art with mental illness

I’ve been thinking all day about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Vincent painted such beautiful pictures, and I love his repetitions, the sequences of paintings where he painted the same subject or something like the same subject again and again.  Was he experimenting with different techniques? Trying to make the painting better?  Making multiple copies? Now it’s so easy to make multiple copies that we would never consider making another version of a piece to make another copy.

There’s something so visceral about paint on a canvas. I love seeing the original paintings. Even though I know that some of that creative energy came from instability, I can’t help but find that mix of tenderness and passion exquisite.  Still, without the balancing force of his brother, who steadied him both with his calming influence and with his money to buy paints and canvas, this art would not perhaps exist. I was reading today about the period when Vincent had the idea of setting up an artists’ salon in Arles and invited Gauguin to come and live with him.  The two managed to get along for only a short period before there was an explosive argument, Van Gogh severed his ear, and Gauguin fled.  The two would write after that but never see each other again.

This reminds me of my own son, not that he’s Van Gogh…though who knows? Van Gogh blossomed a bit late.  But Martin needs to be around people who are calm.  He can’t tolerate people who have the same temperament he has. Being around others who are in a manic state seems to invoke mania in him, even though he was previously calm.  I wonder whether that’s true for others.

I have a friend who has asked me more than once what I would be if there were absolutely no consequences to my choice. I thought I remembered what her choice was, but I got it somewhat wrong. I had remembered that she wanted to be a tug boat captain, when what she really thinks about is being a harbor pilot: getting on ships as they come into the harbor and steering them home.

The first time she asked me this question, I had no idea what to answer.  First I said a writer, and then she said I couldn’t say that, because I was already writing, even if I hadn’t yet published. So I said perhaps I’d like to publish.  She clearly wasn’t happy with that answer, but I didn’t know what else to say.  Saturday she asked me again, and I said a ballerina, which is one true answer.  I danced for a number of years, and it did grieve me that I wasn’t any good.  But another true answer is a painter. Though I keep making art with words, I love the look of the brush and the paint. I’ve never painted anything that satisfied me at all, but if I had, even once, I think I would have been a painter. Neither of my sons seem to find any solace at all in art, but I do.

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, 1889, Smithsonian Museum.

van gogh irises

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