Jeffrey Mey­ers

Van Gogh: Art and Sui­cide

The London Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

The peri­patetic life of Vin­cent van Gogh (1853-90), the son of a Dutch Protes­tant min­is­ter, was an end­less se­ries of catas­tro­phes. He longed for a wife and child but was re­jected by the two women he loved. He pur­sued a dis­as­trous vo­ca­tion as min­is­ter and mis­sion­ary among the coal min­ers of Bel­gium, was dis­missed as an art dealer in Paris, failed as a teacher in Lon­don and lived with an al­co­holic, preg­nant pros­ti­tute in The Hague. He stud­ied briefly at the Fine Arts Academy in An­twerp (though he was mainly self-taught) and sold only one pic­ture in his life­time (though his loyal brother Theo was an art dealer). He tried to build an artis­tic com­mu­nity in Ar­les, but quar­relled bit­terly with his friend and house­mate, Paul Gau­guin. Ex­cept for Theo, Van Gogh was iso­lated and cut off from fam­ily and friends. Fi­nally, this re­li­gious fa­natic, artis­tic fail­ure, im­pov­er­ished sup­pli­ant, self-mutilator and vi­o­lent ma­niac was com­mit­ted to two in­sane asy­lums in Provence. One pos­i­tive re­sult of his rest­less, per­pet­ual flights was that he was multi-lin­gual in Dutch, Ger­man, English and French.

Van Gogh suf­fered fre­quent epilep­tic fits in which he ex­pe­ri­enced un­con­trol­lable frenzy, in­co­her­ence, hal­lu­ci­na­tions and fears of be­ing poi­soned. This dis­ease was fa­tally com­bined with cyclic, in­ter­mit­tent at­tacks of manic de­pres­sion. His epilepsy was treated as if it were a men­tal ill­ness, his ma­nia was not un­der­stood and had no cure. His letters, long howls of de­spair, gave mor­bid de­scrip­tions of his feel­ings af­ter the seizures. In April 1888 he wrote, ‘I have had four ma­jor at­tacks, dur­ing which I had no idea what I said, what I wanted or what I did, not to men­tion the three times be­fore when I had faint­ing fits for in­ex­pli­ca­ble rea­sons, be­ing quite un­able to re­call what I felt at the time.’ As soon as he re­cov­ered, his tense nerves were strained by the ter­ri­fied ex­pec­ta­tion of the next at­tack.

In Septem­ber 1889, a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult month, Van Gogh con­nected his art to his ma­nia and saw him­self as a sac­ri­fi­cial vic­tim: ‘my sad ill­ness

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