:"On the Verge of Insanity. Van Gogh and his Illness"
Exhibition - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam - From15 July 2016 Up until 25 September 2016
"On The Verge of Insanity” What an insulting title for a “research exhibition” purporting to be about the life of a visual art genius. What is it that is so enticing about promoting a supposed link between creativity and insanity? Is it that we are trying to prove we are “better than” - i.e. : not “insane” like van Gogh? Is it, conversely that we are, but god forbid someone else finds out? Are we really as enlightened as we pretend to be? Are we really interested in being concretely embedded in a learning process which would render us more knowledgeable, more understanding and more appreciative of the varying degrees of capacity, of functioning and dysfunctionalities we all must deal with in our daily lives? Or are we simply side-show freak aficionados?
What is it in this dead man’s manifesto of “being nuts” that makes peeping goons of us all? Is it that he is dead and therefore “safe to play with”; so dead he isn’t able to take that ear cutting razor to our rather ghoulish psyches; so dead he can’t deny us the pleasure of believing whatever it is we choose to believe, and this, without requiring facts to bolster our oh so contemporary contentions?
We were once passionate about the incredible creativity of this man. Today, the tide has turned. I guess we all have to kill off our heroes lest they remind us we possibly, maybe, might be just as “crazy” as they purportedly are. In essence, we simply need van Gogh to be “mad”. . . Quite an enlightened mental health footing to be standing on. That “need”. . . What an enlightened research project that would be!
But why am I so irritated? Everyone knows that Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear! Really? Not true!. Everyone has been “told” he did. And everyone believes what they are told by those who just as intensely "cross their heart and hope to die" tell us they speak the truth. And anyway. . . It’s easier to go along and get along than have to “think” and even argue about what is factual and what is not.
With van Gogh passed away so very long ago, his work remains but, it seems, his “story” remains even more so. And with him long gone, we're free to romanticize, manipulate and conjure - all without corroborating evidence or proof that anything we “sing about” is true. And why would we bother to study any available facts further anyway? He was obviously crazy, wasn’t he?
Details do tend to get in the way. . . And so, it’s a lot easier to deal with “who’s its and what’s its” like : Did he chop off a chunk? A whole ear? A tiny bit? A big bit? Anything at all? Did someone else chop it off? Better go with self-mutilation. That’s “in” right now and sells a lot more t-shirts.
In the end, it is the "expert" cohorts who have led us astray - the least honest by promoting lies, the most honest by not delving into a situation which merited clarity - if only for the respect van Gogh was and is due. But such is not what has been nor is it yet to be. When contemporary scientific research acceptably incorporates more the concepts of “maybe”, “possibly”, “might have been”, “could have been”, “it is said” and the ubiquitous “hmmm, I think. . . ” what we get, in the end, is propaganda, manipulation, emoting - generally for product promotion purposes, drama and entertainment - along with all the benefits of enticing a paying audience. . .
Now, what is not in contention is that an ear was sliced. What is in contention is that the letter of Docteur Rey, being presented in this new exhibition “for the first time ever!!!! Come one, come all!!! provides evidence in that regard. Docteur Félix Rey’s report does no such thing. Dated the 18th of August 1930, it is a rather ironic note in the present circumstances. The most poignant and relevant comments made by the doctor are not obsessively related to the “ear event” as one would expect. Rather, the missive is a very human and not medically based plea. Loosely translated, it reads : “I would hope that “you” (the reader) would not miss the importance in these matters - and that is the celebration (as it deserves to be) of the genius of this remarkable painter.” To whom Docteur Rey addressed these words is not clear through the display of this artifact in the exhibition. No related references are made - either pre or post statement. In essence, this letter provides nothing but titillation.
The fact remains that interest in (obsession with?) the minutiae of van Gogh’s life is rather disturbing. It reminds us of our times. . . that, as individuals and collectives we too often remain at the low ebb of humanity : side-show freak (reality TV) aficionados. Our interest in others is far too often associated with their incapacities, weaknesses, frailties, foibles and failures rather than their extra-ordinariness or even ordinariness. We are attracted, or so it seems, to what makes others “weaker or lesser” (than we?) - lest the cravings for attention we so desperately try to hide impale us with the self-esteem issues we so ardently are fixated with today.
When did we lose our capacity to appreciate greatness and especially that which exists DESPITE a superlative creator’s mental health issues? Have we ever been able to recognize another’s striving and thriving without being envious or jealous? Maybe that would make a more substantive research project than one which, once again, highlights our ongoing madness fixations re : van Gogh. But then, we’re not dead. . . And we might not like being probed by our "oh so imperfect peers”.
Sadly creativity, celebrated as a concomitant adjunct (now that is repetitive!!!) of madness or disability, is a growing “trend”. It has become so prevalent in the visual arts today, that some even promote themselves (first) as having a disability - either physical or mental - before promoting the work they do “despite” that disability. It seems some of us would rather receive pity than understanding, support and encouragement. Or is it that we seek our artwork to be considered of a higher caliber through associating it with our inherent or "adopted for the purpose" eccentricities.
Where mental health issues should be considered seriously and recognized through a looking glass of compassion and empathy, there seems to be a growing preference for manipulation over truth, profit over self-respect. By constantly harping on the mental health issues of van Gogh we inevitably belittle creativity, talent and lives fully given over to a passionate search for excellence. Even worse, we belittle those who suffer from mental health issues which are seriously real. In light of these wonderings, and within these parameters, is it that we are “putting in their place”; humbling those whom we see as so much more? Or are we egoistically elevating ourselves to a level that we do not deserve? That’s another research project which would well be worth the undertaking.
Coming back to the “On The Verge Of Insanity” hoax. . . (Ooops!) show. . . a book is being launched for the occasion. It is written by Ms Bernadette Murphy, an amateur historian and first time author. In an interview she states :
“There’s something semi religious to the way he offers a part of his body to repair a part of her body,” Ms. Murphy said at a preview of the exhibition. “She had a nasty scar on her body, and it’s as if he’s giving her fresh flesh.”
Would Ms Murphy please stand and deliver : What are her qualifications to utter such religiosity nonsense, Such utterances are more in keeping with sensation and ignorance than fact? What is it with us that we prefer peeping through a hole in the wall that we ourselves have inserted rather than stand in the open learning about what is or is not fact in the mental health arena. How is it that research and science have become no more than an assuming and a following up with anything and everything that serves to bolster the “veracity” of our emoting “spiritual” proclamations"? For such an enlightened era we are definitely showing ourselves to be seriously wanting. . .
Ms Nienke Bakker, curator of this exhibition, also adds to the insensitivity of this “ghoulish show and tell” by pointing out that apart from 25 artworks, it will present “other objects” like a corroded revolver that van Gogh MAY have used to kill himself when he APPARENTLY (not factually) committed suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Is this the fodder upon which respected historians, scientists and researchers base their conclusions? Or are we dealing, once again, with lowest common denominator titillation “à la Barnum and Bailey”? Ms. Bakker further adds (based on what “she thinks”) such insight as : this was the “delirious, unconscious behavior that became characteristic of van Gogh’s series of mental breakdowns”. Has Ms Bakker a degree in either psychology or psychiatry? If not. . . Should one, not recognized as professional in the psychological arena, refrain from making such nonsensical statements that only an amateur could spew forth without recrimination?
Ms. Bakker further adds :“The three most frequently asked questions are: What happened with his ear? What kind of illness did he have? and, Why did he commit suicide?”
One would think that a legitimate curator would have directed questioners, ringing their hands with glee, to the fine works of the artist who’s only goal was to celebrate the wonders of life and light, not the ghoulish implications of a side-show freak enhanced death.
Steven Naifeh, an American historian and author, puts the final nail in this coffin of idiocy when he states that after giving this show the benefit of the doubt he could only conclude that the “proof” offered up by this reality TV display (surely in search of increased numbers of museum visitors) is neither new nor is it credible.”
If the goal of this exhibition is “not” to link the artwork to van Gogh’s mental state but rather to make clear that he was struggling to work despite a debilitating illness, its intentions and concept fail miserably. To realize such an intent would have been more honestly and less creepily accomplished by creating yet another exhibition focused on van Gogh’s incredible work - work which has never ceased to base itself on one wish and one wish only : and that was to highlight the wondrous extra ordinariness of the world before him. . . and us.
And, crazy as he was, van Gogh simply persisted in this quest to celebrate life and light “despite” his greatest obstacle : the fact that most of his “sane people” audience failed and continues to fail to grasp the obvious, the real and the wondrous.
Our Prime Ministers - Oil - 36" x 72" - 2006
In 2006 I painted a portrait of all the Liberal Prime Ministers who had, in their own styles, touched our lives since the beginning of Canada. Was 2006 the end of an era? . . . Not likely.
Our Prime Ministers - Oil - 36" x 72" - 2016
Following the electoral event of 2015, I completed the painting by adding the symbol of a Liberal renewal, of an encouraged youth cohort, of a dedication to an enriched 21st century vision for all. Onward and forward.
Prints available : $74.99. (includes tax and shipping) : Go to : PURCHASE
Okay. . . It’s underway. But what does it all mean? Well, in my case, downsizing means going from an 800 sq ft studio which has an additional 600 sq ft of painting, drawing and framing storage space and a workshop - and all that being reduced to a 200 sq ft "everything". . . It means getting rid of 48 years of accumulated “whats-its” and making it all work in a space that cries out : “You’re doing what?!!!”
The studio library of 1000 + books is my starter. I sort and box them for donation. They are going to a college art department as student reference and research material. 600 of those books are eligible as they range from anatomy, to sociology in relation to the visual arts, to portraiture, to still life and landscape painting, to abstract expressionism to sculpting, drawing, business in the visual arts, etc. A truck is revving its motor as we speak for a soon to be announced pick up. The college is happy. The students can’t believe someone in the visual arts actually made enough money to buy all these books!
That done, there is a lot of studio equipment no longer being used on a regular basis. It has therefore been allocated to serve the needs of an art high school and its students who may not have the funds to arm themselves for the battle of survival in the visual arts. That equipment is comprised of easels of every kind, computer monitors, a jet printer, lighting equipment and a whole slew of lights and stands for exhibitions - both indoor and out. Then there is plein air paraphernalia and classical Greek and Roman casts used for anatomical studies or. . . for just plain looking at in the studio.
Then, (sob) there is my giant Italian hydraulic drafting table and cherished Italian easel (boohoo!!!). These are still used daily yet take up too much space. Gasp! I’m actually abandoning them to unknown hands!!! (But then, I’m getting the latest in wall easels for the new space and am designing a fold-away drafting table. So, I generally stop sniveling quickly enough).
My cherished Canadian Tire rolling tool chest - cum neutral grey tempered glass palette cabinet, designed to hold turps and mediums and brushes and paints and rags and scrapers and knives. . . . (Another sob). (Downsizing can get depressing!) Nonetheless, it has to go too. . . I’ve argued with myself about losing it. . . It’s bright cherry red for gawd sake!! How can I give it up? I’ve been hugging it everyday for eons now! It’s just so pretty. . . But, it has to go. Like me, it has a paunch and just takes up too much space in the studio. Only one of us can stay. . .
All that being thought out and undertaken, I begin cleaning out the lateral filing cabinets holding 4 + decades of reference material and business files. All the vintage (more than 20 year old) drawings and sketches are now sorted and reclassified. Then I stand and stare for a few hours. . . After a 5th coffee, I’m ready. . . There are 35,000 + reference slides to sort from exhibition trips to Paris, Nice, Venice, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Jerusalem, Bermuda, Ireland, London, Washington, Washington state, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon, San Diego, Chicago and so many parts of Canada. Which of these individual 4 square inch images will I consider working with in the future? How many can I allow to bite the dust? And so I start. . . (hours, days pass. . . ). I’ve cut three 4 foot long file drawers down to 2. . . 6 more filing cabinets to go.
Anything else??? Well, there are the archives. All bona fide creatives with a lust for life after death have an archive. It’s just part of the scene. Have to have this info sorted and extraneous (read useless) material - once considered vital - neatly categorized - or dumped. Why? It all says we’ve been “here” and that (just maybe) our story is worthy of being remembered. And just maybe again, some young future researcher will discover our hidden artistic greatness among the perfectly organized university shelves which are generally dedicated to the protection of their dust mites rather than ours. :)
Now, back to downsizing reality. There is the management system of all the artworks ever created by “moi” over these past many years. It must be updated. It is the app which says who bought or didn’t buy? Who has or doesn’t have which artwork? Which of these artworks is memorable - or not? Which should have been destroyed the day they were signed?. . . Which were passed down by deceased clients to their kids who (wondering why their parents ever bought this “thing”) send it off to an auction house, antique store - or garbage bin? That’s called creating “provenance”. To this end, I use my Chaos Intellect email contact management software. It has a projects page that is so deliciously malleable that it is better than most studio administration software on the market - AND way cheaper! (By the way, no fees were paid this painter for this unsolicited product promotion. It’s just as good as I say it is.)
For all intents and purposes, all of these things which need doing in a downsizing process reflect what is required to embrace a new studio scene. . . It's like enjoying the sight of a blank white sheet of paper, a pristine white canvas, a suave head of white hair. . . :) You never know how you got there, but you're there.
And so the saga continues. . . Pull out, stare, wonder, open the box, sort in 3 piles - the keepers, the give-aways, the garbage piles. In the end, the idea is to keep only that which you need to function well in a small dimensioned space. Many years ago, in my The Compete Colored Pencil Book, I not only described that it was possible to have a studio space in a closet, I said it was more than acceptable for it to be there. I still believe that big (spaces) do not a “good visual artist” make. A friend proved that well enough recently. The only studio he has is a kitchen table. And despite the restrictions, he designed and made a wondrous sounding (and beautifully finished) acoustic (Spanish) guitar - all within that tiny space. The sound of it alone, as his fingers caressed the strings, speaks to the creative act more than the space it was born in. In essence, it’s what we do within the area we call our studio. And, for me, if and when there is a call to work yet another “BIG” commission, I’ll rent an industrial garage for a month or so. Voilà! Problem solved.
To summarize. How devastating is all of this “downsizing” thing (this creating more with less) for painters, sculptors and writers (ranters) such as we? In time it matters little. Creative people are a determined breed which goes on despite. . . Eventually, we settle into our new found intimate studio digs - wherever and however big these may be and. . . we paint, draw, sculpt, write and begin to smile bigger than even the space allows. That is what creatives do. They go on despite a smaller carbon footprint, a lesser din, a more intimate space. In the end, gems get polished and stories get told and ideas continue to “get born”. And this goes on until there is no “going on” left and the last created piece sits on an easel or drawing board - awaiting our final signature.
Happy downsizing, whomever!
As a painter I've been spoiled for many a year. My working space in the studio is approximately 900 sq ft. My storage for the studio (for frames and artworks) is nearly 600. But alas, Marie and I are downsizing. The "new" condo dimensions generously offer a 200 sq ft space reserved for "moi". What to do design of space-wise? I've already ordered a "wall easel". Other than that the sq ft configuration is up for grabs. Any ideas?
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, this hurricane was not. Sorolla was a painter emeritus of wondrous impressions of the Spanish kind - huge images of the lives of his people; as rich and luscious as he could and did make their presence in his selection of Mediterranean colours.
This Joaquin has been a belligerent character, a pushy, loud and arrogant thing shoving its way up the Atlantic towards Bermuda after harassing the Bahamas for 3 days and nights.
It was raining cats and dogs and every other animal on the island (or at least those animals without wings flying by felt the winds to be phenomenal). But how lucky can one be! I’m here in Bermuda, standing outside our living quarters, at my weighted down easel sketching away the movements and greying colours and soft edged shapes as the bushes and the trees, being swayed wildly about and torn up and ripped apart by Joaquin, dance a fire dance like rag dolls on a string.
We knew coming down to Bermuda at this time of year, there was at least one chance of encountering blustery weather. We had been around for a few wild episodes before.
To be arrogant, this hurricane named Joaquin is no match for the intrepid Sir Bernard the painter. To be humble (as I should be) this experience is nothing less than wondrous as 65+ mile per hour winds test the stability of my easel and increase towards their 100+ km hour wind goal. The palette has more water than oil paints on it as rain sheets itself down like sharp razors.
But “we” (the royal assignation) carry on!
Painting a hurricane is more about painting sound and movement and knife edged rain drops and deformed shapes once familiar. Hard edges don’t exist as the ever-changing wind gusts redefine what trees and bushes and skies usually look like. The idea is to keep the brush moving and sliding as the wind dares you to try another stroke. (I am LOVING this!)
After 3/4 of the way through my plein air sketch, I was about to be blown away despite being on the lee side of the conflagration of wind and rain. Nonetheless, few are ever privy to such painting exercises and so I carry on some more.
I paint in oils so the rain drops become a flood on my palette and smoke up my glasses. They definitely add much to the oil mixtures. Whether good or bad, is to be left to the imagination. I’ll add the last details of the painting inside as my wife and friends encourage me to drop the silliness and get back inside. Ooops! A major tree branch just flew by! I guess I’ll quit now!!
Just about time to go inside. . . The winds are reaching 55+ miles an hour and holding the easel and myself upright is becoming a bit tricky now. . . :)
Days like this are wondrously contemplative despite the roar of the waves rolling in.
In 2008 I created this computer composition as a social commentary "homage" to Barbie. Through it I recognize that beauty is nothing but ephemeral - and yet it is this "limited package" - this perception of what is acceptably beautiful that we have been selling to our daughters for more than 50 years. (2009 being Barbie's 50th) I entitle it : Venus Reborn. I would hope that Botticelli would not be offended in this telling truth.
In 1951, I received the one and only "art award" I have ever received. It was the Boy Scouts Art Badge. Since besting myself is more challenging than trying to best others in competitions, I have never really put any real heart into the process of art competitions as a professional.
Ah, nostalgia! How lucky we are at an early age. . . We can be both cute and awarded at the same time. Today. . . many years later, we are no longer cute nor are we ever considered for awards. . . . (Sigh!)
In 1967 I dared have a first show - a first solo exhibition. I was 22. The prices on the typewritten list were good for the times and also good to start - i.e. : growth possibilities. Was there quality in the presentation? That, it seems was a matter of speculation. . . Being a bilingual country we had/have the benefit of 2 languages and therefore 2 cultural perspectives when presenting reviews of art exhibitions. In English, the critics were welcoming - less so were the French newspapers. . . And in hindsight the French were correct in being critical of my debut. "Get back to the drawing board!". . . "Learn from history. Don't repeat it. . ." "Amateur work." "Keep your efforts to yourself." They left me with lots to ponder. I guess encouragement comes in many forms. . . .
In 1984, my model Greg and I created this drawing in coloured pencil. It commemorates those nights drawing by flashlight. It is entitled : Too Young For Anatomy - 16" x 20" - Coloured pencil - 1984
Overall, my parents didn’t say much about the obsession I had with drawing the human figure, since I had already voiced my determination to become a portrait painter. That being said, my mother was still of two minds. In the end though, she capitulated; buying me an "artist's mannequin" - a “male” (neutered) mannequin - one with no defined appendage. . . And in the mind of a child, that naturally focuses all the attention on those “missing parts”. But then again. . . a female mannequin was out of the question. . . It had breasts.
The mannequin was OK for a while. It was useful for setting up poses which I could not do with the static book images. But, it looked like a "naked doll" and I was laughed at when I walked around with it. I soon returned to the “real thing” within the pages of the encyclopedia and National Geographic magazines.
At least at night, after everyone was asleep, there was no one there to laugh at my "obsession".
I am a painter and writer who's whole life has been influenced by one precept : "thinking each our own thoughts makes us relevant and relevance makes us powerful."