Psychological Reflections of Vincent Van Gogh’s Art

I know for sure that I have an instinct for colour, and that it will come to me more and more, that painting is in the very marrow of my bones.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

Vincent William van Gough a famous Dutch artist whose work often associated with Post-Impressionism and later transformed in to Expressionism. Vincent Van Gogh, was one of the most important predecessors of modern painting. He was an outstanding mostly self taught artist who used color for its “symbolic and expressive values” rather than to reproduce light and literal surroundings. Vincent van Gogh’s artistic work deeply analyses his unconscious mind. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud viewed art as a privileged form of neurosis where the analyst-critic explores the artwork in order to understand and unearth the vicissitudes of the creator’s psychological motivations. In this context van Gough’s art represent a profound psychological sketch.

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in Netherlands. Since his childhood Van Gogh had an immense passion for art. Van Gogh’s emotional state highly affected his artistic work. Van Gogh’s most famous works include: Starry Night, Cafe Terrace at Night, Terrasse, Houses At Auvers, Restaurant De La Sirene At Asnieres, Sunflowers, Irises, and several self-portraits, amongst others. Most of his best-known work was created in the last two years of his life.

Though Van Gogh had little financial success as an artist during his lifetime and often lived in poverty, his fame grew dramatically after his death. Today van Gough’s name is considered to be one of the world’s most renowned, respected, and influential artists. But he could not live long enough to see his fame. His life was filled with misery and desolation and this suffering was painted in an artistic way.

Van Gogh suffered from complex psychiatric ailments. Apart from the illness excessive use of tobacco and alcohol made a negative impact on his mental health. The mental illness that plagued him affected his art immensely. Van Gough painted his anguish and despair on canvas. His brushwork became increasingly agitated. The striking colors, crude brush strokes, and distorted shapes and contours, express his disturbed mind. He suffered two distinct episodes of reactive depression, and there are clearly bipolar aspects to his history. Both episodes of depression were followed by sustained periods of increasingly high energy and enthusiasm.

Van Gogh’s inimitable art was defined by its powerful, dramatic and emotional style. The artist’s concern for human suffering is in somber, melancholy study of art. Maybe he tried to explain the struggle between the man and the human nature, the reality and his unconscious mental conflicts. Van Gogh once said: “We spend our whole lives in unconscious exercise of the art of expressing our thoughts with the help of words.”
His life was full of mental conflicts. He fought with his inner mind. This dual nature was observable. He had attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse. His colors lost the intensity His lines became restless. He applied the paint more violently with thicker layers. Van Gogh was drawn to objects in nature under stress: whirling suns, twisted cypress trees, and surging mountains. Although van Gogh’s illness emerged more violently he produced brilliant works as The Reaper, Cypresses The Red Vineyard, and his famed Starry Night.

In Starry Night (1889) the whole world seems engulfed by circular movements. The Starry Night is undoubtedly van Gogh’s most mysterious picture. The Starry Night which resides as his most popular work and one of the most influence pieces in history. The swirling lines of the sky are a possible representation of his mental state. The Starry Night embodies an inner, subjective expression of van Gogh’s response to nature. Vincent van Gogh once said “Looking at the stars always makes me dream. We take death to reach a star.”
From the beginning of Van Gogh’s artistic career he had the ambition to draw and paint figures. For Vincent van Gogh color was the chief symbol of expression. Contemporary artists admired van Gogh’s passionate approach to art. But he viewed his life as horribly wasted, personally failed and impossible. On the contrary he was able to produce deeply moving images while living a life of ultimate desperation in an increasing state of mental imbalance.

Suicidal gestures by Vincent depicted in his last paintings. He painted immense fields of wheat under dark and stormy skies, commenting, “It is not difficult to express here my entire sadness and extreme loneliness” . In one of his last paintings, Wheat Field With Crows, the black birds fly in a starless sky, and three paths lead nowhere.

In 1888 Vincent’s mental health was very unstable. His state of mind was very weak and during a breakdown, he mutilated his ear. After a few weeks he was able to paint Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe, which shows him in serene composure. Vincent van Gogh had an unconventional personality and unstable moods, suffered from recurrent psychotic episodes during the last 2 years of his life, and committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37. Despite the mental illness he suffered Vincent remained marvelously creative until his death. Although he lived a relatively short period he left behind an astonishing body of work which included several hundred paintings.

The lyrics of Don McLean’s hit song Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) describes a comparison to Van Gogh’s Actual Life and references to Van Gogh’s paintings.

Starry, starry night.
Paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer’s day,
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.
Shadows on the hills,
Sketch the trees and the daffodils,
Catch the breeze and the winter chills,
In colors on the snowy linen land.

Don McLean articulates Vincent van Gogh’s tragic death and points out that even though he loved painting, his paintings could never love him back.

For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you.

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