In a letter to his brother Theodore in 1889, Van Gogh wrote: “I fight this insomnia by a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and mattress, and if ever you can’t sleep, I recommend this to you.” Camphor is a waxy substance extracted from the bark of the Cinnamomum camphora tree; if ingested, it can have fatal consequences.
Like her artistic predecessors, Louise Bourgeois also endured insomnia for most of her life. She made her “Insomnia Drawing” series between November 1994 and June 1995 during a particularly bad bout of anxiety. Like Van Gogh, her wakefulness led to astonishing productivity. In total, she created 220 drawings, all of which invite the viewer into her solitary, nocturnal universe, precariously suspended between sleep and surreal consciousness.
The unsettling and sometimes humorous art of Tracey Emin—another famous insomniac—pays homage to Bourgeois. Emin has described insomnia as “crippling” or “soul-destroying,” akin to an unwelcome guest who overstays their welcome. Her 2019 exhibition “A Fortnight of Tears
” at White Cube
in London documented her sleep struggles. It featured many of her photographic self-portraits taken during the midst of her lonely wakefulness.
Whether or not creativity is really enhanced by lack of sleep is still being studied. However, it is clear that for centuries, artists have been committing their mesmerizing nocturnal thoughts, illogical musings, or flashes of creative genius to canvas.