Every now and then, I come across something that reminds me how far we’ve come regarding mental illness awareness–and also how far we still have to go.
Case in point: this New York Times article on the van Gogh Museum’s efforts to help people realize that there was more to Vincent than his art and his mental illness. Yes, van Gogh faced serious bouts of isolation and depression. And yes, he cut off his ear, and he committed suicide. But museum curators hope to–pardon the pun–paint a bigger picture of the artist. They want people to understand that when van Gogh was feeling well, he was quite outgoing and productive. In other words, they no longer want to see van Gogh defined by his mental illness. So far, so good.
But then, the article points out that some art historians are critical of this effort–that the museum is trying “too hard to normalize van Gogh.” To which I say: WTF!!! I’ve read a lot about van Gogh. (And, shameless self promotion alert: I’ve blogged about him, too.) It’s well documented that Vincent had A LOT of good days, to go along with the more famous bad ones. Why shouldn’t people know that?
I’m old enough to remember Don McLean’s song “Vincent.” I’ve never really liked the song. I think the melody is too soft. And I don’t think “soft” when I think of van Gogh. But this line always gets me:
But I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.
I applaud the van Gogh Museum for this effort to honor Vincent’s entire life–the joy along with the sadness.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I was 19, and I was visiting New York for the first time.
From the moment I saw the painting, it grabbed me. At the time, I had no idea why. All I knew was that I could not stop looking at it. Thus began my lifelong fascination with van Gogh. Even before I knew of his well-documented mental illness, there was a certain ferocity — an unsettling subtext — in his work that drew me in. “The Starry Night” is a perfect example. It wasn’t enough for van Gogh to just paint stars in the sky. He had to go much further. As it says on Moma’s website:
Rooted in imagination and memory, The Starry Night embodies an inner, subjective expression of van Gogh’s response to nature. In thick, sweeping brushstrokes, a flamelike cypress unites the churning sky and the quiet village below. The village was partly invented, and the church spire evokes van Gogh’s native land, the Netherlands.
Now, I know the reason for van Gogh’s need for partial invention. He was not in the Netherlands when he painted “The Starry Night.” He was in France — and in a mental hospital (or, as they called it back then, an asylum.) He got the idea for the painting while looking out one of the asylum’s windows.
Knowing this makes me love the painting even more. Now, just as I did when I was 19, I could stare at this masterwork for a long, long time.
After years of renovation, the Harvard art museums are once again open to the pubic. Today, I figured I’d take advantage of a few hours of free time and go have a look-see. I liked a lot of what I saw. But I was most intrigued by this painting. From a distance, it looks like stars in a galaxy. But up close, it reveals itself as lots of tangled, inter-connected lines. I wish I could make this photo bigger. I’m not that technical, and I’m still learning WordPress. But if you can magnify the photo, you’ll be glad you did.
I’m not sure who the artist is, but I can look at this painting for a long time. When I saw it, I immediately thought, “This is what my mind must look like.” Even the title suits my mind. The painting is called “Unsettled.”
That’s my mind, for sure.
Check out this piece on Slate today about photographer Liz Olbert. A talented photographer who is bipolar, she wanted to show her dual life – the one she shows to the public, and the private one that no one else saw until now. I can totally relate to this, and I’m glad she is convincing others to show their dual lives.
Art brings visibility. And visibility brings empowerment. Kudos to Liz and her subjects for showing themselves as they are — messiness and all.
Click here to see the photos.