Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Divine Madness of Creation

Vincent Van Gogh, Enclosed Field With The Rising Sun, December, 1889, Saint Remy

Madness and suicide do only one thing for an artist's career; they end it. And that is ultimately what they did to Vincent Van Gogh in 1890 when he took his own life at the age of 37.

On December 23rd, 1888, Gauguin walked out on Van Gogh after a particularly bitter quarrel (they quarreled constantly as soon as Gauguin arrived in Arles and moved in with Vincent in October of that year). Gauguin left abruptly that evening, and noticed that he was being followed. He turned to see a very distraught and panicked Van Gogh behind him. Gauguin always claimed that Van Gogh had a knife. Van Gogh turned and fled as soon as Gauguin saw him. Gauguin spent the night in a guesthouse, and took the first train out of Arles in the morning never to return. Van Gogh, meanwhile returned home and cut off his earlobe. Covered in blood, he went to a nearby brothel to present it, wrapped in a handkerchief to one of the girls.
Van Gogh returned home and passed out from blood loss. A crowd gathered around his apartment in the morning and the police were called. He was treated for his injury and returned to his apartment. By the end of January 1889, his neighbors petitioned the police to have him forcibly committed to a mental institution claiming that he was a dangerous madman. Van Gogh was hospitalized already at the time of the petition suffering from terrible hallucinations and seizures. He was practically imprisoned in the local hospital in Arles, denied paints, reading material, and even his pipe.
He voluntarily entered the hospital of Saint Paul de Mausole, a 12th century Augustinian monastery with an asylum attached at the town of Saint Remy a few miles north of Arles.
He would paint 140 of his finest pictures while confined here (among them, the famous Starry Night, and the picture reproduced above), though he only signed 7 of them.

Much has been written and speculated concerning the effect of Van Gogh's madness upon his art. He most certainly was not painting when he was going through bouts of illness. He hallucinated, had seizures, ate his paint, and cut up his arms when he was ill. He certainly did not entertain any ideas of being an art martyr. He was repelled and felt humiliated by his illness, which caused him much pain and anxiety. He worried (justly it turns out) that his madness would affect the way people see his art, that they would no longer take it seriously and simply treat it as just another symptom. All his lofty (and perhaps impossible) ambitions for his art would forever be seen in the light of his illness. My students write term papers on Van Gogh endlessly speculating on the nature of his illness, and saying very little about what he painted.
Forgive me for sounding callous (I'm not), but Van Gogh's illness was a terrible misfortune and nothing more. Legions of people then, now, and always have suffered far worse and more dramatic mental illness than he did. Why do we remember Vincent Van Gogh in the hospital at Saint Remy and none of his other fellow patients? Because of the paintings he produced there, that is what is truly remarkable, not the fact that he was sick.
Van Gogh painted in those times when he was well and lucid. The hospital allowed him to paint, provided that there was an attendant with him. Eventually, he was allowed supervised short trips outside the asylum walls to paint the walled fields behind the hospital. What is remarkable about the Saint Remy pictures is how confident and masterly they are. Certainly they are driven by strong emotion, not the emotion of madness, but on the contrary, the relief and happiness in those periods when he was well. To my eye, these paintings are the happiness of a drowning man who recovers his breath. These paintings are as ecstatic as they are anxious. We've already seen how a strong sense of spiritual longing together with anxiety over his disintegrating self shaped his painting from the very beginning. Now, at the cost of much personal suffering, he fully understands what is at stake in his ambitions, and now has the formal means at his command to realize that vision of a world so filled with spiritual life that it rocks and writhes upon the canvas.
He energizes the scene of a green field at dawn by tilting the horizon line up to the right, destabilizing the whole picture. The inconclusive perspective of the furrows peters out near the horizon missing its intended target of the large yellow sun rising off to the right. The sun beautifully balances out the rushing orthogonals of the furrows. That always meaningful yellow in Van Gogh's work fills the sky in orderly concentric brushmarks around the sun, and sparkles amid the fresh green of the field. A splendid rhyme and rhythm of the furrows, the contours of the hills, and the brushstrokes that make them all tie the painting together beautifully.
This is not the work of a madman. It is the work of an ecstatic visionary looking at the world through his own desire to expand beyond himself. That frustrated longing to leave his suffering self behind is there in the frustrated perspective construction of the picture. That promise of spiritual fulfillment is there in the distant sun on the horizon, and fills the rest of the picture.
This painting (and others like it from Van Gogh's time in Saint Remy) is a great religious painting created from profound personal experience that cannot be contained in the simple formulas of religious orthodoxy, or answered by the facile arguments of an equally simple secularism.

Vincent Van Gogh was released into the custody of his brother Theo who brought him back to Paris and settled him in the nearby village of Auvers. He was under the care of Dr Gachet who became a close personal friend of Vincent. On July 27, 1890, Vincent returned from an evening walk in the wheatfields bleeding and in pain. He had shot himself in the chest. He died the next day. Theo never recovered from Vincent's death and died himself the following year. They are buried next to each other in the churchyard at Auvers.

The idea of creative madness is as old as Plato. In Van Gogh's case, the divine furor of creation became undone by genuine mental illness.

Next, a religious look at the aesthetics of materialism.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Masterfully written, Counterlight. I want to come back and say more, but I don't have time now.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Is this way of teling the story original (I mean that in the technical sense), Doug? I don't ever remember hearing it told this way before now. The idea that Van Gogh painted in periods of lucidity and joy rings so much more true that what I have always heard before. Thank you. In an odd way, this stirs up hope. So many of the folks in this town suffer mental illnesses - because the state hospital was closed some 20 years ago. Those who are members of our parish are also among the most insightful, passionate, truthful and articulate people in town when their illnesses abate for a season.

fs said...

Counterlight, what you say about his paintings coming from periods of lucidity and relative wellness rings true. Many years ago, around 1971-72, I viewed an extensive Van Gogh exhibit at the de Young in San Francisco. It was quite wonderful to see up close the bold, bright colors laid out in fresh, clean, thick paint, a vision so singular and passionate. The exhibit ended with what was believed to be his last painting, a yellow wheat field with black crows flying away into a blue-black, stormy-looking sky. People were commenting on the significance of the jagged road that cuts through the center of the painting and stops abruptly, leading nowhere. But my roommate, who stared into it for a long time, turned around beaming. "It's ecstatic!" she whispered. I looked again, and it was.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Thank you so much. I am so tired of the old idea that people need to be neurotic or even worse to do art. I've know writers refuse to get psychological counseling for fear of losing their creativity.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Counterlight, you are correct that Van Gogh could not have done his masterworks during his bouts of madness, but surely his madness haunted him during his lucid periods. The fear of the return of a mad episode was always there, don't you think? To me, his pictures evidence that hauntedness. OCICBW. You're the teacher, and I'm thankful to you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom with us. You understand the creative process of painting much more than I, because you do it.

"Starry Night" itself looks hallucinatory. In fact, I have the sense that if I looked at it for too long, it could drive me mad. Of course I may be part way there already.

FWIW, you seem pretty sane to me.