Of tormented genius

Of tormented genius

by Christopher Anderson
article from Thursday 18, January, 2018

THIS IS THE scenario, friends. I am alone in a room with an attractive, bubbly woman, young – in her early twenties, I guess. I am the centre of her attention. She comes close to me, smiles and gently slips her left hand round the back of my neck. She murmurs "I just love doing this to your ears, its my favourite thing".

No, this is not some sad old man's kinky dream of erotic foreplay, for in her right hand she clutches a stonking great syringe full of hot liquid, ready to plunge it into my head. I am in the process of having excess wax removed from my ears by the Medical Practice Nurse. It is, I'm afraid, the real world, dammit !

Now, I can hear the grass grow in the back garden and next door's cat stomping around on it. The only down-side is that I am rudely startled into consciousness at 4.30 am every morning by Joey, our resident blackbird, doing his favourite Pavarotti impression outside my bedroom window.

Still, good hearing is a valuable asset, and who would willingly be without both ears operating efficiently, "Oh what about that artist fellow Van Gogh?, I hear you say. He cut his own ear off didn't he?"

Well, yes he did, but unfortunately poor Vincent Van Gogh along with his pal, Paul Gauguin, although both brilliantly talented 19th Century artists, were also mentally unbalanced.

Every canvas of this Dutch painter Van Gogh is now worth a fortune, but he himself made little money out of painting during his lifetime. This did not effect his prolific output. During one fifteen month period, in Arles in southeast France, from 1888 to 1889, he produced over two hundred paintings, turning them out like little Killie Pies! In an astonishing, obsessive and feverish burst of creativity, he painted a picture a day in the last seventy days of his life.

Some of the most famous paintings he created included "The Potato Eaters" 1885, and in a completely different and much freer style, characterised by intense colour and expression in his brushwork, his wonderful "Sunflower" series of 1888.

The son of a pastor, Van Gogh was by turn a missionary preacher in a Belgian coal-mining district, a down-at-heel tramp and finally a painter of genius, whose work at the time was unrecognised and unwanted. Van Gogh's angry frustration soon sank into insanity. After one particularly violent quarrel with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, he threatened Gauguin with an open razor. He then cut off his own right ear and sent it to a cousin with whom he was in love.

In 1889, Van Gogh became a voluntary inmate of the assylum of St. Remy, near Arles. His mental condition seemed to greatly improve and in May 1890, he went to live, under medical supervision, near his brother Theo, at Auvers-sur-Oise, an artist's colony north of Paris. In July 1890 he became totally overwhelmed by depression and shot himself.

Six months later, Theo, who had financially supported and encouraged his beloved brother Vincent for all of his creative life also became a victim of deep depression and died of what his doctor called "overstrain and sorrow". This is probably what we would refer to today as a broken heart. He left behind seven hundred and fifty letters which Vincent had written to him, detailing the painter's artistic philosophy and ambitions and also giving a vivid account of his mental turmoil.

Easily the most poignant, pathetic and brutally self depreciatory picture Vincent left behind is entitled "Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear", painted in 1889, shortly before his suicide. It is a brilliant work of art, but when viewing it, one cannot help but feel deep sympathy for the sad haunted figure that is the tormented post impressionist genius Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1882 Paul Gauguin gave up a very good position as a stockbroker in Paris to become a full-time painter. He left his family and friends and travelled to Brittany, Martinique, and Panama before going to Arles in southeast France, where he stayed with Van Gogh. Looking for what he called "the natural life" he went to the South Pacific and used the Polynesians and the islands for some of his finest work.

Gauguin's paintings, however, did not sell and on New Year's Eve 1897, starving and ill, he went into the jungle in Tahiti and took a large dose of arsenic, but his suicide attempt failed. After a short sleep, he agonisingly vomited up most of the poison.

Deciding to remain in the South Seas, Gauguin was in continual conflict with the civil and religious authorities because of his hostile attitude and bohemian lifestyle. He also caused great unrest among the native population. His last years were dominated by sickness and great poverty.

On his death in the Marquesas Islands in 1903, the French bishop wrote, "The only noteworthy event here has been the sudden death of a contemptible individual named Gauguin, a reputed artist but an enemy of God and everything that is decent!"

Like those of his erstwhile friend Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin's paintings, such as "The Guitar Player", painted in Tahiti in 1892, are worth a fortune now.

Leaving such a legacy of beauty to prosperity, who can say that the undeniably bizarre lives of these great masters were wasted?

Photo: © Bridgeman Art Library, London

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