Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait
"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.
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Bernard Poulin. . . I paint, I draw, I write