. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.
The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272
The recent revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear (about 20 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), as well as the recent Guardian long-read article by Jonathan Jones on the latest exhibition of his work in Amsterdam, made it inevitable I would decide to republish my blog sequence of last year, which attempted to capture my complex and powerful responses to his work. This is the last of five posts which came out each day of the past week.
Art and Illness
I have blogged at length elsewhere in these pages about the possible links between art and mental health so I relished the opportunity, at the end of this sequence of posts, to see if what van Gogh wrote from his own experience sheds any further light on the matter, over and above what I have touched on in the earlier ones.
I think I need to take this in three steps.
First I need to look at what the letters say about the actual experiences. From there I can move to looking at any conclusions he and his brother may have drawn about the nature of van Gogh’s problem and the relation it has to his art. Lastly, I will add some further information tentatively into the mix to try and make my own sense of the matter. To do so I will draw, amongst other things, on a very interesting account of the possible epilepsy of van Gogh’s American near contemporary Emily Dickinson.
- His Experience
It is in the later letters, after his rift with Gauguin, that we get the clearest account of what the breakdowns feel like from the inside. The first thing he mentions (page 444) when speaking ‘of my own condition – I am so grateful for yet another thing. I’ve noticed that others, too, hear sounds and strange voices during their attacks, as I did, and that things seem to change before their very eyes.’ The reason he has been given for these hallucinations follows shortly after (page 445): his problem was in both sight and hearing at the same time ‘which is usual at the outset of epilepsy.’
In Arles, after an attack in July 1889, he describes what happened (page 449): ‘I apparently pick up dirt from the ground and eat it.’ De Leeuw expands on this: ‘A swollen throat made taking food difficult. Because he had also put paint in his mouth and had drunk turpentine, he was ordered not to do any painting until further notice…’ There were mentions of the parallels with Dostoyevsky. Referring to Delacroix (page 452), he wonders whether he will be the same ‘in the sense that my sad illness makes me work in pent-up fury – very slowly – but without leaving off from morning till night – and – that is probably the secret – to work long and slowly.’ Interestingly, he dates the beginning of his problems to Paris (page 454) ‘when all this was coming on.’
He worries (page 459) whether ‘a more violent attack could destroy my ability to paint for good.’ Grimly he next observes ‘I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.’ He refers also (page 460) to the attacks taking ‘a religious turn.’ In late 1889 he had another violent attack in which (page 475) ‘he had again tried to poison himself by swallowing paint,’ as a result his doctor ‘decided once more that until further notice he must confine himself to drawing.’
On his move to Auvers-sur-Oise, he made a sardonic observation about Dr Gachet, the homeopath and psychiatrist who will play such a key role in his last few months of life (page 489):
Gachet, however, was not only an eccentric but seemed to be at least as neurotic as the afflicted artist, which caused van Gogh to observe, “Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don’t they both end up in the ditch?”
During this most vexed period, the art he produced was receiving high praise and greater recognition, including from Gauguin who wrote (page 494):
Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .
His brother’s sudden problems, mainly about his work, money issues and his child’s health, came as a stressful shock to van Gogh, not least because his brother was turning to him for advice and perhaps even eventual financial support, not things that Vincent felt well-equipped to provide.
- His Perspective
He is very explicit that art at least in part depends upon a high degree of control, something not associated in his mind with neurosis or mental disturbance (page 206):
What is drawing? How does one come to it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How is one to get through that wall – since pounding at it is of no use? In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it steadily and patiently. . . . . As it is with art so it is with other things. And great things are not something accidental, they must be distinctly willed.
He is of the same view as Myers was, that inspiration needs to be controlled if it is to be effective (page 209):
He . . . mentioned the fact that as soon as the landscape painter and Martinus Boks was admitted to a lunatic asylum, his colleagues’ appreciation of his work began to increase. Van Gogh observed this phenomenon with not a little irony. That his own work would be linked to his mental illness by later generations renders these comments particularly poignant. In general, however, his reactions to his colleagues’ afflictions were very down-to-earth. Thus he had nothing positive to say about the effects of [another artist’s] condition on his work.
A related point comes when, in powerful terms, he compares his own situation to his brother’s (page 380-81):
Consider . . . . the new painters still isolated, poor, treated as madmen, and because of this treatment actually going insane, at least as far as their social life is concerned – then remember that you are doing exactly the same job as these primitive painters, since you provide them with money and sell their canvases, which enables them to produce others.
If a painter ruins himself emotionally by working hard at his painting, and renders himself unfit for so much else, family life, &c., &c., if, consequently, he paints not only with colour but with self-sacrifice and self-denial and a broken heart, then your own work is not only no better paid, but costs you, in exactly the same way as a painter, this half-deliberate, half-accidental eclipse of your personality.
In his period of incarceration there is a revealing exchange of letters between the brothers (page 447): Theo praises van Gogh for the intensity of the colour in his recent pictures and for having conveyed ‘the quintessence of your thoughts about nature and living beings,’ while expressing anxiety about how much ‘that brain of yours must have laboured, and how you have risked everything in venturing to the very brink, where vertigo is inevitable.’
Vincent does seem to feel at one point, after the break with Gauguin, that (page 428) ‘I must start afresh, but I shall never again be able to reach the heights to which the illness to some extent led me.’ The caveat – ‘to some extent’ – is probably significant.
Overall he does not see a close positive relationship between art and mental breakdown. He does see some kind of relationship though. This is not conforming to the conventional 19th Century myth of believing that being mad is an essential prerequisite of genius, but rather in terms of how the pressures society places on the artist can precipitate a breakdown. When you take into account his acknowledgement, in another letter already quoted, that their shared heredity may be making a contribution to their instability he is not undermining this main point. Van Gogh had speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.
- My Perspective
The ideas that the Kellys explore in depth in their comprehensive survey Irreducible Mind is of great relevance here. I will shortly be republishing them. For present purposes I’ll simply use one quotation from that sequence. Myers had little patience with those in the 19th Century who conflated genius and madness and subscribed to a ‘degeneracy’ theory. However, he did manage to sift some flecks of truth from its silt (page 471):
… [G]enius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service of supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.
On the issue of epilepsy, which is the diagnosis favoured by the authors of Van Gogh: The Life though not by Wilfred Niels Arnold who backs the porphyria hypothesis (see below), I was reminded of the possibility, explored by Lyndall Gordon in her book Lives Like Loaded Guns, that Emily Dickinson might well have suffered from epilepsy. Regardless of whether this theory should prove true, her treatment of the problem in a 19th Century context gives us a sense of what van Gogh might have also experienced within himself, during his treatment and from his friends and family.
Gordon quotes from Dickinson, suggesting she was covertly conveying what the experience of a fit was like – covertly because of the social stigma attached to the illness (page 116):
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit –
After the fit, Gordon explains (page 118), the brain sinks into a ‘Fog’ – something that Dickinson describes as ‘the Hour of Lead.’
The reaction of society was harsh, fuelled by the strong stigma which Gordon feels is the explanation for Dickinson’s lifelong seclusion, imposed on by her family for her protection and willingly accepted by Emily as it fostered her creativity (page 119):
In the 19th century, epileptics were sometimes incarcerated in asylums, and the more advanced asylums segregated them: too disturbing for the mentally ill.… Families therefore colluded to keep the conditions a lifelong secret.
Even Dickinson’s need for medication was kept secret. The reason has never been clear. Gordon feels that (page 122) ‘[t]he undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time with “hysteria,” masturbation, syphilis and impairment of the intellect leading to “epileptic insanity.”’
Gordon plays with interesting possible associations between Dickinson’s epilepsy and her creativity. She quotes Dickinson as saying (page 124):
‘I like a look of Agony,’ she said, because Agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for the poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ of her early thirties had lain their Missiles by –,’ though the Thunder that once brought ‘the bolt’ did rumble still.
I am not really competent at this point, not having explored in any detail the nature of epileptic experience, to conclude either that Gordon is correct about Dickinson’s epilepsy, let alone whether such a perspective could lend any support to the idea that something about Vincent’s experience of epilepsy enriched his art. I am also aware that he undoubtedly experienced depression and intense anxiety at times, and that various other factors have been adduced to explain this combination of difficulties. Amongst these are: porphyria , which has been strongly argued for but not widely accepted; bipolar disorder, which many feel explains ‘Van Gogh’s extreme enthusiasm and dedication to first religion and then art’ as well as his subsequent exhaustion and depression; absinthe, whose toxic component, thujone, is claimed to have worked against Van Gogh, aggravating his epilepsy, suspected porphyria or possible manic depression, as well as, in high doses causing him to see objects in yellow; and lead poisoning, one of whose symptoms is swelling of the retinas, which can cause one to see light in circles like halos around objects, as in paintings like The Starry Night . Blumer summarised what seems to be the general consensus when he wrote in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002 :
Henri Gastaut, in a study of the artist’s life and medical history published in 1956, identified van Gogh’s major illness during the last two years of his life as temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion. In essence, Gastaut confirmed the diagnosis originally made by the French physicians who had treated van Gogh. However, van Gogh had earlier suffered two distinct episodes of reactive depression, and there are clearly bipolar aspects to his history.
The best I can say, as a diagnostic sceptic who distrusts simplistic one-dimensional explanations of phenomena as multi-faceted as a human being, is that when I stood in front of Cypresses and Two Women, I felt it might be recording some kind of altered state of consciousness, or possibly a strong perceptual distortion of uncertain cause. I am aware that van Gogh cultivated the expression of intensity in his art, not just in terms of ‘an intensity of colour . . . not achieved before’ as Theo pointed out (page 447) but also involving what his brother termed ‘a frenzy’ which made them seem ‘a little further removed from nature.’ Whether this was a quality of perception borrowed from his memory of his ‘attacks,’ perceptual distortions caused by toxins, or whether it was simply part of his search for that (page 448) ‘momentary revelation of superhuman infinitude,’ which he found both in Rembrandt and in Shakespeare, is impossible for me to determine at this point. Whatever the influences upon them, partly material and possibly also sublime, these paintings are works of inspired creativity, which will inevitably have a powerful impact on any careful observer.
A particularly telling perspective, which suggests that something rather uncanny was going which can’t reduce his depiction of a starry night simply to lead poisoning, is explained in the TED talk at the bottom of this post. A friend kindly alerted me to this after I had started posting about van Gogh.
Which brings us on to the matter of spirituality, which is never far away where van Gogh is concerned. How does his spirituality relate to his art?
First and foremost, it must be remembered that he shifted in vocation from preacher to painter.
He later, in 1881, expressed regret for his earlier intense sense of mission (page 123):
If there is anything I regret then it is that period when I allowed mystical and theological profundities to mislead me into withdrawing too much into myself. I have gradually come to change my mind.
Later he looks back and describes that period as (page 216) ‘a few years which I can scarcely comprehend myself, when I was confused by religious ideas, by some kind of mysticism.’
His shift is initially related to his emotional attachment, at this point, to his cousin, Kee Vos. In the 1881 letter he explains to Theo (page 124):
It is my belief that the Jesuitisms of clergyman and devout ladies often make a greater impression on her then on me, Jesuitisms which, precisely because I have acquired some dessous de cartes [inside information], no longer have any hold on me now. But she is devoted to them and would be unable to bear it if the system of resignation and sin and God and I know not one else, proved to be vain.
Later still, in the light of his relationship in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, he is even more emphatic (page 279):
Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its founder was sublime – I have seen through present-day Christianity only too well. That icy coldness mesmerised even me in my youth – but I have taken my revenge since then . . . . by worshipping the love which they, the theologians, call sin, by respecting a whore, etc.
He still retained a belief in some form of transcendence though (page 124-25):
You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead as a door nail. But does that make me an atheist?… [I]f we are alive there is something wondrous about it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God.
Whatever he did believe seems to have some implications for an afterlife (page 153):
The world of takes no account at all of what happens beyond the grave. That is why the world goes no further than its feet will take it.
There is a key letter on religion written in September 1888. This is particularly intriguing for me as a Bahá’í because of the terms in which he describes what he believes, and because he is linking that to his reading of Tolstoy at the time, though it was of course much later that Tolstoy was interested enough to find out more about the Bábí and Bahá’í Faiths  (pages 406-09):
. . . it appears that Tolstoy is enormously interested in the religion of his people.… I believe there is a book on religion by Tolstoy… In it he goes in search, or so I gather from the article, of what remains eternally true in the Christian religion and what all religions have in common.
He admits to not having read the book yet himself but adds (ibid.):
I don’t imagine that his religion is a cruel one which increases our suffering, but must be, on the contrary, a very comforting one, inspiring one with peace of mind and energy, and the courage to live…
He goes onto write:
Tolstoy implies that whatever happens in a violent revolution, there will also be an inner revolution in the people, after which a new religion will be born, or rather, something completely new which will be nameless, but which will have the same effect of consoling, of making life possible, as the Christian religion used to.
This all relates to his idea of what art should be about (page 362):
I am still enchanted by snatches of the past, have a hankering after the eternal, of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols. But when shall I ever get around to doing the starry sky, that picture which is always in my mind?
Rembrandt was often his inspiration and model (page 377-78):
Anything complete and perfect renders infinity tangible . . . . . This is how Rembrandt painted angels. He does a self-portrait, old, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap, a picture from life, in a mirror. . . . . . So Rembrandt paints a supernatural angel with a da Vinci smile behind that old man who resembles himself.
In the end his calling as a painter, with all its hardships and its blessings, both hurt and healed him and left him doubtful about or feeling severed from God (page 394):
Ah, my dear brother, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can well do without God in both my life and also my painting, but, suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life – the power to create.
At the end of this prolonged encounter with Vincent van Gogh I was reminded of another family who had been similarly torn to pieces by a sequence of tragedies: the Brontës.
Six months after Vincent died, Theo was dead. Lies, his sister, had borne a child in secret, which she abandoned to a peasant family. His brother, Cor, shot himself in 1900, during a bout of fever in the Transvaal. Two years later, his sister Wil was committed to an asylum where she died forty years later. His mother saw most of this unfold until her death in 1907 (details from Van Gogh: The Life – page 867). Patrick Brontë, parish priest, had seen, by the age of 78, his wife, his son and all his five daughters die tragically young: three of those daughters are now famous novelists.
What is exceptional of course about these families is the genius of at least one member. Their tragedies, sadly, were more or less the norm for those days. That death was common meant that the need to decide what to do with your short life was vividly present. Only a favoured few had much choice in the matter.
In our prosperous Western civilisation, we all in the end have to make a decision about what our lives are for, and where the power to accomplish that comes from, and fortunately many more of us now than then have the power to enact that choice.
That’s why van Gogh’s life resonates so strongly still, both through his paintings and his letters. His struggle is our struggle, his defeats and triumphs ours as well. His inspiration, in spite of all his flaws and weaknesses, can hopefully raise us all to follow our calling and enhance our world in whatever way we can.
I hope this sequence of posts has done some kind of justice to the genius and compassion of this flawed but brilliant man and that I really was right not to confine the intensity of my thoughts to my diary, but rather tap away on my internet machine in the sunlight in celebration of his supremely creative life.
The Unexpected Maths behind van Gogh’s Starry Night
 A brief account of this view can be found in an article by Natalie Angier, published in the 12 December 1991 edition of the NY Times. There is also a detailed article by Wilfred Niels Arnold in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 2004, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 22–43 which can be downloaded in full from the website.
 The link accesses the abstract only.
 See the link for more detail in the article from which the following quote is taken. ‘Tolstoi had encountered the Bábí movement as early as 1894 and maintained sporadic contact with Bahá’ís from 1901 until his death in 1910. Ghadirian has recounted Tolstoi’s vision of ideal religion, and his encounters with Bahá’ís, beginning with Isabel Grinevskaya and later ‘Aziz’ulláh Jazzah Khorasani, who was apparently despatched from `Akká by `Abdu’l-Bahá to speak to Tolstoi during a period of house arrest that followed his excommunication from the Orthodox church. Collins and Jasion, having recently reviewed 80 published sources on Tolstoi and the Bábí and Bahá’í religions, have cautioned that the novelist’s attitude to both religions was ambivalent, moving between the sympathies he expressed to Isabel Grinevskaya, and even to “Caucasian Mohammedans”, and others more negative. They suggest it is more appropriate to view the positive statements Tolstoi made on the Bahá’í Faith as testimony to some moments of perspicacity about the future of a religion which was at that time only beginning to make inroads in the West and undeveloped countries. `Abdu’l-Bahá notes that Tolstoi was a well-wisher of humanity but that he was still caught up in politics and opinion.’