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October 18 2011

Did Van Gogh kill himself? It shouldn't really matter

A new claim that a bizarre accident caused the artist's death has no bearing on the severe emotional troubles evident in his letters

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam counsels visitors not to interpret his last works as clues to his suicide – which, according to conventional wisdom, took place when the artist shot himself in a field near the doctor's house that was his last refuge in a world he found almost impossible to inhabit. Last time I was there, a label advised against taking an overly melodramatic view of his roiling blue, black and gold late vision Wheatfield with Crows.

Now the museum has once again urged caution, this time about the claim in a new biography that Van Gogh did not shoot himself after all but was mortally wounded in a bizarre accident. Well might the Van Gogh Museum express scepticism. After all, it seems like only yesterday that "scholars" were claiming poor Vincent did not cut off his own ear after all but was injured by Gauguin with a sword. That claim soon vanished into thin air and rightly so. Will this theory be as short-lived?

Both claims have the instant appeal of challenging the "myth" of Van Gogh the tortured artist, the man "suicided by society", in the words of Antonin Artaud. Yet both come up against the mystery of why he never mentioned that he had been injured by others. In the case of his ear, it would seem strange that he allowed himself to be hounded by locals as a dangerous madman and incarcerated in asylum without mentioning that, oh, by the way, he was the victim of an assault. Similarly in this case, asks the BBC's Will Gompertz, why let his family think he'd killed himself if that was not the case? He managed to walk back home and survived the gunshot to his chest long enough to speak out.

But the truly misleading thing here is the idea that it makes much difference to how we see Van Gogh. I am not disputing the fascination of his biography, but it is much, much more than a dramatic series of violent incidents. Few artists are better known to us than Van Gogh. His letters constitute a work of art in their own right – a literary masterpiece. If you want to appreciate them as such, the best places to start, in English, is the Penguin Classics edition of his selected letters that brings out their vivid intimacy, intellectual liveliness and emotional depth. If you want to delve still further, the new edition of the complete letters undertaken by the Van Gogh Museum is exhaustive, and dispiriting.

Dispiriting because it reveals the seriousness and extremity of Van Gogh's emotional troubles. From his complete letters a remorseless self-portrait emerges of a man who from his youth onwards found it very difficult to coexist with others or find a productive place in his 19th-century world. At odds with his parents, with employers, even with the brother who financially supported him, Vincent nursed the darkest of thoughts and made his own existence virtually impossible. He comes across in his own correspondence like a character out of Dostoevsky.

Not many who read his letters will find suicide a surprising end to his story. That doesn't mean the authors of the new biography are necessarily wrong, but it does make their proposed revision less important than it might seem at first glance. You can argue about the incident. You cannot deny his life expressed the urge. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 07 2011

CoolTan Arts World Mental Health Day exhibition - in pictures

Artworks by people with mental health issues created at a charity's workshops are going on show to mark World Mental Health Day

June 22 2010

Pass notes No 2,801: Dostoevsky

Murals of the Russian author in a Moscow metro station have been called 'depressing' and 'inappropriate'

Age: 188, but dead.

Appearance: Bearded, depressed, decomposed.

He's absolutely, definitely, positively my favourite Russian writer. I loved War and Peace. And that film with Omar Sharif and the sleigh. You've never read anything by him, have you?

I might have. But refresh my memory. He created two of the great 19th-century novels: Crime and Punishment, in which a student murders two old women with an axe, and The Brothers Karamazov, in which a son bumps off his dad with a paperweight. His themes were madness, sin, redemption through Christ, prostitution, madness, sin, the importance of knowing your place, suicide, madness, sin and the love of a good woman. And madness. And sin.

Sounds a tad downbeat, even for a Russian. Some say Dostoevsky never recovered from his mock execution after he upset the Tsarist authorities, or his years in a Siberian prison camp. It can't have helped that his father was a violent alcoholic who was murdered by his serfs, that his mother died of TB, and that he had epilepsy. He was a compulsive gambler, too.

All this is absolutely fascinating . . . But why are we talking about some foreign stiff when there's sport on the telly? He's a bad influence, apparently.

Worse than Lady Gaga? The Russians are worried he'll encourage suicides on the Moscow underground. The new Dostoevsky metro station features scenes from his works, including the axe murders, and a portrait of the author. Critics describe it as "gloomy", "depressing" and "totally inappropriate".

Didn't one of his heroines throw herself in front of a train? That was Tolstoy. Dostoevsky's characters tend to end it all with guns or ropes. Experts are worried that Ivan Nikolaev's murals give the station a "negative energy". About 80 people kill themselves on the Moscow metro every year.

Does Nikolaev have any sympathy? He's an artist, you dummy. "What did you want?" he says. "Scenes of dancing?"

Do quote: "We are all happy, if we only knew it."

Don't quote: "Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 12 2010

Suffering and strength

Bobby Baker spent 11 years battling mental illness, an experience she recorded in performances and hundreds of private drawings

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