Last night, I went to a special exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum to see Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 “Self-Portrait” and attend a few lectures.
A few thoughts –
- I’m so sad to see that friends of mine can talk a lot about how much they love art, even Van Gogh, but fail to make movements towards visiting art houses, museums, galleries that we will (probably) not have access to again. It would be like living in Paris and never visiting the Louvre.
- I’m conflicted now, the morning after, on how we critique an artist’s life. Surely, there is a better way to discuss Van Gogh’s work without naming his “madness” with each work.
- Follow-up thought, we often get an artist tangled in their work instead of lightly seeing intersections without “locking” either art or artist into presuppositions.
I’ve been a fan of Van Gogh’s for years. I think the first time I saw his work, I was in junior high and loved the way he used colors – even the “sickly” painting of his mother.
While many art historians criticize (or, more politely, quote others who criticize) the monochromatic (i.e. “sickly”) presentation of his mother, I think it’s impressive that he would use different shades of the same color to remain consistent within the world of this painting. In a letter preceding the completion of this work, Vincent wrote his brother Theo expressing a desire to depict the happiness of his mother. Afterwards, he was obviously pleased with this piece because he didn’t destroy it, ingest it, sell it, or paint over it like he did other works.
Yet, in last night’s lecture, this was one of the primary works currently on display at the Norton Simon that the curator went to task on as “proof” that Van Gogh was “disturbed.”
A financially-down-on-his-luck artist who borrows ALL of his living expenses from his brother painting with ONE color, creates a masterpiece known around the world and it’s “proof” that he’s “disturbed”?
I immediately turned to the people around me and said, “That’s not true. That’s not historically correct and she lacks experience with the mental health profession to qualify that statement. Not true.” The statement itself, while incorrect, is excusable. Okay. So you’re a curator of a gallery and you got your facts wrong, spoke out of turn, and made claims you can’t support. Not the worst thing in the world to do. The problem here for me wasn’t the statement itself, but the transference I made in my own mind.
I would propose that Van Gogh’s works are laced with theology. Not explicitly, but there is a certain something to the works. Context: Van Gogh was the son of a minister and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He tried but ultimately failed because that wasn’t his destiny – at least this is how we would express his feelings, collected from letters to his brother, today. His younger brother was named “Theo” and the two were close despite Vincent’s lapses into depression, exhaustion, malnutrition, and hallucinations (derivative of a poor diet and, I believe, psychological disturbance fueled by an overbearing/demanding/religious father). In the letters, Vincent pours his heart out to Theo, describing his love for God and frustration with the Church (i.e. religious people like their father). Vincent’s works are a testament to socio-political changes taking place around him noted in his “dark” and “depressing” and “sober” use of maids, miners and the lower-class with whom he found solidarity. When put in contrast to his self-portraits – themselves a political statement of artist-as-creator – together with his phantasm-like style and vibrant usage of color, I his his works not as an expression of God but a reaction to God. It is as if he, Vincent, is trying to solidify that the lowest class of people matter and that, as beautiful as nature may be, it can be expanded on. Almost as if Vincent has turned the table on the father-figure. Where once his biological father, Theodorus, was demanding and reprimanded Vincent that he would never be good enough or at least could be better, now Vincent is pushing back and telling God “Your creation could be better. You forget the small ones and Your creation could be brighter, bolder, more colorful. And even when I am restricted, unlike you, I can still make something beautiful and memorable. I can make the forgotten into an immortal.”
Now, taken from this vantage, how can we interact with Van Gogh? Are we to see “Starry Night” as just a beautiful painting, or should be (like I propose he intended) see it as a testament to Vincent trying to reach up to Heaven? To reason with God, to make his claims known, to voice his frustrations even as the work is mirrored in a lesser sense by the steeple of the church? It is as if Van Gogh is saying that churches (or rather congregations of religious people) are honestly trying to get to God but are somehow lacking. Any attempt to reach the eternal with shiny-happy expression pales in comparison to the raw and “wild” and natural reaching upwards.
I put forward that the curator’s statement comes from a position of assuming that passion is unhealthy and that any play with socio-political or spiritual themes is “proof” of being “disturbed.” Which is wildly out-of-bounds in my estimation.
We are a culture hell-bent on beating life out of each other. From the first day of elementary school, we are told to do many things which do not come naturally for a child:
- Sit still
- Don’t look at others
- Don’t pay attention to what is going on around you. You’ll just get distracted
- Look downward – first at the desk, then at the ground
In junior high, we are told to
- Stop flirting
- Fit in. Don’t try to be original
- Learn how to be productive (in case you didn’t get the message in elementary)
- Don’t play. We gave you recess but you abused it by playing
- Never feel tired. Ever. This is a sign of physical and mental weakness
By high school, it gets worse
- Don’t be original. God, that’s the worst thing you can do
- Don’t be fat. Or skinny. Just… figure out how to not be either of these. And look like you’re thirty, if possible.
- Stuff your bra or the front of your pants because whatever you’ve got, it won’t be enough
- Don’t have an opinion – not with your parents, not with your teachers, not with your friends
- Stop trying to be intelligent. You’re not
- Stop trying to be funny. You’re not
- Stop trying to be sociable.
- Drink if you want
- But not too much
- Stop learning how to be productive and just be productive
By adulthood, if you’re not “disturbed” yet, it only gets worse. Social institutions are predisposed to dispose of you. Churches, if they remember you at all, consign you to “singles” or “married” (forgetting of course that you’re trying to get an education or make yourself upwardly mobile at work). Parents are kicking you out of the house because you are “lazy” (after all, you’re not “productive” unless you have a paycheck to prove it) and society is shaming you if you actually love your parents enough to consider them friends.
If, by some magical combination of… oh… say anything, you have managed to carry the flicker of love for… oh… say anything, you will surely have it beat out of you.
And if you insist on loving anything, this is “proof” that you are “disturbed.”
To which there can be only one response.
I think Van Gogh was brilliant. From where I am sitting (perched on a balcony in the middle of the San Gabriel mountains), I find comfort in the solidarity I feel towards him for rejecting the easy decisions of his time. For rejecting the “safe route”, the “predictable” and having enough passion to know who he was and what he wanted. If that’s what it means to go insane, then I gladly join those numbers.
After the exhibit and lectures, I went to a party where I was told in no uncertain circumstances that I was “too much.” One person asked, “What would I say about you? What good things could I say about you? I don’t know.”
I imagine the same thing was said about Vincent at some point. Passion isn’t a good thing. It threatens the stability of society. It threatens the safety of caste, of easy choices. But it also means that when we love something, it is a true and full love without reservation. And personally, I’d prefer to be on the receiving end of that than to stay in the safety of prefabricated “stations” in life. Even if somewhere along the way a friend or curator or biographer will say that my love and passion were “proof” that I was “disturbed.”