Painting is sometimes associated in people’s minds with the notion of the ‘mad genius’. It’s a stereotypical view of a creative mind, although there have been troubled geniuses who have produced some of the greatest artworks ever seen. Van Gogh, that master Post-Impressionist, springs to mind as a representative of the ‘tortured artist’, and his intensity can be see in the palette he used, and the bold vision he presented to the world.
Van Gogh suffered from a number of debilitating problems. As well as mental ill-health, he was heavily addicted to alcohol and tobacco, and his physical heath began to suffer by 1888. Drawn to the south of France as a warm place to relax and paint, he arrived in Arles on February 21st of that year, and set up a studio in the ‘Yellow House’. He began to immerse himself in the landscape and colors of the French countryside, finding some peace for the first few months of his residency there. During Van Gogh’s time in Arles, he produced some of his finest works of genius including Van Gogh's Chair, Bedroom in Arles, The Night Café, Cafe Terrace at Night, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers. The Australian critic, Robert Hughes describes his artistic engagement with the landscape in Nothing If Not Critical.
“Van Gogh was enchanted by the local landscape and light, and his works from the period are richly draped in yellow, ultramarine and mauve. His portrayals of the Arles landscape are informed by his Dutch upbringing; the patchwork of fields and avenues appear flat and lack perspective, but excel in their intensity of color.”
But whilst these works were being completed, some alongside his friend and muse Gauguin, anguish was not far beneath the surface. Obsessively anxious to endear himself to Gauguin, Vincent began to unravel mentally. His craving for attention and approbation, and Gauguin’s refusal to indulge him, reached a climax on December 23rd, 1888. Vincent drew a razor on his friend, and then ran away in shame. That night he cut off his own ear and was admitted to an asylum. Gauguin fled and never saw Van Gogh again.
Painting As Treatment
Painting can be an emotionally intense experience for the artist. It can be peaceful, satisfying, rewarding, spiritually uplifting, it can answer the constant questions that play around the mind. But sometimes there are factors that unbalance the mind which mean that art no longer provides those answers, and no longer brings peace. It is no surprise that addiction has blighted the lives of artists throughout history. Van Gogh’s mental unbalance was accentuated by his addictive reliance of absinthe and his pipe – which he smoked even whilst waiting to be treated for the fatal, self-inflicted shot to the chest. These addictions rendered him weakened and sickly, and far less able to manage his mental health. Today, he may have been helped back to good health by the use of art in the rehabilitation process. Art has been used in rehabilitation therapy all over the world for many years now. Therapist have found art to be a highly effective way of accessing the addict’s sub-conscious, in order to try and bring difficulties and pain to the surface. There are particularly enlightened rehabs in Maryland that make wide use of painting and sculpture as a part of their therapy, and results show that the treatment is highly effective. Addicts reported finding a sense of peace, release, relaxation and community in their art therapy sessions, in addition discovering an ability to express emotion in a totally new way. Therapists report that landscape painting in particular helps patients to connect with the world again, and become ‘grounded’ in the physical environment and nature.
Landscape and Mood
It is a pity that this sort of help was not available to Van Gogh during those turbulent months. Painting drove him on, but despite continuing to work after the first hospital admission, his mental health and drinking continued to dog him. In 1890, he wrote about the landscape in Arles and how he had become absorbed "in the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow". He had become fixated on painting the wheat fields around him, and they came to mirror his mood closely. They first enchanted him when they were young, fresh green stems in May of that year, but by the middle of a rainy July he wrote to his brother Theo about "vast fields of wheat under troubled skies". His painting Wheat field With Crows (1890) shows a threatening sky, and crows. He wrote that he has no "need to go out of my way to try and express sadness and extreme loneliness". This painting is reputedly his last, and he shot himself on 27th July. It is heart breaking to think how he could have been saved today, with the medical help he would have undoubtedly received. His paintings are a lasting testament to his genius, and in his last letter to Theo he wrote about being childless, saying that his paintings were his progeny. Their eternal beauty and his intense artistic vision will ensure that those progeny will live forever in our hearts and minds.