Art as therapy: how to save your soul with a masterpiece

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong recommend great artworks to soothe six troubled Londoners

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Freud Museum © Robert Huffstutter on Flickr

‘Art as Therapy’, a new book by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, claims that art can change your life. We set its authors questions from Londoners suffering the stress of city living, and, agony uncle-style, they suggested the works that would make it all better.

Dear Alain and John,

I'm stressed, busy, overworked. In fact I haven’t even got time to write this. Sort me out, please. Manic, Bermondsey

Piet Mondrian ‘Composition B (No II) with Red’ (1935)

‘The problem isn’t having a lot to do, or feeling busy: these can be very satisfying. And your note does not suggest that the things you have to do are worthless. The problem is that you panic when faced with multiple demands. To calm down you need to contemplate objects which are simple yet beautiful – like this painting by Mondrian. You need balance. There probably is enough time to do everything you have to, if only you can find the right attitude. Your goal should not be to have nothing to do, but to create harmony among all the things you are engaged in.’

  1. See it at: Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG
More info

Dear Alain and John,

Modern life is boring. I’m surrounded by computers, books, paintings, bars – I couldn’t ask for more stimulus. But I’m not interested in any of it. Je m’ennuie. I doubt art can help, but feel free to have a pop. Jaded, Wembley

James McNeill Whistler Nocturne in Blue and Green (1871)

‘Being bored is interesting. You feel something, but don’t quite know what it is: a sense of the futility of life, of the sorrows of the world. The distractions that are called stimulation leave you cold. James McNeill Whistler knew about these emotions. He doesn’t repudiate them. He acknowledges their importance. We pretend that because a feeling is painful it cannot be worth attending to. But Whistler suggests the opposite – that a feeling of quiet sadness about the human condition might be the start of wisdom.’

  1. See it at: Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG
More info

Dear Alain and John,

The woman who lives across the street from me is beautiful. I can see straight into her flat (I don’t think that’s creepy), and I can tell that her boyfriend doesn’t treat her right. I need to win her affections, steal her away. Can you help me? Concerned, Camberwell

Augustus Egg ‘Past and Present No 1 – Misfortune’ (1858)

‘Help you do what? You don’t know the woman. And you are guessing about her relationship. Maybe she treats her boyfriend badly and you don’t witness that. Take Augustus Egg’s picture. We might imagine the man is treating the woman badly – she’s on the floor crying, while he looks calm and severe. But actually he’s the injured party – she’s been off with someone else. Maybe you should get to know the boyfriend.’

  1. See it at: Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG
More info

Dear Alain and John,

I suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It’s having a bad impact on my life. If all I did was party or go to the pub, it would be fine. But I work full time, I get no sleep, I’m constantly hungover – it’s exhausting. How can I confront this? Overstimulated, Soho

Meredith Frampton ‘Marguerite Kelsey’ (1928) 

‘You need art. The thing you are missing is not at the pub or the party, but in yourself. To confront your fears, imagine what it is like to be her –what might the nicest version of her be? She considers what she really wants; she doesn’t give her friendship away cheaply; she’s strong enough to feel a bit sad and lonely. She is a kind of saint – reminding us of the importance of the ability to be alone.’

  1. See it at: Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG
More info

Dear Alain and John,

I was recently made redundant, but I’m simply too lazy to get a job. Applying is boring and pointless. I’d much rather eat Crunchy Nut Cornflakes in my jammies and watch ‘Loose Women’. Is there anything that can motivate me? Dejected, Archway

Wells Coates (architect) Isokon Building (1933-34) 


‘You think that contentment can be found by running away from your life? You need something to remind you of the appeal of honest labour, domestic order and well-directed effort. At the moment your life is loose and soggy. You have acquired a false picture of happiness as indolence. You need to burn into your brain a more accurate picture of what a good life looks like. You are not really lazy, you are unsure about what you really want. This building is a reminder of what your life should be like: simple, organised, clear. Switch off the television.’

  1. See it at: Lawn Road, Hampstead

Dear Alain and John,

People say it’s hard meeting an eligible partner in London, but with Tinder/OkCupid/Guardian Soulmates etc, I’m absolutely spoiled for choice. How am I ever meant to choose between all these delicious bits of totty? Indecisive, Camden

Caspar Netscher ‘The Lace Maker’ (1662) 

‘It’s difficult for you to choose because you don’t know what you’re looking for. You’re drawn to good looks and people who are fun. If you want a stable, long-lasting relationship (otherwise, why choose?) you need to get sensitive to less obvious good qualities in people. Part of what’s nice about the girl in ‘The Lace Maker’ is that she doesn’t realise she’s attractive – and she harbours doubts about her broad-boned forearms. She takes her time: life is damaged by impatience. Her straightforwardness can make her feel the strained artifice of life, rendering her at times awkward, and almost gawky in situations where less sensitive types would simply stride on. Her mind is detailed and precise. She’s what you need. But she might find you a bit skittish.’

  1. See it at: Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, W1U 3BN
More info

Have we helped? Buy 'Art as Therapy' from Amazon for more suggestions

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