“Everything great in the world is done by neurotics; they alone founded our religions and created our masterpieces.” – Marcel Proust
“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” – Vincent van Gogh
There’s an avenue in France, close to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where near perfect lines of majestic Plane trees stretch across the road, clasping the branches of each other so only a few scattered flecks of sun get through to the pavement below. Beyond the trees, the waving sheaves of the cornfields gather the sunlight like it belongs to them alone, giving off a strange mid-afternoon phosphorescence that seems a response to their union with the sky. The scene, though completely natural, is personified, like the fields and the vineyards and the olive trees are more alive than anything generally perceived as possessing so much of life.
Located outside of Saint-Rémy, in the countryside where nature exists so effervescently, is Saint-Paul de Mausole, the asylum where the artist Vincent van Gogh spent much of the last year of his life. From May 1889 to May 1890, he lived at the asylum where he walked the surrounding landscape, observing the irises and the wheat fields, culling inspiration for the paintings that would come to be some of his most renowned works. It was also here that van Gogh descended further into the mental calamities that would claim his life.
A few years ago I visited Saint Paul, and it was heavy with the legacy of van Gogh, a homage that was most apparent in the gift shop filled with colourful memorabilia. From postcards and small prints to coffee cups and magnets that beset the shop’s tables, there was something amiss about the shiny souvenirs in a seemingly sacred place. But still, among the clinking key chains and glossy reproductions, nothing was more markedly strange than the stacks of books that attempted to define van Gogh’s illness, as if diagnosis belonged on the tables as much as anything else.
From The Starry Night to Wheat Field with Cypresses, the intensity of feeling in van Gogh’s paintings is evident; it’s the intense brushstrokes and brilliant colors that have made his work so compelling and distinct. The Impressionists certainly made the movement and feeling of life seem more tangible, but in popular art, there is little that compares to van Gogh’s night sky, his wheat fields. The man’s singular intensity recalls the phosphorescent cornfields of France, and his depth of feeling is apparent in his paintings in the same way it was in the letters he wrote to his brother Theo, where he spoke of nature with such ardour.
There is a theory that it was poisoning by digitalis that may have led to the artist’s use of brilliant yellows, and a more recent assessment by researchers in The British Medical Journal diagnoses porphyria as the cause of the painter’s many ailments. However, there is little distance between the afflictions van Gogh suffered and the beauty he executed in his work, so mourning the ailment alongside the art is somewhat faithless. Beyond the uncertainties of depression and porphyria, his wheat fields will remain.
The deep throes of sorrow that can overtake a more sensitive temperament – whether an artist or a philosopher, a creator or an inventor – are not necessarily joyful to endure, but life’s nature is witnessed in the extremities. The pendulum, after all, swings back from such sorrow, cleaving a pathway towards the heights and, “that brief madness of bliss which is experienced only by those who suffer deeply”*. The necessity to diagnose may be the impetus of the medical community, but the value of the artwork is the rite of the human being alone.
* Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche