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A Jewish Childhood Blog - Van Gogh/Artaud: Le Suicide de la Societe.
Monday, 28 July 2014 21:28

In the 80s I went to Amsterdam. There I visited the Van Gogh Museum. That was the last time I went to an exhibit of his work. When I saw that this was at the Musee D'Orsay, I thought, what an interesting concept of Van Gogh, "The Suicide by Society”.

The first thing I read, was a quote from Antonin Artaud, a French poet, actor, philosopher, genius, playwright and director. "There are no ghosts in the paintings of Van Gogh, no visions, no hallucinations. This is the torrid truth of the sun at two o'clock in the afternoon."

So what then created this concept? Was it Van Gogh or Artaud? In a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, Wednesday, 23 July, 1890, he says, "I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half floundered in it."

Artaud adds, "And so painting should be done at society's expense, and the artist shouldn't be over-burdened by it. But there you are, we should keep quiet once again, because nobody is forcing us to work; indifference towards painting being inevitably fairly general, fairly eternal."

I am surrounded by the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. I see landscape, a lane in a park, grasses, tall trees in autumn. People Walking. Public places. Theater people sitting in chairs awaiting a performance.

Artaud again reflects on the man. "Little does Van Gogh know at that time, the demon that would take him down from beyond the grave."

When I think of my relationship with Van Gogh and his art I think daring, I think perhaps this is the way things that in the past were classified as insane were in fact just the way he saw the world, much as with a writer, I see the world in perhaps a different landscape than you do, or perhaps the words form pictures that this is a way that you might have thought to yourselves, "Oh perhaps, now I see it differently." A new way to interpret a worldview not before thought of in that particular way.

So did the art make Van Gogh "crazy?" or as Artaud posits, that the treatment ordered by Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, Van Gogh's physician, as the reason for Van Gogh's suicide by "gun at age 37 in 1890” (although no gun was ever found). Artaud blames Theo for the suicide and contends that he blames society at large for preventing Van Gogh from uttering certain 'unbearable truths'...these supposed truths.  Click here: Postcard From Paris: Artaud and Van Gogh -

Artaud has been compared to Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Here is one way of comparing that type of writing, that of the macabre.

Artaud also killed himself after an inappropriate diagnosis of rectal cancer. Both Artaud and Van Gogh died in a mental institution, Artaud at the age of 51, in 1948, and Van Gogh at the age of 37.

What puzzled me for so long, including trying to put down some thoughts on why these two were teamed for such a grand show at Musee D'orsay is that it was the first time I saw two artists used one as a foil against the other and while I was walking through the exhibit I felt that yes, these are some truths but not necessarily The Truth. One artist was defending his life and yes, his death with the use of the concept of the world's largest scapegoat, that of society.

I hope I have brought up some points that will cause you to do your own research and to lead to your own truths about the nature of illness. Is it the cause or the result?

I remember reading a psychiatrist when I was in grad school. Her name was Barry Stevens. Her theory of mental illness is that it was all a matter of degree. If you could be crazy, you could be un-crazy. So much for a medical model.

Thanks for indulging me and for reading my Jewish Childhood Blog.