Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The perfection of illness

Zohaib Ahmad
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States


It is often but little appreciated that the creative and the consummate can be conceived in the throes of disease. The process of being ill can change people, not only through the mental stress, but also through the neurological changes inherent in neurodegenerative diseases such as in Alzheimer’s disease, where it has been seen that some artists become more creative. Though it may be said that the technical qualities of the artists may have deteriorated, the directions of the works of art by such patients can be extraordinary.

An example of such a change can be seen in Carolus Horn, an artist who was known for his advertisements for such products created by Opel, Esso, and Coca-Cola. Before his disease was diagnosed, Horn’s paintings were very geometrical and symmetric, adhering to the precise formulas of perspective and being detailed representations of the real world. During the process of his disease, his paintings changed. Perspective was lost, while his paintings were emboldened with ornamental pieces. Small geometric shapes populated the paintings. The humans Horn drew become rigid, with little distinction in gender or age. Also, Horn painted by memory the Russian icons he collected in the past. Later on, the paintings devolved into one shape with one color (Maurer and Prvulovic 2003).

Although in a different way, the paintings still had artistic qualities to them. Beautiful works of art can still be made by those who suffer disease. The abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and had a similar trajectory, his paintings becoming softer, his colors delicate, the painter himself painting more and more (Espinel 1996). It is as if the simplicity and the creative merge to form paintings that are loved throughout the world.

Especially interesting was each artist’s urge to create. This can be seen especially in de Kooning’s works. Before his illness, he was slow to finish his works; afterwards, he finished paintings quickly, some in only a few weeks. In fact, all these paintings helped usher in the style of contemporary art, borrowing techniques of masters such as Picasso and Matisse. An aspect of these paintings lies in how they treated de Kooning’s condition. The shapes and colors he painted sparked life, the most wondrous thing of all. As de Kooning said, “I paint to live” (Espinel 1996).

Vincent Van Gogh was thought to be troubled, possibly suffering some psychological disorder, yet his use of color is innovative. Without his problems, the world would have been deprived of the beauty and the understanding of the nature around us that came with it. All of these artists contributed to our culture by providing us with masterpieces of artwork, sometimes at the price of their well being.

The critical point is that beauty has the ability to appear in any form. Beauty can also arise from the hard moments of life such as disease, the attempts to overcome that disease, the struggle back down and anywhere that could lead. It is in struggle and how we react to struggle that individualizes us, allowing for the originality and ingenuity that hangs art in museums.

Anything can conceive art. It could be the struggle that occurs through the losses inflicted by Alzheimer’s disease or the wrangle with sanity in bipolar disorder. It could be hardships and life, the definition of a world that is not quite perfect. The disease should not define the art; rather, the art should take on its own meaning. Imperfection, such as illness, changes people, and although we have a duty to cure illness, we should also appreciate that some good can come from the hardships of disease.



Espinel, Carlos Hugo. “de Kooning’s late colours and forms: dementia, creativity, and the healing power of art.” The Lancet, 347 (1996): 1096-1098.

Maurer, K and Prvulovic, D. “Painting’s of an artist with Alzheimer’s disease: visuoconstructional deficits during dementia.” J Neural Transm. 111 (2003): 235-245.



ZOHAIB AHMAD is a medical student  in the Drexel University College of Medicine class of 2015. He completed his undergraduate education at Drexel University with a BS in Biology. He is also a coordinator for the Jump into Reading program, a group that reads to children, at the Eliza Shirley House shelter.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 2
Spring 2013   |  Sections  |  Art Essays