VanGogh: Looking at Mental Illness through the Works of a Master.

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” VanGogh

It is better to be high-spirited even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. ” VanGogh

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I’ve always admired the works of VanGogh.  And perhaps because of my fascination with mental health (and society’s aversion to discussing it), I must admit that I looked forward to learning more of this great artist’s highly speculated background at the museum exhibit that MacGyver and I attended a couple of weeks ago.

Our museum headphones were our guide as we carefully threaded our way through the crowds and learned about this fascinating, yet troubled, artist.

A pastor’s son from Holland, Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was 27 years old.  This was after stints as a book store clerk, an art salesman and even a preacher. He died at 37.   He sold one painting while he was alive.

After being dismissed for being overzealous as a preacher, VanGogh set out on a quest, seeking the meaning of life while painting as a way to merge his spirituality with his love for nature, art and literature. Much of what is known about him is from thoughtful letters to his brother throughout the years.

During his ten short years of his painting, he spent time in Belgium, Paris, Southern France and then in northwestern suburbs of Paris. He largely taught himself to paint through art instruction books and observing the techniques of other artists.  During each of these phases, his art took on the characteristics of what he was learning and experiencing as he battled bouts of mental illness.

My favorite paintings are from the time before his death in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, when his intense emotions gave way to his use of vivid colors and dramatic brushstrokes, and he painted nearly a painting a day for 70 days before his death.  His letters explained in revealing detail how these paintings explained the loneliness he felt and the comfort which the countryside provided for him.

Before that in Southern France (where he committed himself to a mental facility after an intense altercation with Gaughin, a leading French Post-Impressionist artist who he looked up to) and then during his final days, VanGogh painted dozens of wheat fields, which are some of my favorite VanGogh paintings.  He was drawn to them because of his spiritual connection to nature and because he saw the fields as metaphors for humanity’s cycles of life through growth and vulnerability.

I’ve tried to mimic his work in my painting shown here which resembles his “wheat field under cloudy sky” painting and incorporates a farmhouse which he also enjoyed painting.

VanGogh’s letters reveal that he was an eloquent writer with extreme intelligence, perspective and sensitivity, along with thoughts much deeper and more reflective than any of the seemingly sane around him.  I must wonder how he would do in our modern world today.  Would he be diagnosed, treated and blend better in society?  Or would that have stifled his creativity and suppressed his talent?

When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.VanGogh

What VanGogh painting stands out most in your mind?

vangogh_cafe1888Self-Portrait-in-Front-of-the-EaselVan Gogh Farmhouse in a WheatfieldVincent-van-Gogh-Starry-Night

Vincent Van Gogh - Wheat Field under Clouded Sky

19 thoughts on “VanGogh: Looking at Mental Illness through the Works of a Master.

  1. I;m not an art buff, so I don’t know his full body of work. I just know that I love the freedom, texture and color in the works you display here. Every person has her/his own talent(s), so I should never be envious of one over another, but I can’t help but admire how a visual artist can translate an abstract vision or concept into a real and wonderful thing.

  2. When I was in college, I had a dress made out of “Starry Night” fabric. Imagine me walking around campus swathed in a polyester blend nightscape of astral desperation…..

  3. Van Gogh has always been one of my favorites. He’s the first I saw who creates powerful emotions from color and texture that have little to do with the subject matter. You can’t see that in prints, you have to stand in front of the real thing. I’m glad you got to see it.

  4. Back in those days, the cadmium red that they used actually contained highly toxic cadmium, and it was common practice to whet the tip of the brush with one’s mouth– ingesting this toxic metal could not have helped the mental illness. Nowadays, though it is still called cadmium red, these paints do not actually contain cadmium. A little tidbit I learned from art history 🙂

  5. Great post. It is good to see the actual paintings in museums because I have never seen a print that showed the intensity of the brush strokes. Very inspirational!

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