Can a Philadelphia Show Afford to Ignore Van Gogh's Insanity?

Sunflowers. 1887. The Metropolitan Museum of Art-Art Resource / Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

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. Art had become "a suffering, triumphant cry from the heart," according to one sage, and van Gogh's painting set him up as art's most convincing screamer.

"How your brain must have labored, and how you must have risked everything to the very limit where vertigo is inevitable," said Theo van Gogh, the painter's art-dealer brother, when he saw the swirling, intemperate paintings Vincent had sent to Paris from the asylum at Saint-Rémy. The new art proposed by van Gogh and his like ("us crazy ones," as he put it) was crafted and accepted as an art of derangement. Van Gogh boasted of the "ugliness" and "vulgarity" and "horrible harshness" of his famous painting of a Zouave officer and of his "disquieting and irritating" brushwork. According to Theo, "One first has to relinquish all one's conventional ideas in order to grasp what he means."

When impressionism first came on the scene, in 1874, it was derided as "sheer lunacy." Fifteen years later, van Gogh and his peers accepted such insults as the highest praise. When van Gogh became the hit of the 1890 Salon des Indépendants, a review praised his "nightmare" images, while an earlier profile had billed him as a fanatic whose art was all about excess—as a half-insane painter who'd caught the pulse of an all-insane, fin de siècleworld. That was the only world, and the only art world, in which van Gogh's art could make sense. The scholar Aaron Sheon hazards that van Gogh may have cast himself as "sickly and eccentric" to reflect the fashionable view that humanity had slid into its dotage.

Looking in a mirror in June 1890, a month before his death, van Gogh said he saw "the heartbroken expression of our time." He felt he lived in a universe created by a God who "didn't know what he was doing or have his wits about him." That's the universe others spotted in van Gogh's paintings.

"Most people who have a mental illness are not unusually creative, and most people who are creative are not mentally ill," insists Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. On the other hand, she's shown that lunatics are better represented among artists than elsewhere. As an unashamed manic-depressive, Jamison has tallied the symptoms that van Gogh shares with her and other bipolars. (There's genetic evidence, too: insanity didn't run in Vincent's family; it practically galloped.) Rishel, the Philadelphia curator, says that for someone so famous for being "off his bean," van Gogh displays an "astonishing discipline," but Jamison doesn't see that as proof that his madness is irrelevant to his art. "Clarity and logic are perfectly compatible with the ebbings and flowings of manic-depressive illness," she wrote in her book Touched by Fire.

What's special about van Gogh is that for his particular brand of disciplined art to succeed, at the moment it did, he had to couch it as loony. It didn't hurt that that's also what he was. The story has always been that he died from his disease—gut-shot by his own hand, as he told the police on his deathbed. The new biography revives another possibility that hasn't been mooted for years: that one of van Gogh's teenage tormentors, known for his six-shooter, had somehow lodged a bullet in him. If that's right—and the evidence isn't too bad—it could be that van Gogh, by taking the blame, had decided to die as the mad genius his fans were looking for.