Just before his death, Vincent van Gogh said to his beloved brother Theo, ‘La tristesse durera toujours’ – the sadness will last forever. And many well-known facts of the artist’s life – his complex and debilitating mental illness, an inability to exist comfortably within the world, the long string of failed careers and relationships – seem to reinforce such a view. But what they don’t reflect is Van Gogh’s extraordinary vitality and profound spiritual devotion to the natural world and its inhabitants: forces that illuminated his life and linger in the works that continue to astound and move us. Van Gogh leaves us a legacy not of despair, but of the passion and achievement which can exist alongside, and in spite of, great anguish.
Van Gogh and the Seasons, opening at the NGV in late April, is the most complete representation of the artist’s works ever seen in Australia. The collection of nearly 50 paintings and drawings reveals in luminous intensity the artist’s determination to capture the world as he knew it, using colour with abandon to reveal landscapes and people, but also the emotional quickening at their core. The vibrant works reveal both the artist’s technical power, and his defining desire to transport us, ‘to touch people… by expressing deep and profound emotions’. Van Gogh gives us a world that is our own, and yet new. His works are infused with that same ‘irresistible force’ that once drew him to wonder at simple things. To the end of his life, he was ever the young man who yearned to ‘be of use in the world’.
Alongside the paintings and drawings are a carefully curated selection of Van Gogh’s letters and pieces from his personal art collection – including the black and white prints he called his ‘bible’. These open up for us the artist’s extraordinary mind and personality – and the voice in which he examined himself, literature, and his work through periods of peace and turmoil alike. They reveal, by turns, an intense and passionate self-analyst, a humanitarian, a widely-read, multi-lingual intellectual, and a creator for whom artifice, social convention and the limitations of polite society were not ignored, but simply non-existent. He gave of himself continually and unguardedly, even beyond the bounds of reason. One theory suggests that he offered his ear, freshly severed in a much-debated fit or seizure, to a young maidservant horribly scarred by a dog attack. The gesture was not intended to revolt, or shock; in the artist’s mind, it signified deepest empathy. Inappropriate, yes; macabre, certainly: but it perhaps communicates that even in his most disturbed and tormented state, van Gogh was motivated by an extraordinary urge to connect with others and offer something of himself to alleviate their suffering.
This exhibition, organised around Van Gogh’s profound responses to the seasons and the stages of life he believed them to represent gives us not the painter we think we know, but one far more vivid, flawed – and human. Van Gogh’s genius means that his work is instantly recognisable. But his passion for the world did not prevent him from being deeply uncomfortable within it: awkward, demanding, and troubled. And perhaps it is the ability to create the work from a place of extreme personal distress that is his greatest achievement. Despite periods of peace and productivity, much of Van Gogh’s adult life was plagued with difficulty. His depression and anxiety were utterly debilitating and the intermittent hyper-excitement suggestive of bipolar disorder made him an unpredictable and discomfiting presence. He lacked social and practical skills and struggled to create lasting relationships.
Van Gogh’s strongest connection was to Theo, who encouraged him to become an artist (and who was then, probably to his great distress, saddled with the responsibility of supporting Vincent financially). An art dealer, Theo seemed to consider painting the best outlet for his older brother, perhaps hoping it would provide him with solace and purpose. And he was right. The fervour Vincent had once reserved for God was transferred to his art: he worked at breakneck speed to produce what are now his most beloved and iconic works. But even Theo did not predict the cost of this defining obsession. Vincent’s zeal would also violently exacerbate his mental illness, eventually leading to poor physical health and several complete mental breakdowns.
Van Gogh was articulate on the subject of his mental health. He did not mind ‘being eccentric’, and yet was ‘often in the greatest misery’. When living in France, he was reviled and tormented by some of the villagers who lived nearby. ‘People suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity,’ Vincent observed. For someone of such intense empathy, these responses must have been painful. And yet the paintings of this time are full of light and beauty. For Van Gogh, work had indeed become succour and comfort, both despair’s catalyst and its antidote. ‘One must seek distraction [from melancholy],’ Vincent wrote, ‘…and the right thing is to work.’ And work he did: in his last 10 years, he created over 2,000 pieces. This exhibition includes many of his drawings, the skill he considered ‘the root of everything’, as well as the black-and-white prints he collected from an early age whose lines, composition, and social and spiritual commentary all shaped the artist he became.
Van Gogh’s pastoral landscapes perhaps represent the artist at his happiest. In them, we perceive the internal ‘calm, pure harmony and music’ he described – an antidote to the mental cacophony of illness and distress. While we cannot downplay Van Gogh’s suffering our lasting impression should be of a luminous, vital individual making every effort to connect with and represent the world he loved, even to the point of exhaustion and collapse. ‘‘I put my heart and soul into my work,’ Vincent wrote, ‘and have lost my mind in the process.’ In an act of extraordinary self-awareness, it was the artist who checked himself into the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where he would paint many of his most famous works.
A former medieval monastery of extraordinary beauty, it was a refuge, and Vincent, no madman, only a deeply committed artist seeking both care and the conditions that would allow him to work.
Van Gogh’s mental illness has been endlessly speculated over and mythologised but to see the tortured artist trope, rather than the person, is to err gravely. Van Gogh worked without limitation or apology. Starry Night was not the product of illness, nor was pain its prerequisite; it was the creation of an individual whose intensity and tenacity made suffering almost inevitable.
The seasons, for Van Gogh, represent the cycle of life and death – spiritual truth given form and made visible. His life suggests that work itself can save us, can become our way of being in the world, and that fine work is still possible with even the greatest internal suffering. Our frailty need not define us. And no ending, however abrupt or seemingly hopeless, can extinguish the urgency and vitality of what preceded it. Van Gogh gave us not darkness, but light and vivid, living colour.
Van Gogh and the Seasons, curated by Sjraar van Heugten, independent art historian and former Head of Collections at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, runs from April 28 to July 9 at the NGV International. www.ngv.vic.gov.au
Essentials sincerely thanks Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, NGV, for sharing his time and expertise on Van Gogh’s life with journalist Claire Waide.