On Art And Insanity

09/05/2017 12:12 BST | Updated 09/05/2017 12:12 BST

Vincent wasn't a rich man. He started a career in the city from a young age, but idealised a simpler life in the countryside. He wasn't a lucky man either, he was frequently rejected in love, and spent most of his life broke and relying on income from his family. He disdained institutional authority; was deemed too creative for art school, too charitable for church.

Like many young men, Vincent suffered from mental illness, and was acutely aware of how this shaped perceptions of him:

"What am I in the eyes of most people - a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person - somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then - even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart."

- Vincent to his brother Theo, 21 July 1882

Vincent was an artist. At one point, after a fight with his friend, he cut off a portion of his own ear in a fit of psychosis, and took the severed and bloodied vestige and offered it to a woman in a brothel. Maybe he wanted affirmation that at his most repulsive he was still deserving of love, or maybe it's futile to speculate on the motives of psychotic action. The Van Gogh museum politely refers to this as "the ear incident", emphasising that his genius flourished in spite of his mental illness, not because of it.

However, it is absurd to argue that the sadness that coloured Vincent's perspective is entirely distinct from the turmoil of Van Gogh's paintings, and the suggestion that mind and mentality are extricable is a futile attempt to dissociate art from the emotion that fuels it. And while certain exceptional features of his art show direct correlation with the deterioration of his mental health - the luminescence in paintings made during psychotic periods follow a mathematical distribution of turbulence (an undoubtedly unconscious decision) - it is crucial not to romanticise his sickness. It is important to acknowledge that depression saps all joy of creation, anxiety seeps fear into any act of initiation, and those who suffer in the grips of mental illness can and should strive to become healthier with medical intervention and lifestyle change. But Vincent van Gogh sought comfort in his art, which allowed him the tranquillity of expression, from his mind which too often overwhelmed.

In the ten years he spent as an artist, his weariness grew, and he became despondent under the weight of failure. Of nine hundred paintings he sold one, and near the age of 37 he became convinced that no hope lay in the future:

"I believe that certainly it's better to bring up children than to expend all one's nervous energy in making paintings, but what can you do, I myself am now, at least I feel I am, too old to retrace my steps or to desire something else. The desire has left me, although the moral pain of it remains."

- Vincent to his brother and sister-in-law, 10 July 1890

He took his own life a few weeks after writing this letter. Ten years later, he would become one of the most celebrated artists to grace the Earth. The moral pain he suffered was a necessary condition of life, and in his refusal to endure for another ten years, he deprived the world of more art, and himself of recognition.

A decade was enough to produce the entirety of Van Gogh's portfolio, and would have been enough to change Vincent's life. Ultimately, it only consists of time, and is therefore survivable. But in the grips of depression, he was convinced otherwise. And though he took his life thinking "the sadness will last forever", a painting of almond blossoms against a blue sky, made for his nephew a few months prior and pregnant with joy, suggests otherwise.


Source: Van Gogh Musuem

In our well-meaning attempts to promote better mental health, and empower individuals to be kinder to themselves, we appear to have created a dichotomy of 'healthy' and 'ill', which leaves those who lie firmly on a spectrum classifying themselves as the latter. This year, mental health awareness week aims to promote lifestyles that leave people feeling as though they are thriving rather than surviving. Vincent would not have considered himself to have thrived as he nibbled on paint and drank more than he ate. He did not survive his illness. But if one were to only consider Van Gogh's art, a prolific portfolio collectively worth billions, he flourished. Vincent acknowledged that he smoked too much, and drank absinthe frequently to excess, and these choices (a philosophically tricky concept when discussing substance abuse, but a necessary one to confront) may have contributed to the brevity of Van Gogh's one-painting-a-day career. However, had he simply survived a fraction of a lifetime longer, the question of his thriving might have been moot. Occasionally, in the grips of mental illness, it is possible that the very act of survival is sufficient to be considered thriving.

Recognising the comfort Vincent van Gogh drew from his art necessitates acknowledging what he required comfort from. Not every individual who suffers from poor mental health will be a creative genius, and not every act of brilliance has its seat in madness (just ask Camus). Not all art will come from great pain, but great pain has the power to inspire some of the most transcendental art humanity has beheld - Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen and Robin Williams stand testament to that. And the potential for connection that suffering brings with it can only be realised when the impulse to express and create is acted upon.

The world was deprived because Vincent van Gogh considered a life not spent thriving one unworthy of surviving. He had a capacity to speak to people that transcended words, a capacity fundamentally intertwined with the way he saw the world, which fuelled both his illness and his art. Though in his case one consumed the other, a choice remains for the rest of us who lie on the spectrum of sanity: value what the madness can teach, and seek help when it threatens to overwhelm.