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Questioning Genius and Madness – A Review of Vincent Van Gogh Alive

Vincent Van Gogh Alive is a multi-sensory experience in which the audience are surrounded by digital art projections of Van Gogh’s work, moving through his paintings as we do the journey of his life. The paintings, which filled the length and width of the auditorium, were accompanied by classical music and the scent of bergamot and lemon, amongst other notes. Although it was hard to fully appreciate the fragrance whilst wearing a mask, a faint scent did come through evoking a fully immersive world of sound, sight, and smell. All these factors contribute to creating a unique and moving experience of art.

Before we enter the main gallery, we are told the story of Van Gogh’s life – his painting styles, his inspirations, where he lived, his relationship with his brother, and of course, his battle with mental illness. Then in the main ‘sensory gallery’, the story of his life is told through his different periods – his early Dutch period; the depictions of the peasantry in the Netherlands and the south of France; the development of his style and use of colour during his Paris years; the night-time cafe scenes of Arles and, of course, his sunflowers; to his later stay at the sanitorium in Saint-Rémy; the famous starry night skies; and finally, those last years spent in Auvers-sur-Oise and his subsequent death. Alongside his paintings, are excerpts of letters written by him. They depicted a man who had a deep love of his art, the very art that was largely ignored in his time, and how this fact plagued him. One quote read: ‘I have a great fire in my soul, and yet no one comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see only a wisp of smoke’.

The exhibition was deeply emotional. To see art like that – stretched across a large space, alive with movement, and sound, and smell – was like nothing I have experienced before. I thought about how someone with such talent had such unhappiness… how it felt like such a tragedy. I wondered, then, how the experience fed into the mythology surrounding Van Gogh and the age-old narrative that genius, particularly male genius, and madness are unequivocally intertwined. That myth that somehow great art cannot exist without great suffering.

“Darkness and euphoric escapism are embedded into Van Gogh’s art and his story”

Van Gogh is one of the most famous and recognisable artists in both popular culture and art history. Most people have at least some knowledge of both his life and his work, but why? Feminist art historian Griselda Pollock has written about the ‘construction’ of Van Gogh, especially the role of ‘tormented’ artist in art and popular history, across her career. Interestingly, she explains that during the 1930s, art historians and critics’ dislike of Van Gogh’s work for its lack of structure and technique became precisely the reason why the public did like his art. He becomes the ‘outsider’ figure and is admired for it. Pollock draws parallels between his paintings of the peasantry in the Netherlands and France, and the lives of the audience at his exhibition at the MoMA in New York during the Great Depression. The public embraced Van Gogh’s other periods, too, which represented an ‘escape’ from the darkness. This, we see, is the beginning of the myth. Darkness and euphoric escapism are embedded into Van Gogh’s art and his story, and therefore his reception too.

Pollock explains that: 

If VG is produced as the paradigm of the artist, that place is supported by the assimilation of VG to another historical representation, the correspondence of ‘madness’ and ‘art’ – the myth of the mad genius. All aspects of VG’s life story and the stylistic features of the work culminating in VG’s self-mutilation and suicide has provided material to be reworked into a complex but familiar image of the madness of the artist.

We see this image of the ‘mad genius’ in the romanticisation of Van Gogh’s acts of self-mutilation, especially with the story of him slicing off his ear, but also with the popular belief that the artist drank yellow paint to ‘make himself happy’. In reality, his medical notes reveal that he ate paint and turpentine to poison himself . Similarly, while it has been argued that Van Gogh’s death may have been a mistake, we are still consistently presented with the idea that his death was intentional. Pollock states that both the narratives surrounding his self-harm and apparent suicide have become “vital clues to the interpretation of his painting, because his madness is subsumed into the fact of his being an artist”. She continues that since it was suicide that put an end to his painting as well as his life, it has been necessary to ‘rewrite’ the narrative of Van Gogh’s artistic practice as one leading inevitably towards his death. 

This specific point is pertinently still the case, as seen in the Van Gogh Alive Experience. While the experience did not lean into mythic stories surrounding Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, instead explaining them factually, the exhibition did lean into the story of Van Gogh’s death. We are presented at the end of the journey with one of Van Gogh’s pieces from his final months – Wheat Fields with Crows.  In the previous room, which had offered descriptions of the paintings on show in the sensory gallery, this particular painting was accompanied with text that speculates:

Wheat Fields with Crows […] portrays a deeply troubled mind. Suggestive of impending gloom, or even death, Van Gogh himself described it as a reflection of his “great sadness and extreme solitude”.

Van Gogh, Wheat Fields with Crows, 1890.

In the sensory gallery, we see the painting stretched out across the room. The crows are animated, flying across the wheat fields. Suddenly, a gun-shot. The room fades to black and we now know that this is the final painting: Vincent’s life is over. This representation of the Wheat Fields with Crows as the ‘last painting’, despite the fact that it was not, is a consistent feature in exhibitions of Van Gogh. It is not the final piece infused with meaning, as many would believe. It was painted in early July 1890 in a series of experiments of similar landscape paintings of wheatfields, Pollock explains, and as for the crows, they were a homage to artist Charles Daubigny. Van Gogh died in late July 1890. His other works of this period which centre around memory are not as widely utilised within exhibitions, whereas Wheat Fields with Crows creates a suitable climax for his narrative. While this use is done to great effect at Van Gogh Alive and creates a moving communal moment within the audience, it highlights Pollock’s argument that the narrative surrounding Van Gogh is preoccupied with the tragedy of his death – that it functions as a ‘sacrificial’ death which is necessary to have the art. 

Van Gogh’s suffering has been romanticised within cultural and art history becoming one of the most well-known examples of our cultural obsession with madness and genius. It also speaks further to the exaltation of male creativity throughout cultural history, and the lack of acknowledgement of women’s creative narratives. This is the very feminist project that Pollock references: ‘undoing’ these cultural myths of artists like Van Gogh, in order to reveal the place of women artists. It is telling then, in light of this, that this specific exhibition also failed to mention Johanna Bonger, Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, who has been credited for her part in bringing his art to the mainstream. Later, after her husband Theo died, she moved back to Holland, and became a key member of the Dutch women’s rights movement and the socialist movement, co-founding the Amsterdam Social-Democratic Women’s Propaganda Club.

“Bonger persevered despite comments which speculated that her artistic marketing abilities were insufficient because of her gender and her relationship to Van Gogh”

However, it was soon after her brother-in-law and husband’s deaths that Bonger dedicated herself to promoting Van Gogh’s work – while raising her and Theo’s child. After inheriting Van Gogh’s work, despite being advised to get rid of them, Bonger instead held on to his artwork and organised a major retrospective of 500 of his paintings and drawings in 1905. She reached out to contacts across Western Europe and placed Van Gogh’s works in exhibitions alongside some of the most celebrated artists of the era. Bonger persevered despite comments which speculated that her artistic marketing abilities were insufficient because of her gender and her relationship to Van Gogh – one art critic stated that she gushed ‘fanatically on a subject she knows nothing about… it is schoolgirlish twaddle, nothing more’. However, Bonger’s commitment to her brother-in-law’s art turned out to be an astute understanding of a body of work which would go on to be celebrated en-masse. She went on to sell at least 190 of Van Gogh’s works and capitalised on the new-found interest in the artist by translating and publishing his and Theo’s letters into English and French. While Theo and Vincent’s close relationship, as well as Theo’s financial support of his brother, is referenced throughout the Van Gogh Alive exhibition, Bonger’s role in Van Gogh’s lasting cultural legacy is ignored. It is a shame that such a project has missed an opportunity to acknowledge Johanna Bonger’s vital role in this part of art history.

“Perhaps this exhibition of Van Gogh’s work – from both his dark expression to his portrayal of ecstatic colour and, of course, his own personal struggles – has allowed the public a sense of both empathy and escapism from the harsh realities of the current pandemic”

Despite this omission, the exhibition was beautifully done. While the arts in our country are being undermined, unsupported and underfunded consistently, to witness a great reminder of what it is to feel deep passion for your art, and the importance of persevering with your art, despite the obstacles, felt timely. Moreover, I thought about the mental health crisis that has worsened due to the pandemic, and while we do have to be careful that we do not conflate the idea that with deep pain comes incredible creativity, it is interesting to see how the show resonated with its audience during 2020. In 2019, Pollock delivered a lecture in which she questioned why, and if, the myth of genius and madness surrounding Van Gogh continued to persist. Why, she asked, do we still love Vincent? The millennial discourse surrounding Van Gogh tends to focus on why he had the compulsion to paint, and this particular question is present in the Van Gogh Alive exhibition. We are fed the answers through snippets of his very own words – his artistic drive was also an existential one. Pollock, however, wants to highlight the complexities of an answer that may lie within painting as a response to growing capitalism of the era, which indeed makes the question ‘why paint?’ interesting today. Perhaps like the 1936 exhibition at the MoMA, this exhibition of Van Gogh’s work – from both his dark expression to his portrayal of ecstatic colour and, of course, his own personal struggles – has allowed the public a sense of both empathy and escapism from the harsh realities of the current pandemic. 

Van Gogh is celebrated for his art because of how it moves people. We will never know how much the sense of his personal tragedy infuses the beauty that his works contain, how much our own feelings towards it are dictated by a narrative that exists in our cultural imagination, although it is clearly omnipresent. And while it is nearly impossible to remove the myth from the art (it suits for the narratives to be intertwined), the popularity of the multi-sensory journey of the Van Gogh Alive Experience attests to our desire to be moved and touched by art and our need to find ways of meaning and understanding of the human experience. By playing into the very myth, it reflects a cultural desire to believe that that art has a magical quality. Because, ultimately, art can reach out to us where words cannot. But, art has that magic all alone. It does not need the construction of myth to sustain it, although it seems to be human nature to create one. 

If you are interested in reading more on Van Gogh and narratives of male madness and genius, Griselda Pollock has written plenty. Below, I’ve referenced the two main sources I used for this article, but there are lots more out there. I have also referenced a recent biography on Johanna Bonger’s life. 

Griselda Pollock, ‘Artists, Mythologies and Media – Genius, Madness and Art History’, in: Screen, Volume 21, Issue 3, Autumn 1980.

EKA 105 Open Lecture: Griselda Pollock, 30/10/2019, link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C37oCw1sfNg&ab_channel=EestiKunstiakadeemia 

Hans Luijten, Everything for Vincent: The Life of Jon van Gogh-Bonger, 2019.

Written By

Rochelle is the co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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