Can art help to forgive and forget?

People who hold grudges resemble ships carrying tons of toxic waste in their hold, with port after port rejecting them entry and unloading. They’re rusty, lonely, and ecologically dangerous.

I’ve met people who believed “art could help”. Yes and No. Art can’t help to forget a grievance; all it can do is assist with the unloading. Artists, being notoriously easy to offend, have learned to use this art magic, metaphorically similar to Dumbledore’s Memory Pensieve. 

So, when you look at an art object and mutter, “what a freaking pervert!”, chances are you look at one of the artist’s grudges.

Lars von Trier had been feeling gloomy and made the Melancholy movie to get rid of his depression. He admitted it got him cured. Critics are still debating the flick’s artistic value.

Artemisia Gentileschi (raped by her father’s friend) dedicated her art to the celebration of revenge. She is the most famous female artist of the Renaissance, and it is a pity she’s got most of her fame for being very convincing about cutting men’s heads off.

Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620, oil on canvas, the Uffizi, Florence, Italy)
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620)

Were it not for her naturalistic penchant, she might have been lost in the obscure army of Caravaggio’s followers. Grudge helped her to stay in history.

Salvador Dali‘s beloved sister and model for most of his early paintings made a grudge deposit in her brother’s bank of memories when she published a book about him, a memoir that Salvador didn’t like a bit.

So, his beloved sister from this famous painting of 1925…


…got reinterpreted in 1954 into “Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity”:


I mean, what a freak he was, really. But had he not painted his grudge, he might kill his sister. So, freak or no freak, art can help neurotic characters stay away from prison.

So, art can transform a depression of one into that of millions, a rape into fame, and prevent a murder, among other things, of course. 

Isn’t it magic? It is, of the black variety mostly.

Or not?



  1. Art is stripping the surface of a physical world and rearrange in certain context where soul, truth all must communicate. It is also turning your bad emotions where art has to follow certain requirements different from real or imagined fears anger,-bad emotions. It is energy and with art it is transformed. Art of a genius shall make it shine through. Dali suffered from schizophrenic paranoia( result of childhood trauma He was named after his dead sibling etc.,) for which he found art helpful.

    1. Thus, art is helping. I like the way you put it, “art transforming [negative] energy” into something different. Thank you for the comment and insight!

  2. Thank you for this post! I have to admit I hadn’t even thought about historical works in this manner, so this was a real eye opener.
    Really interesting, especially since nowadays having this sort of fairly obvious therapy-side to your work is considered something negative (as in the von Trier example), something that shouldn’t be done – or at least shouldn’t be shown to other people… Maybe it has been too prevalent at some point? Maybe the artists who came after the World Wars were tired of people airing out their trauma in their works?

    …such a fascinating topic…
    Do you know if there is a book on this topic, or more info? I’d be curious to know more examples, especially older artists.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment that adds a few important points! Airing out a trauma can be a good thing if it stirs observers’ thinking in a way that would prevent a similar trauma happening in future, I believe. In the majority of cases, though, that’s not the case, but a straightforward venting-out that can cause more trauma, if exposed to the outside world.

      I’ve never heard of a book on this topic, but examples are everywhere, I guess. The most famous today is, perhaps, Picasso’s Guernica.

      1. I would like to believe that pieces like Guernica have helped us to collectively feel that war is something horrible… But it’s hard to say for sure, that change of opinion might have been brought on simply by how war has changed itself.

        There are positive ways to do therapy pieces, though – for example the empowering photography technique ( It results in beautiful pictures, but it has still been found to help the photographed work through or at least communicate their life trauma.

  3. I like the point made with Dali’s paintings, thumbs up 🙂 And, speaking purely from my personal experience, art won’t cure insomnia, but it does help me survive those long nights when I couldn’t sleep.

    1. Thank you for saying this. This is just one more confirmation that the process of “unloading” may be as important for the artist, as the fact of having “unloaded” a grudge )

  4. I have to admit that my own work tends to come out of deep thoughts. And when you create something that seems brilliant to you its often imbued with a personal resonance. Im sure that i can recall a few artists who has put such horrible notions into their work that they themselves where not happy to view the images. And im sure few can dimiss the horrors used by Goya in his etchings.

    1. The big question is, does venting out a grievance help to the artist him/herself to feel better personally? Like, unloaded, no toxic feelings any more. I am sure Goya didn’t feel any better, especially later, when he was just paining his madness… Do you feel better when/if you happen to draw something that’s been bothering you on the personal level? Thank you for your comment!

  5. Absolutely dead on! You would think art therapy would be a bigger money industry! Yet the best art transcends somehow. Bad art can be good therapy but sometimes revenge inspired art turns out to be good art too.

    Somehow this post made me think of Dorian Gray’s portrait – the art became uglier as his soul itself grew more and more stained – Don’t know if there’s a metaphor (analogy? whatever!) there… I also thought of the film The Red Violin (have you seen it?). The luthier stains the violin with an amazing stain that gives the violin a resonance that’s so out of this world the violin becomes almost an mythical one (the stain contains the blood of his young wife, who’s just died in childbirth, btw). It gets back to that whole thing about great art growing out of great pain, doesn’t it? Anyway!

    Gentileschi is a great example of an artist “inspired” by a desire for revenge, but there are probably innumerable others. Most satire grows out of a “Wanta GET them!” feeling, doesn’t it? In fact I recently heard a great documentary about Machiavelli (“The Prince” was a satire about the regime under which he himself was downtrodden apparently).

    Anyway! Great post. Lots of food for thought!

    1. I’ve not seen the Red Violin – somehow, I tend to shun dark fairytales. I know that magic always comes at a heavy price ) I am not sure I can relate to the Price as satire – I know some of the more intellectual readers find satiric parallels in it with Machiavelli’s other works, but I am sure he was just trying to get back to politics from his exile…Does pouring the pain help artists to feel better, regardless of the greatness of their work, that’s the question I am curious to answer. Dali never forgave his sister. Gentileschi never forgave her tormentor. But were they feeling any better? — that’s a great comment you wrote – thank you. And I will try to get the movie!

  6. Hey, what’s going on there – Apocalypse yesterday, depression today? Maybe it is time to travel to a bluer skies. On a serious note – in my humble experience, art is a great way to vent your frustration. Also if you pour your frustration into art, you usually do not give a damn about the result, and this is when you get the most spontaneous, candid and powerful work. Not pretty though… Here is a piece which I painted in a moment of great, unrecognized frustration (i.e. thinking I am OK when I wasn’t at all). I did not intend a painting like this at all, it just happened:

    1. Art is a great vehicle to vent out a lot of things ) Did it help you to get rid of insomnia? ) I remember having seen an installation called insomnia. I’ll try to find the pic.

      1. I wish! My insomnia is the result of 20+ years of stressful professional life, but the painting helped dealing with the particular crap I was going through at the time. There is a lot of art on insomnia – not surprisingly…

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