Diana Zambrano-Enríquez, M.D.
Suicide is a major public health problem, one of the leading causes of death and one of the first causes of years of life lost. It is a voluntary act that can be carried out by men and women, children and adults, rich and poor, people of every race and religion. For some it is an act of cowardice, for others of valor and courage but in most cases there is an underlying feeling of pessimism, hopelessness, sadness, devaluation and dissatisfaction with life.
By its universal and constant character over time, suicide has appeared in all ages, it has been performed in operas and paintings and it has been the doom of many fictional characters. The aim of this text is to outline the most popular artists who died by suicide and briefly discuss the representation of suicide in art.
Painters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, musicians as Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the actresses Lupe Vélez, Carole Landis, Pier Angeli, Capucine, Marylin Monroe, Lucy Gordon and the actors Heath Ledger and Freddie Prinze decided the end of their lives in different ways and at different stages. In the literary field , we find the world renowned suicides of Socrates, Seneca and Caton. Other famous and more recent suicidal writers are Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima, Alfonsina Stormi and Cesare Pavese among others.
As mentioned above, suicide has been represented in several plays and operas, not only people of flesh and blood kill themselves but also fictional characters. The love-death of Liu in Turandot and Tosca in the opera of the same name are noteworthy, both were composed by Giacomo Puccini. In Hamlet, tragedy written by William Shakespeare, is Ophelia who dies drowning at the sea.
Suicide has also been expressed in different paintings, the following are among the best known: “Cleopatra committing suicide” by Claude Vignon, “Suicide of Lucretia” by Albrecht Durer, “The suicide” by Leonardo Alenza, “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais, “The Suicide” by Edouard Manet, “Suicide of Dorothy Hale” by Frida Kahlo and “Suicide” by Andy Warhol.
Psychiatric disorders are present in 90% of people who commit suicide, most common disorders are mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia and substance abuse. However, these mental disorders are insufficient to explain suicide because not all people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders end up committing suicide. Changes in serotonergic and noradrenergic systems, genetic and family history factors, sociobiology and biological aspects are also involved in the origin of suicidal behavior and could explain the differences between attempters and non-attempters.
Only people who commit suicide exactly know what are the reasons for committing such an act, and those reasons vanish with them. “To be or not to be…that is the question”