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Vincent van Gogh is in the news again, in the minor way that art and artists generally seem to be.

It seems that there is an exhibition opening tomorrow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called van Gogh Up Close, comprised of some of the work he produced right before his death in 1890. A van Gogh exhibition in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy; there’s hardly a time when some museum somewhere isn’t featuring his work. What’s notable about this one is that the curators have made the decision to ignore one of the central characteristics of van Gogh as a painter and as a person. They’re ignoring his obvious insanity.

Wheatfield Under Clouded Sky (Vincent van Gogh – 1890)

You’d be hard-press to find anyone who might argue that van Gogh wasn’t crazy. Even if we didn’t have the first-hand observations of his family and associates that have been preserved in the form of personal correspondence, it would be tough to argue that a sane individual would cut off his own ear (or part of his own ear according to some accounts, as if that matters) after a drunken argument with Paul Gauguin and present the bloody treasure to a friendly local hooker. And then there’s the matter of some of his paintings, which to me exhibit some kind of altered reality. The heavy, swirling brushstrokes that have become his signature look for all the world like the kinds of hallucinations that you might expect from either a psychotic episode or a mescaline trip.

Two Cypresses (Vincent van Gogh – 1889)

Experts argue a lot about what kind of mental illness van Gogh may have suffered from, but not many advance the theory that he was perfectly sane but a little misunderstood. This kind of argument has kept art historians (both academic and amateur), biographers, and mental health experts (again, both academic and amateur) busy for more than a century. Lately, we have an extensive new biography and even a wonderful discussion on 60 Minutes  debating the actual circumstances surrounding his death at age 37 (suicide, as commonly believed, or murder, or tragic accident?). Dissecting the life and art of Vincent van Gogh is a major industry.

These are subjects for another time. What concerns me now is that the curators of the Philadelphia exhibition are advancing the proposition that van Gogh’s art should somehow be viewed apart from his insanity, that viewing his paintings as the work of “that crazy painter” might somehow cloud our understanding of an incredibly talented painter who excelled in spite of that insanity, not because of it.

Huh? What?

This question is covered in great detail by Blake Gopnik in a column on the Daily Beast and I recommend you read what he’s offered on the subject. I am neither art historian nor mental health professional but this strikes me as one of the dumbest things I have ever  heard.

How can anyone divorce the person from the creation? Doing so reduces a work of art from a highly personal communique to a mere technical exercise involving paint and canvas or, in my case, light and pixels. This robs the creation of whatever it is that makes it unique.

Look, I’m not saying that insanity is an essential ingredient in artistic creation. It isn’t. What I am saying is that works of artistic expression are the product of their creators, who in turn are products of all the things that have made them who they are, be it insanity or happiness or good fortune or whatever. These aren’t necessarily things that we as artists, or the people around us, are even aware of.  They are, nonetheless, there; every fear and joy and apprehension, every experience, every longing.

Vincent van Gogh was a great painter. He produced a lot of wonderful work that didn’t have all those fingerprints of his mental illness on them but the question of whether or not his work could stand on its own without the insanity is not only moot, it’s ridiculous. His paintings are the product of that mind, tortured by whatever demons that had invaded it. Tortured, perhaps quite literally, to death.  Who would want to sanitize his legacy to the point that we rob him of his unique vitality?

Not me.

Wheatfield with Crows (Vincent van Gogh – 1890)

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One Comment

  1. Did you ask the Philly Museum people what a critique of his work from that standpoint – as if one didn’t know he was ‘crazy’ – would make of it. His body of work, if he wasn’t crazy, how would it be interpreted? I was just wondering that, is how I got here.


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