Tag: great painters

The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Madness

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The Mystery of Van Gogh's Madness

On a summer’s day in 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in a field outside Paris. What does the painting he worked on that morning tell us about his mental state?

On 27 July 1890, Vincent Van Gogh walked into a wheat field behind the chateau in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise, a few miles north of Paris, and shot himself in the chest. For 18 months he had been suffering from mental illness, ever since he had sliced off his left ear with a razor one December night in 1888, while living in Arles in Provence.

In the aftermath of that notorious incident of self-harm, he continued to experience sporadic and debilitating attacks that left him confused or incoherent for days or weeks at a time. In between these breakdowns, though, he enjoyed spells of calmness and lucidity in which he was able to paint. Indeed, his time in Auvers, where he arrived in May 1890, after leaving a psychiatric institution just outside Saint-Remy-de-Provence, north-east of Arles, was the most productive period of his career: in 70 days, he finished 75 paintings and more than 100 drawings and sketches.

Despite this, though, he felt increasingly lonely and anxious, and became convinced that his life was a failure. Eventually, he got hold of a small revolver that belonged to the owner of his lodging house in Auvers. This was the weapon he took into the fields on that climactic Sunday afternoon in late July. However, the gun was only a pocket revolver, with limited firepower, and so when he pulled the trigger, the bullet ricocheted off a rib, and failed to pierce his heart. Van Gogh lost consciousness and collapsed. When evening fell, he came back round and looked for the pistol, in order to finish the job.

Unable to find it, he staggered back to the inn, where a doctor was summoned. So was Vincent’s loyal brother Theo, who arrived the next day. For a brief while, Theo believed that Vincent would rally. But in the end, though, nothing could be done – and, that night, the artist died, aged 37. “I didn’t leave his side until it was all over,” Theo wrote to his wife, Jo. “One of his last words was: ‘this is how I wanted to go’ and it took a few moments and then it was over and he found the peace he hadn’t been able to find on earth.”
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Woman with a Fan, 1907 by Pablo Picasso

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Woman with a Fan, 1907 by Pablo Picasso

The heroic image of Paul Cezanne depends upon the notion of a constant battle between his innately passionate temperament and his conscious, reasoned quest for le style, and Cezanne was described as the one fundamentally classical painter of his generation, ‘the Poussin of Impressionism’. This was a widespread perception, and it is clear that as Picasso emerged from his ‘exorcist’ phase in 1908 Cezanne served to bridge the gulf between art negre and the classical tradition.

In Woman with a Fan (1907), which was probably painted in the late spring, a beautiful and very personal balance between the differing voices of Cezanne, art negre and early Greek sculpture is achieved, and achieved, it seems, quite naturally, without tortured struggle.

A radiograph of this head area of the Woman with a Fan shows that Picasso began by following the drawing in making the woman stare directly out at the spectator, in the completed painting it is the single uncovered breast which, Cyclops-like, stares unblinkingly, and all trace of individuality has been erased. With her white shift, rigid pose and throne-like seat, the woman seems like a priestess withdrawn in profound meditation, and since the viewpoint demands that we look up at her and she is much over life-size, we are bound to feel overawed.

On this occasion Picasso did not draw upon Cezanne and art negre to project atavism, roughness and inner tension, but awesome majesty. There are echoes of the stately late portraits of Madame Cezanne, but Picasso chose an austere palette of a few browns and greys, which could hardly be more different from Cezanne’s vibrant prismatic hues and which reinforces the overall impression of formal abstraction produced by the insistent pattern of triangular shapes.

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