The Art of Insanity

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

A new show highlights Van Gogh's savvy, while the latest book makes him sound nuts. Will the real madman please stand up?

When Vincent van Gogh walked down the street, urchins screamed "nutter," and their parents said, "The madman is at it again." His father tried to have the young Vincent committed, and his mother later summed things up neatly: "I believe he has always been insane, and that his suffering and ours was a result of it." Van Gogh himself ranted and raved, ate paint, drank turpentine--and slashed off a chunk of his ear. "I felt my own disease very deep within me," he said in a moment of calm.

Whatever the DSM-IV coding for all this (temporal-lobe epilepsy? bipolar disorder? schizophrenia?), van Gogh was evidently, in plain language, nuts. That's the clear picture we get from Van Gogh: The Life, the recently published 900-page biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. (Lust for Life, it turns out, may have understated things.) But this latest account also revives an old issue: does the painter's insanity matter? I say yes, because one of van Gogh's aims was to paint his own derangement. As we use his images to decorate our dorm walls and coasters, we can't lose sight of their radical aggression--of van Gogh's real folly, and of how deliberately he fed it into his art.

The current crop of experts disagrees. Cornelia Homburg, one of the curators of Van Gogh Up Close, a new show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says she finds it "very difficult when an artist's acts as an artist are exclusively viewed through the fact that he was a disturbed person." So the show ignores that person and instead takes a close look at how van Gogh, the systematic artist, liked to look closely at things, and how that made a crucial contribution to the history of modern art. One wall shows him paring his still lifes down to essentials. Others have him zooming ever further--onto a lone moth, a flowering branch--or trying his hand at the classic undergrowth scenes called sous bois. His innovations are set into the context of the era's photography and Japanese prints. Revisionist art history has revised the madman from sight. The works of art "are sufficient in themselves," says Joseph Rishel, Homburg's co-curator. Fine--except that in his own day, van Gogh was known as the crazy guy who painted, and he painted pictures that even his fans felt were crazy. One early admirer said, "It is more conceivable that pictures should cease to be produced altogether, than that van Gogh should become popular," and we need to keep him in sight as that impossibly unpopular madman.

Those careful close-ups in Philly, for instance, may also reveal the obsessive stare of a maniac. Van Gogh's moth is more sinister than scientific; a sous bois with two figures adrift in its brambles is closer to Munch than Monet. By zooming in tight, van Gogh slips his moorings.

"The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more am I an artist," he said, buying into the ancient notion that art and insanity have a close link. "A grain of madness is what is best in art" was a quote he favored. By the end of the 19th century, however, art wasn't only supposed to be caused by a touch of insane inspiration. Art was supposed to revel in the madman who made it. "I want to feel what I paint and paint what I feel," said van Gogh, and his audience expected his paintings to show him in the act of feeling. …