Vincent van Gogh
Creative Phase ca. 1880 — 1890
Van Gogh — The Immersive Experience
“Art never comes from happiness,” writes Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, in Choke. The incentive to make art seems to be born from an inner war and enriched by an implicit commitment to visual expression. For better or worse, such burning pain was raging in Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), painter of now world-renowned sunflowers. The self-taught artist from the Netherlands created about 800 paintings in just 10 years time.
Posthumous psychiatric diagnoses surround Vincent like a cloud — or perhaps even a cloak of protection. In his own time, he was diagnosed with epilepsy, schizophrenia and substance abuse, topped with a hunch of borderline personality and bipolar disorder assigned long after his life had elapsed. Mania might have encouraged his urge to paint, but sadness and fear found their redemption in his warm colour studies. “[I]nstead of giving in to despair I chose active melancholy,” Vincent wrote.1
But eventually, in 1890 van Gogh attempted to take his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, a few miles north of Paris. Shortly after he confessed to his younger brother Theo that for him, “la tristesse durera toujours” (“the sadness will last forever”).2 Two days later, he surrendered to death.
His life was punctuated by unstable moods and he found himself tossed back and forth between waves of paradoxical emotional states without being able to get a hold. His intense longing for love remained mostly unsuccessful, and he often acted out of impulse.3 Aside from his brother, with whom he felt a deep connection, Vincent roamed through his life unable to form stable relationships, ransacked by love and hate, torn in half by black and white states of feeling, struggling to find his place. He never belonged anywhere truly, but he sure did try his best. The first time I watched At Eternity’s Gate14(2018), I felt connected to him in a way only a madman can be to another. But neither him nor I were truly mad. Just none of us knew how to live, either.
It is not uncommon for borderline and bipolar personality styles to overlap. Feelings of chronic emptiness, intense highs and lows, and a profoundly disruptive inability to rely on a constant self-image are both familiar. Borderpolar is shown in about 20% of both BPD and bipolar patients.4 Many recognise their fears in Vincent, of loss, of unlove, of a fragile life that is always just barely keeping on. Vincent’s doctor Paul Gachet wrote, “Very little happiness fell to his share, and no illusions are left him. The burden grows too heavy at times, he feels so alone.”5 One of the most fascinating artists who ever lived, it is worth it to dwell on van Gogh’s life for a moment longer and learn from the deep blue riches and sunflower yellow hopes of his world.
“For me, life may well continue in solitude. I have never perceived those to whom I have been most attached other than as through a glass, darkly.”6
Among his most famous paintings, between spring coloured sunflowers in vases, fields of wheat glistering against a dreamy blue sky, nights filled with stars and light, the night café or the church of Auvers, is a painting called Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Painted in 1889, it is now at display at Somerset House in London. The painting shows van Gogh in a fur cap and a green overcoat with his right ear bandaged. It was created in the aftermath of an incident which had happened the previous year, shoving Vincent from the optimism of living in sunny, dreamy Arles straight into agony. Vincent’s dream of Arles had been to create a community of creatives, but reality did not quite play out as he had imagined. His friend Paul Gauguin, whom he had met in Paris, followed his invitation to stay with him, but the friendship was intense, troublesome and violent. Fights were frequent, but all the more intense was Vincent’s attachment to Paul. Around Christmas 1888, as things did not improve, Gauguin announced he would leave. Vincent was terrified, his fear of abandonment seemed at the height of its torment. The grip around his neck tightened as he realised he would be abandoned by his friend.
When a borderline personality is confronted with the threat of abandonment, an unimaginable pressure locks onto them. For some patients, this pressure ignites a raging, uncontrollable anger; and others feel driven to inflict self-harm. Van Gogh’s mood swung him straight into rage. In a rapture he followed Gauguin to the street and threatened him with a razor. Immediately after, his rage plummeted him into self-destruction and a manic psychosis, he cut off his own ear and delivered it to his favourite prostitute, only to return to his blood drenched room the next morning. He did not remember what had happened.7 If he had, he would most likely have not been able to reconstruct the intense emotional aggressions tossing him around like an adrift plastic bag in the currents. He was taken to the hospital that day. A few months later, he painted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.
Every person suffering from diverging affective states has a few key moments in their lives, defining breaking points that bring about a change. I believe ending the friendship with Gauguin and transitioning through a borderpolar psychotic episode was the final stroke for Vincent. The people of Arles urged him to go to a clinic, not necessarily in the nicest way; they called him names, ridiculed him and were terrified of his behaviour. However, the decision to admit himself to the mental asylum in Saint Rémy was his own. He desired to get better. And there, protected from his self-destruction, his addiction, and his disruptive routines he found the peace and quiet to paint — no less than 150 paintings, some of which would become his most popular.
“Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”8
A momentum which was much needed. Van Gogh didn’t start out as gifted as he would be towards the end of his career. His first job was with an art dealer at the Goupil Gallery in The Hague, to help out his poor family. In 1873, he was transferred to the London subsidiary, where an unsuccessful romance shifted his occupation from an art dealer to becoming a priest. He spent roughly seven years as a man of God, but eventually decided to become an artist and move to Brussels in 1880, not entirely of his own accord, since it was the church that ended his contract. In Brussels, at about 27 years of age, Vincent became an autodidact. One of his first famous paintings, Potato Eaters, was made in Brussels. However, Vincent became obsessed with taking his art to France. After nomading through Europe, eventually, in 1888, he moved to Arles in the south of France. His physical health was declining, due to a diet mainly consisting of coffee and absinthe. Vincent’s life hadn’t been easy up to this point, characterized by unhappy love affairs, a forlorn and hopeless wandering across Europe in hopes to find his calling. Aside from his addictions, Vincent’s disposition for manic depression, melancholia and loneliness deteriorated, specifically after the aforementioned conflict with Paul Gaugin in Arles. Eventually, he ended up at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He stayed there for a year and created 150 paintings. In the asylum, Vincent painted what he could see from his room, which he was mostly confined to, like ivy covered trees, lilacs, and irises in the gardens. When he was allowed to paint outside as well, he added Provence’s wheat fields, olive groves, and cypress trees to his muse. Starry Night, arguably his most famous painting,was painted in the asylum. Vincent’s mental health fluctuated throughout his stay in Saint-Rémy. He didn’t feel himself get significantly better. After Paul Gachet suggested to take him on as his patient, Vincent departed for Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, where he eventually attempted suicide and died a few days after.
“For the starry sky, I still very much hope to paint it, and perhaps one of these evenings I’ll be in the same ploughed field, if the sky is twinkling brightly.”9
It is one of the world’s most famous paintings, housed since the 1940s at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City. In Starry Night, one installment in van Gogh’s Nocturnal series, I believe Vincent’s mind and heart fully blaze in staggering beauty. The way his pain, springing from a deep alienation from the world, love and self, is drawn into an almost meditative landscape in Starry Night is unique. Looking at the painting, I feel calm, serenity, even a pause of the whirlwind in my own head. I wonder if Vincent felt the same when he painted it. A work seen by some as a nervous man’s conflict with his anxiety, coping with being tossed back and forth between love and hate and fear and hope by a borderline heart. Believing the view to be what he could see through his room’s window at the Saint-Rémy asylum in 1889, Vincent must have found deep philosophical comfort in the night sky resting over the town he had been chased out of. The brightly shining moon and surrounding stars are almost invasive in nature, an interruption of the blanket of darkness and calm that manages to settle over and soothe a turbulent heart. The whirling clouds passing through the starry sky, on the other hand, seem as soft and blissful as a light summer wind gently passing over the skin. In front of them lies the town, finally quiet, for a long moment laying to rest all negative feelings.
Other interpretations read into Vincent’s Starry Night a sense of restlessness, a very nervous and strained state of mind fleshed out by the play of light and darkness. In those readings, the village below represents the calm he sought, with the house’s lit windows representing a guiding hope towards the future.
“I definitely want to paint a starry sky now. It often seems to me that the night is even more richly coloured than the day, coloured in the most intense violets, blues and greens.
If you look carefully you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without labouring the point, it’s clear that to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black,”
van Gogh describes his fascination with the night time sky in a 1888 letter.10 It would not be unusual for patients suffering from mental health issues to seek refuge in the night sky’s poetry, and its many stars which seem to be sewn onto the richest of dark fabrics.
Compositionwise, Starry Night invites the eye to wander and follow its layered arrangement of the dominant night sky; a cypress tree likened to the shape of flames on the left and the village framing the painting on the right. What cannot escape one’s perception are the whirling forms that lend the sky a dynamic that renders it almost alive as one observes it. Thick strokes melt into shades of yellow, white and blue. Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, arrangement of light and colour and strong stylization of what he saw in the night sky emit an almost hallucinogenic effect. If one succumbs to Starry Night long enough, the painting might just start moving. One might even call it an abstract approach to painting the scene, perhaps brought about by his previous close friendship with Gauguin. Something that in itself has such strength to stir people’s emotions as the night sky is filtered through Vincent’s pain and longing into a psychedelic, magnificent experience that leaves you wanting to engage with it.
“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore”11— The end of van Gogh’s story
On a summer day in July 1890, Vincent left the inn in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he had stayed during his odd friendship with his doctor Gachet. When he came back later that day, he hid his bloodied belly with his hands and pushed past the Inn’s patrons. He hobbled laboriously up the stairs to his room, followed by the Inn’s owner, Gustave Ravoux. To him he confessed that he had injured himself. As his hands lifted from the wound, Gustave saw the bullet wound van Gogh had inflicted on himself. Immediately his brother Theo was informed, buried in whose arms Vincent finally died two days later.12
Van Gogh’s death remains curious. Conspiracy theories twine around it like the diagnoses around Vincent’s heart. It is intuitive to assume that Vincent had shot himself, a lonely end to a lonely life, a final, desperate triumph over one’s own demons. The self-fulfilling prophecy that the archetype of the artist always seems to carry with him. This seems to be the answer he wanted the world to know, the confession he gave to the police, to Gustave and to Theo. But people argue that a number of details of van Gogh’s death do not add up to suicide, such as the angle from which he was shot.12,13
Vincent had allegedly been more stable in Auvers-sur-Oise than he had been in previous years. “‘I feel absolutely calm and in a normal state’. This is what he writes me six weeks before he’s dead. How does a man go from being absolutely calm to being suicidal in six weeks?” ponders Irish comedian Chris O’Dowd’s character, a postman, in 2017’s Loving Vincent.12
Van Gogh was at odds everywhere — in the church, in the artistic scene in Paris, in the community of Arles, and also in Auvers-sur-Oise. In Auvers-sur-Oise, not everything was bad. He carried on a gentle romance with Gachet’s daughter, felt truly at home in Gustave’s Inn, and was so close to his brother Theo. Even if his attempt to belong was not always successful, there were moments of happiness for Vincent, moments of peace. Did his suicide arise not from impulse, but reason? Did he calmly decide to put an end to his life? Or was there a person with whom he was in conflict, even, perhaps, with his doctor Gachet, who envied his abilities and himself led a failed artist’s life? For people with affective disorders, it often doesn’t take a sharp trigger, a loud snap, to take the final step to the end. Even if Vincent did not shoot himself, it was his decision to surrender to death over the course of two days. “The sadness will last forever,” he confessed.2
Sunshine through broken glass
There is beauty in a heart as wild and forlorn as Vincent’s. In fact, due to his sensitivity, his emotional intensity and his dark depression he was able to not only appreciate the sunflower fields and the turbulent night sky, but he brought them to life. He became absorbed in them, transformed them into raw beauty and created works that to this day move not only those hearts that have succumbed to affectivity in the same way. He saw the sun through broken glass, but anyone who has ever looked at the world through shattered prisms knows of all the facets that remain obscured in the shadows for everyone else.
“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”8
1 Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written July 1880 in Cuesmes. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 133.
2 “The sadness will last forever” Theo van Gogh. Letter to Elisabeth van Gogh. Written 5 August 1890 in Paris. Translated and edited by Robert Harrison.
3 Gunderson, J. G., & Links, P. S. (2008). Borderline personality disorder: A clinical guide. American Psychiatric Publishing.
5 Memoir of Johanna Bongers http://www.tfsimon.com/auvers-sur-oise.html
6 Letter from Vincent van Gogh to His Parents, Auvers-sur-Oise, c. 12 June 1890
8 Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, 21 July 1882
9 Letters to Theo van Gogh, Date: Arles, Tuesday, 25 September 1888, 687 (691, 541a): To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Tuesday, 25 September 1888. — Vincent van Gogh Letters
10 Letter to Willemien van Gogh, Date: Arles, Sunday, 9 and about Friday, 14 September 1888, 678 (681, W7): To Willemien van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 9 and about Friday, 14 September 1888. — Vincent van Gogh Letters
11 Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 16 May 1882
12 Loving Vincent. (2017). [Film]. Poland, UK.
13 Vincent van Gogh’s Death: Suicide or Murder? – The OLu MUSE
14 At Eternity’s Gate. (2018). USA, France.
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