This is why a tainted society has invented psychiatry to defend itself against the investigations of certain superior intellects whose faculties of divination would be troublesome. No, van Gogh was not mad, but his paintings were bursts of Greek fire, atomic bombs, whose angle of vision would have been capable of seriously upsetting the spectral conformity of the bourgeoisie. In comparison with the lucidity of van Gogh, psychiatry is no better than a den of apes who are themselves obsessed and persecuted and who possess nothing to mitigate the most appalling states of anguish and human suffocation but a ridiculous terminology. To a man, this whole gang of respected scoundrels and patented quacks are all erotomaniacs.
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Given that the acknowledgment of influence works retrospectively and selectively, it is fair to say that the cultural past is partially created in the present. There are few artists more subject to this process than Vincent van Gogh, yet its effect on him is largely one of tyrannical stasis rather than reinvention.
At first, the Dutch artist was served well by those he inspired, much more so than he had been by the art establishment during his lifetime. His uses of colour guided Matisse and the Fauvists. His manipulations of form according to emotion proved immensely influential on the Expressionists and their later more abstract offshoots.
All these developments were reciprocal. Very few major artists in the decades following his death and discovery remained untouched by his work. Each created their own version of Van Gogh, with which to be inspired or with which to wrestle. For a remarkably productive period, Vincent was plural. For many years, he had starved. He had endured financial hardship, poor physical health and recurring spells of despair and loneliness.
It was much too tempting to try to posthumously rectify the unjust neglect he faced in life, selling only one painting The Red Vineyard , compared with his artistic brilliance. So we canonised him in films, books and songs. He has been suffering for our sins ever since. It focuses on the Van Gogh beloved of Antonin Artaud , a renaissance man lost in a dark age.
He also struggled with mental illness and laudanum addiction, with his agonies and ecstasies, accentuated by the darkening political climate of his day, giving rise to a chillingly prophetic one-man movement — the Theatre of Cruelty. In a state of distress, fearing his compatriot Paul Gauguin was due to leave him, Van Gogh had partially hacked his left ear off, wrapped it in newspaper and delivered it to a brothel for safe-keeping. During the resulting ill-advised pilgrimage, he was arrested in, and deported from, the Irish Republic, ending up incarcerated in a French psychiatric ward where he was subjected to electroshock therapy.
He emerged in the aftermath of the second world war and the Holocaust, prematurely aged and ravaged, as evidenced by a revealing series of photographs here by Denise Colomb. The most harrowing of these shots, his empty workspace, reflects the fact that Artaud did not long survive his release, dying of an overdose of chloral hydrate at the age of When it works, the effects can be invigorating and devastating.
The consensus that the wrongs heaped on Van Gogh have somehow been rectified by our adoration is undermined if not completely shattered. Consolation is not ours to give or take.
It is not the case of some trite romantic suggestion that Van Gogh felt too much. Instead, there is often the sense that things are fraying at the edges and in glances. In paintings such as Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles and Les Alyscamps both , there is more than a hint of the sinister lurking figures in the works of Edvard Munch, another pupil of Van Gogh.
Might we even see in the strange incongruous colours used a prophecy of the tropics he would flee to? What unites Artaud and Van Gogh, as the complementary quotes underline, is a wounded hyper-lucidity; insurmountable pain, a deep appreciation of almost miraculous and transitory beauty, and a mania in enduring one and capturing the other.
These similarities are most obvious in their portraits. While the expressions may seem impassive, the merging of background and facial features is alarming. In the latter, it is almost as if the figure has been tortured, with a catatonic look vaguely reminiscent of the medieval Wound Man illustration.
In his brutally honest self-portraits, Artaud seems acutely aware that he was spiralling far from the strikingly handsome young man shown in accompanying film clips.
His Self-Portrait is an astonishingly accurate and forlorn representation, while his Theatre of Cruelty reveals a mind immediately preoccupied with mortality though not without a hint of eroticism. From afar, his paintings look harmonious, learning from the pointillists that shades blend at a distance. Up close, they reveal themselves to be rough seas of flowing colour. In Self-Portrait with Easel , the humanity of his stare, with his eyes as deep wells, contrasts with the agitated brush strokes that form the shape, texture and contours of his coat and continue on to his skin.
By the time of his self-portrait of the following year, the forms have changed dramatically. The blues swim and swirl. There is little to distinguish his clothes from his environment. His face and stare are bold and defined suggesting a much sturdier physiognomy, yet the world around him is in unstoppable flux.
Though it suggests our faces change radically as our moods do, there is also more than a stark suggestion that the artist is suffering from malnutrition. The fact that Van Gogh was aiming so desperately at serenity suggests something was manifestly not right. In Artaud, the unease is explicit; in Van Gogh it is implicit. Artaud was right to identify this tendency in his would-be mentor. This would be expected in a place of hedonistic abandon such as The Dance Hall in Arles , much less in the placid wallpapered surrounds of his Augustine Roulin portrait, but it is there still.
As attempts at tranquillity, they are failures just as much as they are monumental triumphs of art. The whirling, churning effect of the wind on the clouds, trees and wheat fields best shown in Country Road in Provence By Night, is wonderful until we consider that those days may have been entirely free from any breeze.
What hope did mere humans have when the mind could do this to cathedrals of solid stone? When he lashes out at Dr Gachet who appears here in the famous mournfully contemplative portrait , Theo Van Gogh and to a lesser extent Gauguin, it seems steps too far, into the realms of paranoia.
In effect, Artaud accuses the three people who did more than anyone else to help Van Gogh of being his gravediggers. To insinuate that he was as good as murdered robs the painter of his free will. His early missionary work, preaching to coal miners in Belgium, was an unmitigated disaster. He was no doubt a genius and one afflicted with a terrible illness. There are, however, no saints nor should there be. The reason Artaud immortalised Van Gogh in his blazing screed is obvious and entirely forgivable.
It was a kind of projection, given that he himself had suffered so much and saw no contemporaries that could share or understand his burden. Society may not have treated Van Gogh with respect, or garlanded him as his talent clearly deserved, but it did not harm him in the direct sense it did with Artaud.
In the midst of the clamour and commerce, it is entirely reasonable to surmise that whatever we did to these artists, we would do it all over again, despite our protestations to the contrary. The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.
Van Gogh/Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society
Given that the acknowledgment of influence works retrospectively and selectively, it is fair to say that the cultural past is partially created in the present. There are few artists more subject to this process than Vincent van Gogh, yet its effect on him is largely one of tyrannical stasis rather than reinvention. At first, the Dutch artist was served well by those he inspired, much more so than he had been by the art establishment during his lifetime. His uses of colour guided Matisse and the Fauvists.
Van Gogh: the man suicided by society
The confrontation of these two schizophrenias appeared tempting to me. The exhibition is disappointing because confrontation did not take place. The psychiatrists express themselves only in the catalogue which is very interesting. The pretext with this meeting, it is this book, where Artaud finds this formula which will remain with the posterity: the suicide man of the society. I thus decided to read it again. Artaud is an icon.