|The Starry Night (June 1889). Oil on canvas.
This week’s Doctor Who fascinated me. Vincent van Gogh has always intrigued me, of course, because his legacy has always been as much to do with his mental health as it has his work.
And I loved that this formed a pivotal plot-point; that there was never a possibility of watering down his deep depressions.
For a start, it has made me want to read more about him both as a man and an artist. I assume a lot of research went into his speeches, and that is wonderful. I found myself looking at paintings that I had never thought to consider before.
I may have a degree that (nominally) included some art history, but I was all about the imagery – politics is everything in my art-brain. I love hearing people talk about art, though, and about how it is achieved. I read Noes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale a couple of years ago, and loved the way he talks about his artist’s use of colour. The protagonist is a female artist who suffers from bi-polar disorder (also, somewhat erroneously, known as ‘manic depression’). Her art is abstract, the sort of thing that I once dismissed as “stuff a four-year-old could paint” when I visited the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Then I read Patrick Gale’s description of colour, and how it is achieved, and began to think differently. Look at the sky. If you’re like me, and don’t really have a brain for painting, it’s usually blue, pink or grey. I had never seen the green underneath the blue, or the purple in the grey. Colour was flat, except in variegated yarn…
And then, last February, my friend Clinton took me to see Rothko at the Tate Modern in London. I was totally indulging him, I thought; maintaining that I ‘don’t understand’ modern art and can’t respond to the abstract. But I was blown away by the sheer size and scale of the work, and the gorgeous depth. I won’t pretend that I understand what happened in my mind when I looked at it, but there were some canvasses that I was so captured by that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I remember this one, in particular;
|Black on Maroon (1959), Oil on Canvas
I can’t tell you what it was about it that I loved. I remember saying to Clinton that it evoked a sense of the trinity in me. Something about the infinite colours appearing as just three; the way in which it is one construction in which three elements are apparent but the whole spectrum is present. It was complicated, and somehow moving.
I don’t know anything about Mark Rothko, not really, except that he was active in the 1950s and painted abstract canvasses. So only as much as I have already told you! But that painting made me feel like I knew something of his mind. It’s daft, of course, to claim to know the mind of one you can’t ever meet, so I imagine that what I felt was something more innate, more inherently human. Not a unique sensation that can only be imparted by the work of one individual, but a shared sense of wonder and then of sadness. Not sadness in the depression sense; that is something very different in my mind. No, this was a melancholy sense that things will never be complete. A knowledge that I will never know the mind that created the image before me, nor the true complexity of the process by which it was borne out. It was a philosophical sadness, that the true nature of the universe cannot be revealed in this lifetime.
All of this came flooding back to me when I considered the scenes in the Musée d’Orsay. That way in which we respond to art so instinctively. We formulate complex ideas on the outworkings of someone else’s imagination, and we form them in seconds, although we can never truly know the mind of the artist.
And I agree with the assessment of the writers; that van Gogh did not betray his illness through his work. I don’t feel darkness when I look at his work; even the later paintings like The Starry Night, which are full of dark colour, don’t make me feel sad or empty. The focus is an overlooked beauty. The beauty of a truly starry night when the wonders of creation are revealed. There is no way to look at The Starry Night and see only darkness. Indeed, one is more likely to see only light.
But this ability to see beauty, and experience joy, does not diminish the capacity of the brain to harm. Just as the body has its mechanisms for keeping us stable (the process GCSE students call ‘homeostasis’), so does the brain. Just as the other organs in our bodies can go wrong, so the brain can go wrong; and it can have a real impact on your emotional stability.
I feel like it’s a risk for me to admit to this, but I expect a lot of other people felt the same; I really identified with the pure fear that was in the character of Vincent when he thought he was going to lose Amy and the Doctor. I have been scared at what might happen if my friends leave, or change, or both. I have told people I can’t cope without them, and I have thrown myself face-down on my bed and wept at the thought that they might not come back. But that has not prevented me, like our fictionalised Vincent, from sometimes managing to take a deep breath and carry on. Like another great man presented this series, Winston Churchill, I “Keep Buggering On” when the world and my emotions want me to stop.
Now, I will never produce the wonderful art that van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Sylvia Plath or Virginia Wolf created from their depressions. But I hope I can learn to at least understand and try to explain my own mind, such as it is. I hope, with God’s help, I can channel all that bad stuff into something good. At the very least, I have promised myself that I will do my bit to challenge the stigma of mental illness. Because, damnit, poor mental health doesn’t have to be validated or explained by genius. Just as there are people on the autistic spectrum who are not savant and there are deaf people who cannot craft a symphony like Beethoven, so there are people with depression who are not creative in that way.
So it is thanks to people like van Gogh and Virginia Woolf that I can expect people to have some understanding of what it is like to live in this brain and this illness of mine. It won’t be clear to everyone – maybe you wonder what sort of pretentious garbage this all is, anyway? – but I can identify myself in them and remember that you do not have to be healthy to make a difference in this world, as long as you have hope.
“Now I think I know what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they’re not listening still;
perhaps they never will.”