van Gogh and Romanticizing the Tortured Artist

Vincent van Gogh is experiencing a 21st-century renaissance. Popular portrayals of the troubled artist are increasingly appearing on both the small and big screen  – a Doctor Who episode, the film Loving Vincent, and the most recent movie depiction from director Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, starring Willem Dafoe.

In all of these representations, van Gogh’s mental health is at the forefront of the story — it is hard to mention him without bringing up the self-inflicted severing of his ear in the following sentence. Perhaps the cliché of the ‘starving, tortured artist’ can be attributed most notably to him. This is certainly how we view his art—through the lens of a man who grappled against life, cornered by his own mind’s wolves.

In the late 1880s, after cutting off his left ear and offering it up to a prostitute, van Gogh was admitted to a hospital in Arles in southern France, where he was living at the time. He was severely bleeding, in the throes of a manic depressive episode.

van Gogh was discharged a little over two weeks later in January 1889. One of his first paintings afterward was a still life: a teapot, a candle, a bowl of onions, a letter to his brother Theo, his pipe, a medical self-help book and an empty bottle of absinthe. The quotidian details of his life.

It looks like the painting of a man trying to revive creativity back into his life. van Gogh’s reason for placing the bottle and medical book was, perhaps, to show that he had tried to return to living a normal life, but was ultimately failed by his inability to overcome his mental illnesses. As a result, he had fallen back into his old ways of self-medicating with strong liquor.

In a 2014 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Wijnand van Tillburg, a psychologist at the University of Southampton, led a research team who discovered that we perceive an artists’ work as ‘better’ if we are told they are of an eccentric nature.

In the study, 38 students were shown an image of van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Half of those students were informed that the artist is suspected of heavily mutilating his own body, while the other half were not given this information. They were then asked to give an evaluation of the painting. “As predicted,” the researchers wrote in the paper, “the art was evaluated more positively when van Gogh’s eccentric behavior was mentioned.”

But why is this? It seems like the more we view an artist as idiosyncratic, the more authentic we believe them to be. This is a pernicious standard to set – particularly for young artists trying to break into the field. Mental health struggles and creative talent do not need to go hand-in-hand. Jim Morrison drank himself to death at the age of 27; Kurt Cobain, at the same age, pushed a shotgun to the roof of his mouth and pulled the trigger. Sylvia Plath ended her life by putting her head in a microwave. Each had much creative potential extinguished by early death.

But Picasso lived to be 91. Salvador Dali until 84. Harper Lee passed away only a few years ago at 89. Indeed, there are great artists out there, deserving of myriad superlatives, who have never struggled with mental illness. At least, none that were life-ending or destructive. We do not view the works of Jane Austen, John Milton, or Igor Stravinsky as any less deserving of credit simply because their works did not come from a place of instability.

Sadly, even these examples may not mollify those who believe creativity flourishes better under mental strain. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who produced likely the most iconic artwork of the 19th century in ‘The Scream’, once wrote in his diary that: ‘My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness.’ He was often concerned that if he lost his illness, he would also lose his ability to paint.

Albert Rothenberg, an American psychiatrist, and Doctor of Medicine, has carried out long-term research on the creative process in literature and art. Of creativity and depression, he has said: “Studies using test or clinical assessments have not proven a connection between creativity and mental illness. Almost all have had methodological and conceptual inadequacies: absent or poor controls, investigator bias, unreliable testing tools. None have demonstrated validity with respect to actual creative performance.”

Throughout the centuries, artistic mediums have existed as a form of escapism. Art exists to bring joy to our world or to help us work through something painful in our lives—to make it through to the other side, perhaps scathed, but still surviving. But one should not fall victim to the mindset that one must suffer needlessly for their creation. Depression is not a pre-requisite for creativity. If anything, it stunts it. Suffering, in the end, rarely contributes directly to creative inspiration, despite the widely held romantic beliefs which commonly suggest otherwise.

In fact, creative periods tend to become less frequent the more mentally ill a person is. The last thing on someone’s mind who is struggling with depression or severe anxiety would be to pick up a paintbrush or begin writing a novel. They simply wouldn’t have a desire for such a task, considering it likely too onerous. However, one fascinating element of Vincent van Gogh’s life is that he seems to be an exception. From his moving to Arles, to the time of his eventual suicide—van Gogh painted somewhere between one hundred to two hundred pieces of artwork, 75 of which came in an 80-day creative burst. But still, it was not enough to save him.

One of his final paintings, completed the month of his death in July 1890 (some believe it to be his very last, although this is still debated), is Wheatfield with Crows – an ominous dark blue sky with storm clouds forming, signaling impending destruction. The wheat extends as far as the eye can see, blowing violently in the wind. Above these wheat fields are crows flying in the distance, getting further and further away until those most distant are nothing more than a speck.

There is an ineffable sadness to this painting. One that was not lost on its creator, who, when writing to his brother Theo that same month, said of it: “They are vast stretches of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness… I’m fairly sure that these canvasses will tell you what I cannot say in words.”

It is not hard to imagine that van Gogh may have seen himself in his last few weeks as one of those tiny birds in the infinite troubled sky: frail, afraid, departing to somewhere unknown. The hurricane of his thoughts sweeping him, and his creative potential, away forever.

Artwork by Vincent van Gogh, “Wheatfield with Crows”

3 Comments

  1. I agree that it’s a narrow opinion to say that creativity depends on mental illness, addiction, etc. Once, I had a psychologist who believed that creative writing was a process of working out psychological problems. Supposedly, once the problem was solved, the creative process would come to an end. Nathaniel Hawthorne was one writer who in the end gave up his creativity, supposedly due to “loss of literary faith” or maybe to having solved the intellectual problem he’d been working on. Arthur Rimbaud was another such poet who reached the end before passing. On the other hand, Emily Dickinson went on writing poetry (1789 poems) until her death, with her puzzle in life still unsolved. But it would be a mistake to say these individuals were troubled by mental or emotional disturbance. They simply had a project they were called to work on, perhaps, as in Dickinson’s case, such philosophical problems as life after death.

    Thanks for reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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