse to creating and entering somewhat alternative visual-sounding worlds I would have found myself trapped in a much more constricted, darker place. Instead, through the work, I have managed to create internal archipelagos and make new friends and connections out in the ‘real’ world, which have helped and sustained me and fed back into my endeavors.


Written by Jim Aitchison

This article was first published in Newsbriefing (Winter 2018), a publication for BAAT Members.

 Everyone is welcome to join BAAT as an Associate Member if they are not an Art Therapist here 


Photography by Lucie Averill (

You can see more of Jim's work here:


View Jim Aitchison's music-film, exploring experiences of mental illness in geographical and artistic isolation on youtube below or by clicking here
Find out more about Jim's work here

Everyone is welcome to join BAAT as an Associate Member if they are not an Art Therapist here 
Everyone is welcome to join BAAT as an Associate Member if they are not an Art Therapist here 
Everyone is welcome to join BAAT as an Associate Member if they are not an Art Therapist here 
Everyone is welcome to join BAAT as an Associate Member if they are not an Art Therapist here 
Everyone is welcome to join BAAT as an Associate Member if they are not an Art Therapist here 
Everyone is welcome to join BAAT as an Associate Member if they are not an Art Therapist here