I’ve been sitting on this blog post since December when I had a completely overwhelming and wonderful experience at the Van Gogh Musuem in Amsterdam. I’ve written critically before about the idea madness gifts you some sort of creative inspiration; and to a degree that was nagging at me when I entered the gallery. I chose to take the audio guide – and if you find yourself in Amsterdam at the gallery I recommend you do the same – and my reflections are therefore based on the narrative given in that form, rather than just through the written notes provided.
What I was worried about – and what was refuted repeatedly – was that the gallery would uncritically reproduce the ‘tortured artist’ narrative and emphasise Van Gogh’s illness over and above his ambition, his hard work, and his creativity.
The audio tour carefully, without hyperbole, and with great compassion, acknowledged Van Gogh’s illness, his repeated decisions to seek treatment, and the professionalism of the doctors who tried to help him. The audio tour explicitly refuted the idea that madness is a prompt to creativity, quoting from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother where he described and lamented his inability to work when he was ill. The tour even suggested that without the illness, Van Gogh may very well have been more prolific, and, importantly, happier.
I cried listening to this. Not simply because I was relieved to hear such an even handed assessment of living with mental ill health, but also because the compassion and matter-of-fact way in which Van Gogh’s struggles were recounted was so damned refreshing. We rarely talk openly about catastrophic mental ill health (and as I’ve said before, popular discussion of palatable ills aren’t getting any points from me) and even less frequently discuss it with the words and creations of the sufferer at the centre.
I felt seen, I felt held by those paintings, by this man with whom I have perhaps shared a little of the experience of poor mental health. Most importantly, I felt welcomed by this enormous gallery. I felt like they had left a little note saying “mad people welcome here. We see you. We know you are neither more nor less for your struggles.”
I’ll end with one of my favourite discoveries from the gallery; I’ve always loved the painting Wheatfield with Crows. The colours are intoxicating, the slightly strange perspective reminds me of a view from a hill outside the village I grew up in, the brush strokes make the wheat move in the light breeze and the crows delightedly wheel above it all, cawwing – I’m sure they do, I can hear them.
It’s also always been slightly tainted for me; I was told it was Van Gogh’s last painting (disputed, according to the audio tour) and he may or may not have received the fatal bullet wound in a wheatfield. The inclusion of crows has been read as prophetic, given crows are associated with death. However, the audio guide was categorical; this is a joyful painting. There is no evidence Van Gogh used crows to signify death (like me, I think he saw them rather differently – clever and social and making their living off the things others find distasteful). And the painting, like all his paintings, was not created during a period of intense depression – he couldn’t paint during intense depression.
So, as well as quite unexpectedly finding a place for stories about mental ill health alongside – but not as the explanation for – tremendous creativity, the Van Gogh Musuem was also the place I re-found a painting. Without the taint of suicidal unhappiness, without prophecy and introspection, but with joy and fresh air and crows flying and wind blowing and a fresh scent on the air.