Tag Archives: Vincent Van Gogh

Curating Madness

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.


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Creativity and Mood Swings

I have a real problem with the persistence of the idea that madness – in any of it forms but most often bipolar spectrum conditions – gifts sufferers with unique creative abilities.  This idea is circulated by seemingly unending articles and books featuring the work of artists who ‘suffered’ from Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath, Amy Winehouse to Virginia Woolf.

In part, I (and I’m not alone in this) think it’s a case of uneven representation – the many bipolar and cyclothymia sufferers who produce nothing of artistic or literary value are never reported on, the tiny fraction who do are proportionally over represented.  There are some convincing studies which suggest creative professions are disproportionately populated by people with mental health problems – again I feel cause and effect are getting muddled here.  Madness does not make you creative but if you are mad, creative industries are one of the few which are flexible enough to allow mad people (whose ability to work varies wildly as their health fluctuates) to succeed.  It’s something I wrote about briefly in the Great Big Cyclothymia Q&A in relation to work.

I can almost hear someone out there asking ‘why does it matter that people say creativity and madness go hand in hand? It’s only ever a compliment!’.  Well, quite simple; with the suggestion that madness gifts creativity and originality comes the implication that in the misery of mental ill health we should be celebrating our unique, special and oh-so-valuable gift of creativity.

I’ve often tried to comfort myself with that pleasant lie; ‘I’ve got as far as I have because cyclothymia has given me this bolts of insight’ – both when I am hypomanic and when I am depressed.  But the truth of it – or at least the thing that feels more true – is that I’ve got as far as I have with my academic studies in spite of my poor mental health and not because of it.

Despite this – or perhaps because of my own uncertainty about whether I am helped or hindered by mood fluctuations – I find depictions of madness in art and literature absolutely fascinating.  I recently read Barbara Stok’s Vincent which manages to beautifully illustrate Vincent Van Gogh’s period living in the South of France.  I was particularly struck by the way she illustrated Vincent’s deteriorating mental state.  In the three panels below, taken from several pages apart, you can see the ‘specks’ closing in on Vincent (click to embiggen).  The clear skies of the first panel become busy as Vincent begins to panic in the second, and finally almost obscure the colours around him as he becomes despairing in the third panel

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Later still, in moments of agony and disassociation, the frames spill out from their previously precise squares into jagged explosions.  What a remarkable skill Stok demonstrates, to so ably transfer a mental experience to a visual one.  And that, I realised as I read Stok’s book, is what really appeals to me in depictions and descriptions of mental ill health.

From Allie Brosh’s now famous depiction of how depression feels and Ruby Etc’s comical piece on how listening to music can vary so wildly with bipolar, to monsters which illustrate different mental health diagnoses and the exploration of anorexia Manic Street Preachers offer; art can tell us something helpful about mental ill health.  It can, in a way more immediate than dense prose or long blog posts (!), assure us our experiences are shared and give shape and substance to that thing inside ourselves which we struggle against.  Perhaps that’s also why so many people with mental health struggles feel compelled to try and record something of them in their creative output; naming the beast, drawing the beast, finding the beast in the hope it can be slain.

As for creating art and literature when mad? It has before now been a way I monitor my own mood* and what I produce when hypomanic versus when I am unhappy, or even fairly stable, is one of the many signals I use to understand when I need to take a break, ask for help, or even schedule extra working time into my month.  But does any of it happen because I’m mad? No, it’s always the things I would be doing anyway amplified, or muffled.



* I produced two self portraits some years ago, the first when I felt fairly stable, was in my typical style, the second when I was hypomanic came out of me without my really understanding how I painted so differently.


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