Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Van Gogh - The Madness



I'll open this post by indicating that I am not a psychologist, however when I was at the Van Gogh Museum they had a special exhibition on the paintings that he did at the end of his life, and also an exploration of the artist's descent into madness that ultimately ended with him taking his own life. As a couple said as they were exiting the exhibition while we were walking it, that it was quite dark and depressing - something that seems to be at incredibly odds with the work that he produced.

In a sense Van Gogh is not alone when it comes to artists suffering from mental illness, nor is he alone in regards to artists whose lives end rather tragically, or even in suicide. I believe that Virgina Wolfe also took her own life, and she is among one of many. I remember watching a video produced by the Youtube Channel School of Life (which is actually quite interesting) but unfortunately I'm unable to find it again so I won't be able to reproduce it here. However, it opened with the story of an English boy who wanted to be a poet, however his parents disapproved and he ended up killing himself. They they went on to list a number of artists who had also had some rather tragic ends. In a way the film Dead Poet's Society captures this idea brilliantly.

The idea is that the artist in a way has no place in the modern world. Sure, we like colour, and we like images that are pleasing to the eye. There are even artists who were incredibly successful in their life time, such as the numerous anecdotes in relation to Picasso and his doodles and hordes of people looking on hoping that they might be the one to grab themselves a free drawing. However, while there may be a handful of artists who are successful during their life, there are many, many more who aren't, and don't even experience even a small amount of fame. In fact, if it wasn't for the tireless efforts of his sister-in-law, and nephew, Van Gogh might have vanished from this world without us ever being able to experience the beauty of his sunflowers.

From what I gathered, Van Gogh wasn't the type of person that was all that easy to get along with, and this wasn't something at eventuated when he was sharing a house with Gaugin (and I'm sure many of us who have experienced the joys of share housing have also experienced the joys of when that arrangement comes to an abrupt end). The thing is that Van Gogh seemed to be the type of person that had to do things his own way, and was also a bit of a loner. In a sense he seemed to drift from city to city and town to town, never really staying settled for too long. Also, it seemed as if during his lifetime he was never really viewed with all that much admiration - I get the impression many in the artistic community simply saw him as 'that guy'.

Anyway, I'll begin by exploring the last few years of life in the asylum, and at Auvers-sur-Oise, and then explore the exhibition that we visited at the museum. I will then finish off with a few final thoughts. Of course, this won't be the last Van Gogh post either, namely because there is also one from the recent NGV exhibition.

The Asylum

After the unfortunate incident with Gaugan, and his ear, he was hospitalised. The thing is that while we might claim that Van Gogh suffered from depression, mental illness is actually quite a complicated beast, and depression simply does not just exhibit symptoms of 'being sad'. In fact there are incidents where he was not fully aware of his surroundings, and even at one stage he consumed paint, at which point he was restricted to drawing. However, the doctors were happy to allow him to continue to practice is art, and over the period he painted around 150 pieces.

He was actually given quite a bit of freedom in the hospital, and over the time painted scenes not only inside the hospital, but also outside. Some of his most well known works were also produced during this time, including one that happens to be sitting in my storage room waiting for a time that I get around to not only purchasing a frame, but also getting some hooks so I can hang it on the wall somewhere (and I probably should also throw up a couple of Iron Maiden posters, just to keep people on their toes, not that I actually have all that many visitors).

During this time, as well as also producing some drawings (due to the paint eating incident), he also copied prints from the likes of Rembrandt (the Netherland's other great painter). However, during this time Van Gogh's work was actually starting to gain some traction. His brother, always supportive of him, have been submitting his works to the independent exhibitions (he was an art dealer), and some of his works even appeared at an exhibition in Brussels, where one of them was even sold. In fact it was at this exhibition that Monet saw some of his works and commented on how impressed he was with them, though there was also some rather harsh criticism from other quarters. Also during this time his brother had a son, whom he named Vincent. Even though Vincent was an excentric, and a bit of a lone, his brother certainly seemed to think quite highly of him, and was also incredibly supportive.

The End of Days

Vincent was eventually discharged and he travelled north of Auvers-sur-Oise (Auvers on the Oise) so he could be close to his brother, but not have to put up with the frantic pace of a city like Paris. There were also a number of artists setting themselves up here, and some even began to be inspired by his works. It was during this time, thanks to the encouragement of his doctor, Paul Gachet, who was also a artist, to focus on his work. In a sense they believed that this was the key to helping him overcome his illness. During this time he literally produced one work of art a day, which basically meant that his output was extraordinary.

However things were going to take a turn for the worse. Due to his condition, Van Gogh needed certainty, however his brother was feeling somewhat restricted in being an employee and wanted to strike out on his own by setting up his own dealership. However, the problem was that money was going to be a little tight until he managed to actually gain some traction in the industry. Since Theo was an experienced art dealer, this no doubt was going to eventuate, however he had to cut back on some of his expenditures, with starting up a new business with a young family and all that. This meant that he wasn't in the position to continue to support Vincent.

This was the proverbial straw that broke the straw that broke the camel's back, but as I have mentioned, uncertainly is the bane of somebody that suffers from mental illness. With the belief that he had been cut adrift and had to now look after himself was too much for Vincent. This is actually quite sad because it was at this time that his work had started to gain some traction (and is probably why his sister in law was so successful in creating the artist that he has become). However, for somebody suffering from depression, the uncertainty was too much, and get went outside and shot himself.

The Edge of Madness

Mental illness is a beast that can be very difficult to understand and a part of me feels that professional psychologists and psychiatrists still have very little understanding of what actually is going on. Sure, there is some belief that it arises from some form of chemical imbalance in the brain, but that is not always the case. In another way it could simply be personality, in the end we really don't know and professionals work by developing strategies to assist people in being able to cope with these problems and to try and live a normal life. Van Gogh even spoke of his illness by suggesting that whereas physical injuries can heal, he saw no end point, or cure, to his mental illnesses.


There are probably lots of theories as to what he was suffering from - we can really only go by anecdotal evidence, though even in our modern society we simply cannot easily categorise such problems - sometimes depression and anxiety go hand in hand, other times they don't. Just because somebody suffers from anxiety doesn't necessarily mean they will suffer from depression.  Then there are other conditions - sure, people might have a fear of heights, but what about a fear of open spaces, closed spaces, or even other people. In these instances a perfectly healthy and normal person may suddenly exhibit uncharacteristic behaviours when put in certain situations.

It has been suggested that the condition came about when he was in Arles, and it was when his relationship with Gaugun began to deteriorate that things really started to get bad. Van Gogh remained in Arles for a little while after Gaugun left, but the locals became ever more concerned about him, and their own welfare. Not only was it said that he cut off his own ear, but he would also go outside brandishing a knife.
As we have discussed, he ended up at the Hospital in Arles where he was diagnosed by Dr Felix Rey as having a form of epilepsy that had been brought on by consuming too much coffee and alcohol (though this diagnosis wasn't official). However, it became clear that Vincent was no longer welcome in Arles, especially when the locals signed a petition. The doctor agreed and believed that it would be best for him to go into an institution, particularly since the breakdowns became ever more frequent, and every breakdown required more hospitalisation.

The period in the asylum did him good and he was eventually allowed to go outside, however it wasn't long because he would have further breakdowns. Moreso the asylum really began to get to him, and he eventually discharged himself and moved back closer to Paris. The problem was that with the knowledge of these breakdowns meant that Vincent became ever more depressed, and eventually took his own life.

Unlucky in Love

In a sense Van Gogh was a lot like me, especially when it came to women. Well, maybe not, but the thing was that he never married, and he never seemed to really have a huge amount of success when it came to the fairer sex. He was raised in a middle class household which meant that he was taught that there were two types of women - the respectable ones and the rest. The thing is that artists seem to be attracted to those who fall into the category of 'the rest'. Well, not quite, if you consider some of Monet's works, but then other artists, such as Degas, were well known for painting prostitutes.

I mentioned in the previous post how he met a woman when he was in The Hague - Sien - who was a prostitute and was pregnant. He moved in with her and it seemed that maybe things would work out for the better. The problem was that his family didn't particularly appreciate him mixing with such people and the relationship eventually broke off. However Vincent liked the idea of painting prostitutes, not just because of the urban feel about them, but also because they were real people. Mind you, back then it was quite acceptable for men to visit brothels since it was seen as promoting sexual health.



The other thing was that middle class women simply were not interested in him painting their portraits, where as prostitutes (usually for a fee) were more than happy to do so. However there was one catch - they didn't want to be painting in the nude. There was also the problem of a woman falling pregnant back in Holland, and the gossip was that Vincent was responsible. However it was later proven not the be the case, but the local parish Priest eventually convinced the locals to have nothing to do with Vincent.

He did have a brief affair with one of his neighbours back home, but being ten years his senior, and the fact that her sisters really didn't like Vincent, meant that the relationship ended (and almost quite tragically as well). However, things changed somewhat when he moved to Antwerp, and then to Paris. Here one of his friends introduced him to the nightlife, whether it be the cafes or the brothels. He met an Italian cafe owner who was said to have given him free meals in exchange for paintings. However it eventually became too much and Vincent eventually concluded that he was destined to live his life as a bachelor.




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Van Gogh - The Madness by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

1 comment:

  1. I get the impression that Gauguin was a terrible roommate too. I can't imagine how they kept it together for so long.

    I love Van Gogh's works (probably my list of favorites would start out Van Gogh, Cezanne, Rembrandt, Durer, Delacroix, more or less). The tragedy of his illness and death is really sad. One wonders if we could do better today or not. I have a sinking feeling that he may well have died homeless here in the US.

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