Madness terrified Vincent van Gogh, yet he also wondered if it was inseparable from artistic genius. In letters to his brother Theo that prove him one of the great writers as well as artists of the 19th century, he broods more than once on an 1872 painting by Emile Wauters called The Madness of Hugo van der Goes, which shows the 15th-century Flemish painter – looking a bit like Stanley Kubrick on an intense day – as a victim of mental illness.
For Van Gogh this painting captured the dark romantic association of genius and insanity. For the modern age, it is Vincent himself who embodies that fatal creative malady. Yet, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam questions what it sees as a romantic myth about the Dutch artist, who lethally shot himself in a cornfield at Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890.
Using a combination of art, written documents and a severely rusted revolver that was found by a farmer in 1960 in that same cornfield, On the Verge of Insanity argues that far from inspiring his art, Van Gogh’s illness was an impediment to his talent. It stopped him working for long periods, and he heroically defied its totally uncreative effects to create some of the most powerful art in history.
When his art, which went almost entirely unsold in his lifetime, started to attract acclaim after his death, this painter of dazzling yellows and hallucinatory blues became seen as cursed by some desperate, mysterious inner pain. The radical French dramatist Antonin Artaud, who spent the later years of his own life in asylums, called Van Gogh a man “suicided by society” and in the 1956 film Lust for Life, he is portrayed by Kirk Douglas as a character tragically unable to control the torrents of emotion and energy that make him a great artist.
This image of Van Gogh as a “mad genius” arguably originates in his own art. In his Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889), he dwells on the wound he gave himself when he sliced at his ear with a razor blade in Arles in December 1888 and presented the resulting chunk of severed flesh to a local prostitute. He shows us his maimed face, but it gazes at us with the blue eyes of a visionary. This is not an objective record of a misfortune but, in its hypnotic intensity, a portrait of the artist both martyred and liberated by madness.
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