Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mental Illness Awareness:The Selfies, Creativity, and Struggles of Vincent Van Gogh

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day." 
Vincent Van Gogh

A recurrent theme of the Creativity and Madness Conference is honoring the whole person in treating symptoms.  When we study a particular artist we are considering the entirety of their life and relationships, their unique creative gifts, and the challenges they faced in living with mental illness.

Vincent Van Gogh's life, illness, and magnificent body of work has been a frequent focus of study. He was intensely creative despite, or perhaps because of his symptoms.  Dr. Amy Wallace's presentation this year captured my attention with her analysis of the productivity and inactivity of this artist. She identified symptoms of Bipolar Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which contributed to Vincent's artistic perspective and his early death.

The slide show to the right is a visual chronology of Vincent Van Gogh's self portraits. He created over thirty of these paintings, motivated largely by the frugal practicality of using oneself as a model.  The paintings viewed in succession may mirror the ebb and flow of Vincent's symptoms of mental illness.

Vincent was the oldest of six children born in the Netherlands in the 1800s.  He was a serious child, who showed an interest in drawing at an early age. Vincent described his childhood as "gloomy and cold and sterile" in a letter to his brother.  Vincent did not pursue art as a career until his late twenties. He first attempted to be a minister (following his father's footsteps), and then an art dealer (like his Uncle and later his brother Theo).  These earlier experiences formed Vincent's consistent compassion for the poor and developed his eye for technique in art work.

Vincent Van Gogh was principally self taught. With little money for formal education, Vincent is said to have worked continuously on improvement through art instruction books, trying to perfect his perspective, technique, and style. It is impressive to consider his ability to persevere creatively without recognition and in spite of severe symptoms of hallucinations, suicidal ideation, and anxiety.

Despite his short career he amassed an impressive portfolio of work which included 860 oil paintings, and 1300 watercolors, prints and sketches. Many years after his death one of his paintings was the third largest art sale in the world.  I am  curious to continue to learn about his special relationship with his brother Theo.  Theo encouraged Vincent both financially and emotionally throughout his lifetime, it was at his brother's suggestion that he began to "lighten up" his principally dark paintings.  Archivists have retrieved 800 letters written by Vincent Van Gogh, 600 of these letters were sent to his brother Theo.

Each year at the Creativity and Madness Conference we continue to grow in the appreciation of how symptoms of mental illness can shape the voice and work of the artist. In studying Vincent's life it seems that artistic expression and his relationship with his brother helped him to cope with intense and chronic symptoms of depression and anxiety. Vincent Van Gogh ended his life when he was only thirty seven years old.

"In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing."