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Van Gogh unraveled

in Arts/O & P Highlights by

The first European city I ever went to was Amsterdam. I was on my way to London. For no extra cost, I could extend my couple hour layover to a couple of days. Naturally I did.

I was so naive! I remember talking to a nice guy on the plane. I was super excited. It wasn’t until the plane landed that I thought about having to navigate a country that spoke another language. Stupid American tourist.

Naturally I found my way to the Van Gogh (pronunciation) museum.

I was impressed, but not by what you might expect. There I was, in the room with his paintings one hundred years later, and I could still smell the paint. The paint was so thick that they hadn’t dried yet.

I have long forgotten the paintings themselves, but I will never forget that sensory memory. It’s part of what makes him live in my head.

My first introduction to Van Gogh was through music.

My guitar teacher taught me “Vincent”. I had never heard the original. Actually I had never really listened to it before today. I even karaoked it, but you don’t want to hear that.

All these years later, the words really speak to me. I am a long way from that 14 year old who gave up guitar because I just wasn’t feeling it. I should have taken up the drums, but that’s another story.

Last year Mario Schröder told me he was working on a ballet about Vincent Van Gogh.

I wonder if the song was his first introduction too. When he told me, I was a bit perplexed. But when I think about it, it makes perfect sense. His work on Chaplin and Morrison show his interest in finding out about the person behind the legend. The ballet premieres 3 Feb and I can’t wait to see his take on the long, complicated story of Van Gogh’s life.

Schröder is not the only one bringing the story to a new audience. To be released some time this year is an animated film called Loving Vincent that offers a view of how he might have seen the last bit of his life. It’s the love child of Oscar-winning British animator Hugh Welchman and his wife, Polish animator Dorota Kobiela.

Each of the 52,400 frames is an oil painting painted by one of the 91 artists that make up the team painting away in a science park outside the Polish city of Gdansk.

The film couldn’t be just a flashy piece of animation. It had to have an interesting story. Welchman and Kobiela have been researching for years and have come up with a new question: Could Van Gogh have been murdered?

It’s a detective story set a year after Van Gogh’s death. We get various eye witness accounts from the residents of Auvers, where he died.

Between 1881 and his death in 1890 Van Gogh made nearly 900 paintings.

He was happy when he could finish one a day. He wrote this and many other things in his letters to his brother Theo. He was just as prolific as a letter writer as he was a painter. In them we see a very personal side of him. In fact, when I read passages, I could imagine hanging out over a bottle of wine (for me) and absinthe (for him) and having some deep conversations.

“I often think the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.”

 The Starry Night, Van Gogh, 1889, Saint-rémy-de-provence, France, MoMa, NYC public domain

The Starry Night, Van Gogh, 1889, Saint-rémy-de-provence, France, MoMa, NYC public domain

“The sight of the stars makes me dream. I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.”

He allows himself to be open to what’s around him. He is interested in people as well. But, unlike his friend Gauguin, he’s not interested in what they can do for him. He’s interested in what he can do for them.

Van Gogh had found a lovely building that had been vacant for quite a while. His plan was to make an artist colony. He sounds so Leipzig, doesn’t he?

“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”

He truly thought Gauguin a visionary and invited him to be part of it. They disagreed on many things, including painting. Gauguin left not long after he had arrived. He thought Van Gogh very odd.

Gauguin's portrait of Van Gogh in Arles
Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh in Arles

This is one of the accepted theories for what led to Van Gogh cutting off his ear. Or was it just his earlobe?

Martin Bailey, who just released  Studio of the South, a book chronicling the last 15 months of Van Gogh’s life, has another theory. He told CBS News, “The trigger for the self-mutilation has largely been overlooked.”

A few hours before the incident Van Gogh received a letter from Theo saying he’d proposed to a young Dutch woman named Jo Bonger. Normally this would have been good news, but his brother was the only one he had. The rest of his family had all but disowned him. He was afraid of being abandoned.

The yellow house in Arles where Van Gogh wanted to start the artist colony.
The yellow house in Arles where Van Gogh wanted to start the artist colony.

“I put my heart and soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process.”

Last September the Van Gogh museum held a exhibition called, “On the verge of insanity.” In conjunction with this they had lots of scholars and experts in to discuss the mental health of the artist.

During his lifetime he was fanatical about what he cared about. This was religion at first and was his art later. Some people found him hard to get along with. Nothing specifically points to mental illness. Later, the situation with Gauguin and the engagement of his brother could have combined with physical limitations to change that. It could have been the smell of the paint or the turpentine used to clean brushes, for that matter.

The experts concluded that no diagnoses could be made until the first time he was hospitalised, which was in 1888 after the ear incident. Four more episodes happened before he died in 1890. Werner Strik, a professor of psychiatry and director of the University Hospital of Psychiatry in Bern, Switzerland, spoke to CBS News

“They were characterized as acute and transient, but clearly psychotic symptoms: abrupt onset, rapidly changing mood, hallucinations, confusion and extreme psychotic anxiety. The episodes were followed by full remission, full insight in the pathological nature of the episodes, and a profound worry to relapse,” Strik said.

Another author agrees that all these things led to his breakdown and she has new proof about the ear. Bernadette Murphy spent nine years on a quest for the truth. Her book, The true story of Van Gogh’s ear not only talks about her trail to finding the paper (in Hollywood of all places) that proves that it was, indeed, the entire ear, but gives us important information about the girl he gave it to. Was she his favourite prostitute? His girlfriend?

Today, as what’s left of that naive girl looked at the amazing ice crystals forming on the tree branches like diamonds of spring, I could have been Van Gogh.

“I experience a  moment of frightening clarity in these moments when nature is so beautiful.”


Mario Schröder’s Van Gogh
premieres Fri 3 Feb at 7.30 pm
at Leipzig Oper

performances 5 & 27 Feb, 3 Mar, 19 May, 20 June

Maeshelle West-Davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums. Sound, video, photography, dance, performance and public art are the tools she uses to convey her message. Her work is a response not only to a physical journey, but an emotional one, as with all of us who walk along or beside our individual paths.

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