Van Gogh is one of my absolute favourite artists of all time. My fascination with him began when I was about 17, and in a way that is probably unconventional – in an introductory psychology seminar.

As part of our first semester classes we were required to take what was then called a ‘scheme module’ – a mandatory class not affiliated directly with our department but taught by departmental staff all the same. The particular scheme module we were assigned to was known as The Psychology of Everyday Life, though, again unconventionally, the sorts of topics it contained were far from everyday, and most weeks we would find ourselves sitting in lectures concerning anything from paranormal phenomena to celebrity stalking to colour psychology.

It was a great module.

The only assessment in the module was a 2500-word essay on any of the topics covered in the lectures. Unconventional as they were, most of the topics on our reading list didn’t appeal to me. I was young, and angst-ridden, and a rebel at heart, and I desperately wanted to exert my efforts on something more profound than poltergeists or the meaning of red.

So it was that I gravitated to the psychopathology of van Gogh.

It was a time when madness and insanity fascinated me, especially their social construction and their subjectivity, and the way social and cultural changes across time and place meant that mental disorder was something undefined, misunderstood, and inherently mysterious. I was fascinated by the strangeness of mental illness before the 20th century, the way young women would inexplicably become hysterical and be committed to sanitoriums for rest and relaxation, never to emerge again.

Vincent, on the other hand, was no delicate young woman. He was a contradiction of sorts – equally rough and gentle, violent and serene, lucid and insane. People tend to romanticise his madness, but in fact his poor health frustrated him and he yearned to be well. He loved painting, and he painted everything from flowers to landscapes to portraits. Especially in the Arles period, he loved painting canvases that were vivid with colour, drenched with sunshine, oozing with blues and greens and fiery reds, and emanating, especially, a dazzling spectrum of yellows. He loved yellow. I imagine it reminded him of the sun…and happiness.

This still life of sunflowers in a vase – one of eleven he painted over his life – is in the National Gallery in London and I have been there more than once to just stand there, gazing at it as the crowds buzz around me. His use of yellow is amazing. On one visit I was joined in my gazing by a class of primary school children sitting on the floor, pointing at the different shades of yellow as they were directed by their teacher. Sunny yellow, pastel yellow, lime yellow, mustard yellow. It’s like the entire canvas is an orchestra, playing chords of yellow in octaves high and low in perfect harmony.

My essay considered the various theories of madness – schizophrenia, Asperger’s, syphilis and bipolar. But I argued that I didn’t believe Vincent was mad. He was just one of those people whose greatness is not appreciated until it is too late – and the many sadnesses and rejections he endured in his life made his yearning for happiness, and his pursuit of it, ever more frantic.

When I think about Vincent during moments of near insanity in my PhD, I remember his persistence to carry on with what he wanted so badly to do, and the beauty and elegance he portrayed in his work despite being a complex and imperfect person.

This is something I strive to do.

And in closing he was ever the gentleman…

Handshakes!

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