The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Van Gogh

Perhaps he needed sexual healing.

My psychiatrist has prints by Vincent Van Gogh in his waiting room. I'll bet lots of psychiatric offices do.

Few artists personify mental illness as reflected in art like Van Gogh. Studying his paintings is like following a progression into deeper realms of madness, culminating perhaps in the time he cut his ear off and then painted his self-portrait.

Popular legend has it that he cut his ear off to impress a woman, but the actual reason is not known for certain. According to the Wikipedia:

Van Gogh cut off the lobe of his left ear during some sort of seizure on 24 December 1888. Mental problems afflicted him, particularly in the last few years of his life. During some of these periods he did not paint or was not allowed to. There has been much debate over the years as to the source of Van Gogh's mental illness and its effect on his work. Over 150 psychiatrists have attempted to label his illness, and some 30 different diagnoses have been suggested.

Diagnoses which have been put forward include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, syphilis, poisoning from swallowed paints, temporal lobe epilepsy and acute intermittent porphyria. Any of these could have been the culprit and been aggravated by malnutrition, overwork, insomnia, and a fondness for alcohol, and absinthe in particular.

There is definitely something compelling about Van Gogh's work. As one critic put it:

Vincent Van Gogh was sui generis. A movement unto himself. Of all the great Masters, he had arguably the least influence on other artists (save for his legendary life, which as Picasso remarked was the Passion of Christ for painters). Among his fellow post-Impressionists, Cezanne had a million imitators, so did Monet, Gauguin, Seurat, but no one ever painted like Van Gogh, before or since. He painted at a pitch that was so high and burned so bright that you couldn't replicate his style if you tried.

Yet I don't consider Van Gogh a first rate artist because of the sense of madness that comes through his paintings. There is nothing that can really be called inspirational about his work. His life story will always be inspiring to anyone who has struggled to achieve something despite great drawbacks, but what he actually produced in the form of his art is very paranoid. At the end of his life, in this painting done at the time of his suicide, even the stars have become looming, threatening things.

There appears to be a strong sexual overtone to his paranoid visions, as seen in this close-up from one of his sunflower paintings.

Surely you didn't think it was only the pretty sunflowers that inspires buyers to pay millions! Van Gogh comes across to me through his art as somebody who is miserable and sexually obsessed. It makes me wonder whether a big part of his problem may have been he just didn't get laid enough.

Humans have few natural instincts. Animals are often programmed from birth to already know how to do everything they need to know. For example, most birds can build a nest without having any other bird show them how to do it. But humans appear to have very little instinctual knowledge. Among them is the instinct to suck on something; babies don't have to be taught what to do when presented with a bottle or their mother's breast. Another is to blink; flick your fingers near a baby's eyes and it will know enough to shut them in protection. A third is to grasp someone; place your finger on an infant's palm and it will know to close its hand. That's pretty much it - except for the urge for sex. That too is programmed into us, and of course it lasts our whole lives.

That's why sex causes so many problems. It is the one subject we can never quite completely dismiss. Everyone is interested in sex on some level, as it is the one topic that is of universal interest. That is what makes it so effective in advertising. In trying to attract someone's attention, nothing works quite like sex.

So it's no surprise that a lot of mental illness is sex related. I personally think everyone, at a young age, should have the opportunity to pretty much have as much sex as they want. I don't know how you do that safely, and without entanglements, but it is very worthwhile to be sexually satiated in early adulthood.

It happened to me when I was about seventeen. I was not sexually inexperienced at the time, but the relationships I'd had were not very healthy, mostly furtive and filled with guilt. Then there came along in my life this guy about five years older than me who had been at Harvard before he dropped out of college to follow the Grateful Dead. Although he was sensitive and intelligent, the most striking thing about him was his physical beauty. He was also straight, or at least he had a lot of girlfriends, but one night he made an exception for me. He never explained why, he just said he thought I was sexually uptight and that maybe it would help if I just did whatever I wanted to him and with him. He said it would be liberating, and it was.

That was one of the nicest gifts anyone ever gave me, and at an important time of my life too, near the beginning. It meant I didn't have to waste a lot of time running around making a fool of myself and perhaps being used by people who didn't have my best interests at heart. I got a lot of stuff cleared out of my head before it turned into hang-ups or obsessions. I learned how a true lover honors your best self, and how to put sex in perspective. I think a lot of people go through a lot of misery for the want of just such a lover and teacher.

I think Van Gogh was probably one of those sexually hung up people. I can see it in his paintings, and art is the place where it is most difficult to hide your true self. I suspect that a good sexual relationship probably would have done wonders for him. On the other hand, it might also have deprived the world of several masterpieces.

Why is this ugly fence around Springfield's Stearns Square? It looks awful.

That globe like sculpture in the center is by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the same dude who did the Puritan statue at the Quadrangle. It's a shame how it's been neglected.

Have you ever been to Skera Gallery in downtown Northampton? They've been there since 1974, making them one of the longest survivors in one of the Valley's most cutthroat markets.

All the best dressed cows go there. Here Mrs. Cow tries not to notice....

But all the purple her husband wears is causing her to suspect he has taken a gay lover.

Finally, channeling Jerry Garcia is a good way to avoid helping your girlfriend clean the room.


deadfiend said...

Great version of one of Jerry's lesser known gems!

Anonymous said...

Tom, you are too much!

Anonymous said...

"Van Gogh comes across to me through his art as somebody who is miserable and sexually obsessed. It makes me wonder whether a big part of his problem may have been he just didn't get laid enough".

Maybe sex is like alcoholism, once is too many and a million times isn't enough. And you keep having more perverted affairs to try to forget the guilt you feel from the previous ones.

dwight said...

The Stearn Square tobacco lathe fence is down. Maybe your picture of it helped. Never could figure out why they always found it necessary to fence off the park. It used to be an even more ratty looking fence, older lathe, this orange plastic stuff in certain places. Nice to be able to walk thru. I also noticed almost every year the fence went up and windows would end up broken right across the street on Worthington where the benches used to be, also what the heck is up with those clubs, the 1800, Society, etc.. seems like evryone had a plumbing problem that required the sidewalk to be blocked off while they tore it up to replace the piping... I mean is someone flushing cement ? Or are the pipes that old ?

Anyway thanks for that picture. No fence makes my daily walk alittle more pleasant. Ph ya if Hamp thinks their panhandlers are bad try Springfield.