And last week, I went to an exhibition at the Royal Academy of the works of Vincent Van Gogh, whose brief career alternated between bursts of astonishing creativity and bleak periods in a mental asylum. The exhibition focused around Van Gogh’s life and letters – letters which he wrote to his brother Theo, often accompanied with dazzling sketches of the paintings he was working on.
It was evident from the letters that Vincent was a staggeringly obsessive man – no, ‘How are you? How are the kids?’ chit chat, his letters (or the ones I read) are all about his own artistic processes and challenges and ideas. All creative people tend to be self-obsessed; Vincent was clearly at the far end of that spectrum.
There have recently been rumours that Van Gogh didn’t, as the legend have it, cut his own ear off – but that he and his friend Paul Gauguin fought a duel and the ear was lopped off by Gauguin’s blade; then a lie had to be told to protect Gauguin from prosecution.
However, I prefer the time-hallowed story, which is that Van Gogh in a fit of madness threatened his friend with a razor, then ran off to a brothel, cut off his ear, and handed it to a prostitute with the words, “Keep this object carefully.”
The intensity of Van Gogh’s vision is palpable; you feel that he saw too much, and looked too hard, for his own good. And his death was as tragic as his life was lonely; he tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun but failed, walked back to the local tavern, admitted what he had done – then later died of his injuries.
Personally, I would have been happy for him to be just a bit less talented, if that could have made him happier. I mean, I know we all love the myth of the tortured artist – but really? Doesn’t it break your heart?
Anyway, here are some drawings and lesser known Van Goghs, followed by a few of the more famous ones.
NOTE: The painting of Gauguin’s empty chair was (I learned at the exhibition) Vincent’s way of showing the absence of the man who used to share his home, but who was forced to flee after the razor incident. In which case – what does the portrait of Vincent’s empty chair symbolise? A harbinger of his own death?
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