The madness that made Vincent van Gogh
For us at OM Planet, some of our most popular items have been the Vincent van Gogh-inspired face masks. The artist’s Irises and Almond Blossoms are brilliant representations of nature, there’s no doubt about that, and his post-Impressionist style is one that has easily withstood the tastes of time.
So how is it that some people become so influential and end up bringing such joy to others? The artist’s timeless popularity got me thinking about the man behind the genius...
Checking in to his quiet place
Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is often referred to as the tortured artist who cut off his own ear. He was mad, they say, and apparently showed his first signs of illness around 1888, just a few years before his death. Van Gogh, whose career was just taking off at that time, was diagnosed with a type of epilepsy combined with delusions and attacks of psychosis.
Still, it’s not even certain if he, himself, cut off his own ear with a razor. Police witnesses claim it may have been Paul Gauguin, with whom he planned to establish an artist community in the South of France, who mutilated van Gogh’s ear with a sword. (Some blame the absinthe they were fond of drinking...) Needless to say, Gauguin left right after the dramatic incident.
Soon afterward, in May 1889, van Gogh checked himself into a mental asylum, where he spent the last year of his life. The asylum was located in a former 12th-century monastery, and there, the artist found the calm and peace of mind he needed to produce 130 paintings — some of the best works of his life.
In his first week at the asylum, inspired by the monastery’s harmonious gardens, van Gogh seemed to finally find his ‘flow’. He set himself up in nature and painted the luminous iris series with vibrant swirling brush strokes; each flower is different from the other, and some of them jump right off the canvas, into the unknown.
And so between bouts of madness, it was here that he also created the Almond Blossoms series along with his famous Starry Night… Van Gogh painted to escape his insanity.
Vincent van Gogh didn’t always identify himself as an artist. At 16, he became an apprentice at his uncle’s art dealership, and although he disliked dealing, this was his first initiation to art. No one, except perhaps his younger brother Theo, suspected that Vincent had any talent.
The sensitive young man worked short stints as a teacher and bookseller, but was unsatisfied with this work, and left feeling empty. Like so many of us today, he didn’t feel any connection with what he was doing, and I believe that this dissatisfaction, his repressed talent and emotions, may have planted the seed of the illness that was to come.
Seeking a deeper connection with something, anything, and getting unlucky in love in the meantime, van Gogh turned to religion. In his mid-20s he decided to become a preacher, like his father, and went to live among the poor in a coal mining community in Belgium. It was there that he began sketching peasants and landscapes.
He had his first great spiritual crisis in his late-20s when, in an inspired attempt to be a good Christian, he gave away all of his belongings to the poor. This selfless act of generosity and literal interpretation of the religious teachings proved too extreme for the people in charge, so he was told to leave the ministry.
And so shot down, feeling like the lowest of the low, with no money, no confidence, Vincent van Gogh turned to art. He saw it as his way of serving humanity, and he ended up becoming one of the most influential artists of our time.
Bringing out the light
How many of us have ever felt as low as van Gogh? And when it’s a dark day out there, how do we bring out the light?
For van Gogh, he lit up his soul and expressed his true being through painting. After leaving the miners, he moved to Brussels and began studying the skills he needed to become a master. He was inspired by the work of the neo-Impressionists, by Jean-François Millet’s paintings of peasants as well as by Japanese art. In fact, the black contour in his Irises is reminiscent of 17th-century Japanese woodblock prints.
But I wonder, had van Gogh had a repressed desire to paint his whole life? Or did he only come across his calling in his late-20s, after desperately attempting other things?
Finding our light is not easy, and many of us don’t even know our true calling until much later in life — and that’s okay, too.
We can ask ourselves: When do I feel the most joy? When do I feel like I’m flowing, like water, in the zone?
Perhaps you’d like to find your quiet place, your own ‘asylum’. Sweep aside all the useless thoughts and beliefs, meditate, and let passion and creativity take over.
By the end of his life, van Gogh was painting wildly, squeezing tubes of bright paint directly onto the canvas. Whatever your medium may be, why not aim to embody a bit of Vincent van Gogh?