Sunflowers. Starry nights. A small empty bedroom. All this painted in oil, brushstroke after brushstroke, until a thick layer of bright colours protrudes from the canvas, right into any observer’s mind, where it probably sticks forever. This is Van Gogh’s unique post-impressionist style of painting, where you see represented, not just reality, but how he experienced or perceived it.
On display in Lisbon until January 2021, the Van Gogh immersive experience, brought to us by the world-famous Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam, is one of the best ways one can think of to get to know the life of this depressed genius, told by his own words, from diaries and letters he wrote to his beloved brother, Theo.
Vincent’s pallet and states of insanity
Vincent’s pallet gradually changed overtime, at the same rate his mental health was deteriorating. It is not hard to notice how his colour choices progressively turned not only brighter but also richer in diversity within the colour spectrum. His first paintings, of which the best example is The Potatoe Eaters (describing the harsh life in the countryside, picturing the peasants with coarse faces and bony working hands), portrayed the in-doors in dark, sober, not very diverse colours. As his mental health deteriorated, swinging from depression to peaks of hallucination and delusion, his mind gifted him with new, bright, colourful mental representations of reality, that he soon enough started mirroring, brush in hand, oil-on-canvas, with the same talent. He produced unique art pieces by playing with perspectives and shades, now that his strong emotional experiences of the his surroundings kept changing. A mix of distorted reality, daydreams and delusions. All these contributed to Vincent’s decision of having himself voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he would spend a whole year, portraying the place, again, and more then ever in his life, in a million bright colours. His definitive diagnosis, however, was never established, doctors believed that he was suffering from a form of epilepsy brought on in part by too much coffee and alcohol and too little food.
The fact that paint tubes were expensive at the time, and Van Gogh’s poverty is a well known detail of his life, lead us to the assumption that he would not waste any drop of any colour, by mixing tones the wrong way and getting a useless shade that simply could not be used in his ongoing project. Makes sense right? Guess what, wrong. Or better, half right. Turns out, Van Gogh was particularly picky when it came to colour combinations. But then, how did he manage it? Paint was expensive, but skeins of wool…not that much. And he found out that they were his best option to try out the colours before even opening a paint tube.
Self-portraits portraying self-amputations
Did Vincent cut off his own ear out of love or in the heat of a furious argument with another painter? Two plausible theories. Again, the answer is a mix of the two. Vincent shared a small yellow house in the South of France with his friend, and contemporary painter, Gauguin. Thing went well for weeks, they ate together, drank together and painted together. Until Vincent found out about Gauguin’s intentions to leave. It is said that after their intense argument, Vincent grabbed a razor and cut off his own ear. After that, he carefully wrapped it in newspaper and sent it to his object of passion, Rachel, a girl that worked in a brothel close by the yellow house.
His many self-portraits constitute eternal colourful documentation of the physical changes his head suffered as insanity was building up inside it.
Understanding his life and art by diving into Van Gogh’s perception of reality
After an intense journey through Vincent’s artwork, represented here as a tridimensional, palpable, engulfing world, I can not help but wonder what is the price you pay for geniality? Vincent confirmed through his legacy that the more intelectual one is, the more deep one’s depression is. Creativity is definitely enhanced by delusions, good for the Arts, but those delusions can drive you dangerously insane, bad for the artist.
If you can, do not miss this incredible cultural experience where you learn by touching, listening, visualising the whole as well as the small details and magically being incorporated inside of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings.