Sunday, July 14, 2013

Did Drinking Absinthe Cause Van Gogh to Lose His Mind?

One of the allures to the story of Vincent Van Gogh is that this brilliant artist went crazy.  He didn't just go crazy -- he went bug-fucking nuts. Things he did included:

eating his paints
following women into their homes when he was clearly uninvited
pissing off anyone who could have helped his career
that cutting off his ear lobe thing

So Let's Try the Question Again

Why did Vincent Van Gogh become bug-fucking nuts? Because he died in 1890 (even before Sigmund Freud's publication of The Interpretation of Dreams for crying out loud) we really have no idea what spicy stew of mental and physical disorders that Vincent actually suffered from.  It was known that around the time of his death he suffered from:

  • syphilis
  • impotence
  • rotting teeth
  • hallucinations, which may have been caused by temporal lobe epilepsy
  • starvation due to extreme poverty
  • paranoia
  • alcoholism
Clearly, drinking absinthe was the least of Vincent's problems.

What About the Hallucinations?

One theory is that he hallucinated because he was addicted to absinthe.  The real absinthe was banned in France in 1915 but returned in 2012.  America's ban on real absinthe was lifted about 2007.  Until then, all anyone had to drink was weak substitutes.  Why was the stuff banned?  It was 110 to 144 proof.  I'm surprised Vincent lived as long as he did while quaffing this brew.  Rumor is that he drank it straight but absinthe was an expensive drink and so a bottle may have always been out of Vincent's price range.  It was usually drunk with lots of water and a melted sugar cube.

Absinthe has never been proven to cause hallucinations more than any other alcoholic beverage.  It could be that Vincent was especially sensitive to absinthe that it could have tipped him over the edge of sanity but Vincent was already teetering there.  Epilepsy and mental illness appeared frequently in Vincent's family.  Most of his siblings committed suicide.  His beloved brother Theo died insane and incontinent because of advanced syphilis. 

It wasn't just one factor that caused Vincent to go mad.  It was a large combination of factors.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

YouTube Video: "The Yellow House" (2007) Channel 4 TV Movie

I lived just over five years in England and miss many things about it -- the great radio, the tea, the cheese and the telly.  Channel 4 is the edgier channel and often showed controversial documentaries.  I was living back in America when this one came out.  The Yellow House (2007) is a dramatization of a book by the same name.  It's not the most historically accurate film (according to the books about Vincent I've studied) but that's not the point.  The point was to highlight and contrast the conflicting personalities of Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh.

The film is about one hour and 13 minutes long and has incredibly good background music.  Pour a glass of your favorite wine (or tea, if you don't drink alcohol) and savor.  John Simm plays an excellent Vincent with John Lynch as the obnoxious and thoroughly self-absorbed Paul Gauguin.

YouTube Video: "Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portraits"

I was planning on doing a long post featuring all of Vincent Van Gogh's self-portraits.  At the time, I only thought he'd done about 20 which still survived (at least one was destroyed during World War II.)  And then I found out that DOZENS of Vincent's self-portraits have survived and realized that blog post was going to be the War and Peace of blog posts.

So I left it to the Studio of the South to put together a short YouTube video featuring some of the most famous of Vincent's self-portraits.  One note -- "Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat" (1887 -- he's wearing a pinkish suit against a greyish background) has some questions around it.  Some art historians think that this is actually a portrait of Vincent's long-suffering brother Theo.  Personally, I don't care who it's supposed to be of.  I like it.)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Is Van Gogh Considered Such a Great Artist?

Very few people are indifferent to the art of Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890.) Usually they either love it or hate it.  Even during Vincent's brief lifetime, the critics were at work.  One Spanish artist, visiting the inn where Vincent happened to live, looked at one of Vincent's canvasses and exclaimed, "Who is the pig that did that?"  Modern critics, art lovers and casual observers have been tearing Van Gogh's work apart ever since.

What Does Life Have to do With It?

One argument critics use is the "his life was better than his art" theory.  Vincent's life story was so dramatic and so tragic that it acts as a rosy-tinted filter for people looking at his work.  Personally, I think that argument doesn't hold water.  There have been many MANY artists that have lead tragic lives or committed suicide and none of them are as popular as Van Gogh.  When you get right down to it, great art communicates more powerfully than great biographies.

Not From Just One School

Art was at a big crossroads during Vincent's life.  It was moving from realism to Impressionism and then to modern art.  In between were short-lived art movements like Pointillism (painting in a series of dots) and Symbolism, where the subject matter was strictly from the artist's imagination (think Paul Gauguin at his most freaky.)  Vincent managed to blend the best elements of these schools without degenerating into total chaos.

Original Interpretations

What is art?  One definition is "to hold a mirror up to the universe."  The artist is the mirror.  Van Gogh painted in a way that only he could do.  He wanted to paint feelings as well as what was actually in front of him.  Even when he copied other painter's works, he injected different color schemes and other subtle differences so that they are unmistakably from Van Gogh's hand.  Before Van Gogh, it was very unusual for an artist to put any of his inner world into a work.  If an artist wanted to put himself in the painting, he would just paint his face in there somewhere.

Ahead of His Time

There was nobody painting quite like Van Gogh in the last five years of his life.  Although Van Gogh tried many styles in the ten years he spent as an artist, by 1888 he had developed his own colorfully intense style.  This intensity and radical reinterpretations of the visible world greatly inspired the generations of artists that lived long after Van Gogh. 

You Try and Paint Like Him, Sunshine

Think Van Gogh ain't so great?  You try to paint like him.  Don't copy the paintings exactly -- just paint something like him.  You'll find it's an incredibly hard exercise.  This is when it will finally hit home what a great artist Van Gogh was.

Van Gogh -- the Drink

Van Gogh did a lot of drinking in his day.  That was just about all anyone had to do in Vincent's time and financial situation.  It is with no sense of surprise that I've discovered many alcoholic beverages named after Vincent.  He probably would have liked them. 

For a fancy drink, you can do no worse than a Van Gogh's Rocket, created by Los Angeles bistro Church & State. It's made up with the modern wimpy version of Vincent's favorite drink, absinthe, vodka, Lillet Blanc aperitif wine, lemon juice, honey syrup, a pinch or arugula and a lemon peel curled on top.  The peel is resemble Vincent's ear.  How appetizing.

If that doesn't make you see stars, then you could sip from a bottle of Van Gogh Vodka.  This is a complete line of vodka with a Van Gogh reproduction on the bottle.  I can't stand vodka but I do admit I'm tempted by the Van Gogh Rich Dark Chocolate flavor.  There's also a peanut butter and jelly flavor.  I'm not sure I want to know how they came up with that flavor.  Perhaps it's for alcoholics who can't be bothered to actually eat a PB & J sandwich?

There's also Vino Van Gogh, but it's not what it sounds like.  It's actually the name of a painting class where wine is served.  I guess that's keeping up with the great tradition of well-lubricated artists.  The real attractive thing about the class is that you do not have to bring any supplies.  They are provided for you.  You do get instruction for your 2 to 3 hour class.  At the end of it, you have a painting done all by your little lonesome.

Image: "The Drinkers (After Daumier)" By Vincent Van Gogh; 1890.

Interesting Facts and Information About Vincent Van Gogh

Not many artists inspire more awe and mystery than the legendary Vincent Willem Van Gogh (1853 – 1890.) Most people know him as a social outcast who cut off part of his own ear, painted some masterpieces and then died from a mysterious gunshot wound that (or may not) have been self-inflicted. But many facts surrounding Vincent’s life are even stranger than that whole ear thing.

Why He Signed his Paintings "Vincent"
Van Gogh signed most of his major paintings with his first name. Usually, an artist signed with initials or the last name. He was a Dutchman with a name easy for non-Dutch to spell but difficult to pronounce. "Van Gogh" is not pronounced "van go" or "van goff" but a sound difficult to reproduce in English spelling. The best approximation is "van hawkgh" to sound similarly (but not exactly) to "cough."

He was perhaps tired of hearing foreigners mangle his last name and so preferred to be called by the more easily pronounced Vincent. He also had a considerable talent for ticking off his family members, so he may have started signing "Vincent" in order to distance himself from the whole Van Gogh clan.

He Wasn't the Biggest Failure in the Family

Vincent was definitely the black sheep of his family, but he was nothing compared to his first cousin Hendrik Jacob Eerligh Van Gogh, the son of Vincent's uncle, Rear Admiral Johannes (Jan) Van Gogh (1817 - 1885). Uncle Jan made a fortune in his career and watched it all wash away when his son (Vincent's cousin) stole it all and escaped to America, where he would die just one year after his father. He is buried in Portland, Oregon.

Not much is known about Hendrik except that he was diagnosed with epilepsy and apparently drank a great deal. The only treatment for epilepsy back then was to stick the person in an insane asylum. No wonder he ran off to another continent entirely.

His Parents had Another Vincent Willem Van Gogh

Exactly one year before Vincent was born, a son was born to his parents and named Vincent Willem Van Gogh. Unfortunately, he was stillborn. The tiny body was buried at the church where Vincent's father worked. Every time Vincent went to church, he saw a grave with his name and birth date on it.

Although this would seem to be a significant detail in a man's life, it was basically ignored by Vincent and his family. The 1850s did have high death rates for babies and so reusing a good name perhaps made sense at the time.

More of my posts about Vincent's life:

Did Van Gogh Have Syphilis?
Did Van Gogh Like People?
Van Gogh's First Drawings