La Perruche et la Sirene by Henri Matisse 1952

Disability History Month 2017

To mark Disability History Month this year we’re looking at famous disabled artists who used their art to express What I Need To Say

Michelangelo

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”

Five years before his death Michelangelo was diagnosed with kidney stones. As a result, art historians have often focused on that and the possible repetition of kidney shaped designs in his work.

However, more recently, the debate has been around whether he also had gout or arthritis and if his work as a painter and sculptor exacerbated or eased his condition.  Portraits of the artist especially those showing his hands have been pored over to determine which condition he had. Michelangelo also included himself as an old man in several of his later works which has provided additional evidence for this debate.

Pietà bandini by Michaelangelo
Pietà bandini by Michaelangelo

Francisco Goya

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters.”

Goya is often referred to as the last of the old masters and the first of the moderns. In 1793 he developed a severe but unidentified illness which left him deaf. After this, his work  – which had been characterised by portraits of society figures and tapestry designs – began to reflect a darker more pessimistic outlook. His portraits  came close to caricatures reflecting what Goya really saw rather than how his subjects might want to see themselves.

For a period towards the end of his life he lived an almost hermit-like existence in a farmhouse outside Madrid where he produced the famous Black Paintings – dark, sometimes gruesome murals painted in oils directly on the walls.

Francisco de Goya - Tio Paquete (oil on canvas, c.1820)
Francisco de Goya – Tio Paquete (oil on canvas, c.1820)

Frida Kahlo

“Feet, what do I need them for
If I have wings to fly.”

Frida Kahlo is probably best known as a feminist icon, but did you know she was also a disabled person? Kahlo was born with spina bifida, and after contracting Polio as a child was left with her right leg being thinner than her left. Following a severe car accident, Kahlo began painting self-portraits which depicted her impairments in a fearless way.

Frida Kahlo's 1939 oil painting “The Two Fridas.”
Frida Kahlo’s 1939 oil painting “The Two Fridas.”

Paul Klee

“A line is a dot that went for a walk.”

Klee was a German artist active during the first half of the twentieth century. As a child he had been a musical prodigy but as an adult his focused on his art. His theories and writing on the theory of colour were very influential and he taught with Kandinsky at the Bauhaus School of art.  His own work reflected a dry sense of humour as well as a sometimes childlike perspective.

One of his most productive periods was during the early 1930s but at the same time he was persecuted by the Nazis and forced to leave German. It was also during this time that he started to show the symptoms of scleroderma. It limited his output for a time until he modified his painting style to create more bold designs with his alternating moods making the paintings lighter or darker.

Klee’s scleroderma was only diagnosed ten years after his death in 1940 but World Scleroderma day is now on June 29, the date of his death.

Paul Klee Halme 1938
Paul Klee Halme 1938

Henri Matisse

“I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime, which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me….”

Henri Matisse was one of the most innovative painters of the twentieth century. In 1941 he almost died from cancer, and after three months in recovery he became a wheelchair user. Matisse credits this period of his life with reenergizing him, even referring to the last 14 years of his life as “une seconde vie,” or his second life.

He adapted his artistic methods to suit life in a wheelchair, making artwork out of coloured paper shapes. You may have seen this work in the exhibition The Cut-Outs which was featured in the Tate Modern in 2014.

La Perruche et la Sirene by Henri Matisse 1952
La Perruche et la Sirene by Henri Matisse 1952

Yinka Shonibare, MBE

“Your head goes crazy if you pursue what ifs.”

Yinka Shonibare is a British conceptual artist with Transverse Myelitis, which paralyses one side of his body. Shonibare uses assistants to make work under his direction, and is famed for exploring cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalisation.

In 2004 he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for his Double Dutch exhibition, and was awarded an MBE in the same year.

Nelson's Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare
Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare

Stephen Wiltshire

“Do the best you can and never stop.”

Wiltshire is an autistic savant and world renowned architectural artist. He learned to speak at nine, and by the age of ten began drawing detailed sketches of London landmarks. Recently, Wilshire created an eighteen foot wide panoramic landscape of the skyline of New York City, after only viewing it once during a twenty minute helicopter ride. The Stephen Wiltshire gallery can be found in Pall Mall, London.

Venice by Stephen Wiltshire MBE
Venice by Stephen Wiltshire MBE

Learn more about our What I need to Say campaign 

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