Day 29: Of all the famous people (dead and alive) who are allegedly bipolar, who would you pick as your favourite, and why?
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Groot-Zundert. Born to upper-middle class parents he spent much of his early adulthood working for a firm of art dealers but did not start painting himself until he was in his late-twenties. Before settling in the South of France, Vincent traveled between the Hague, London and Paris, and taught for a time at Isleworth and Ramsgate in England. In 1885 he painted The Potato Eaters, considered his first major work, and his palette consisted mainly of earth tones, with little of the vivid coloration that dominated his later work. After moving to France, where he discovered the French impressionists, he settled in Arles where his paintings developed the unique and recognizable style that he is known for.
After years of battling anxiety and frequent bouts of mental ill-health, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 37. The extent to which his mental health affected his painting has been widely debated by art historians. Despite a widespread tendency to romanticize his ill-health, modern critics see an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence wrought through illness. His late paintings show an artist at the height of his abilities, completely in control, and according to art critic Robert Hughes, “longing for concision and grace”
Long before the Doctor and Amy paid a visit to Vincent van Gogh, I was a fan. I loved his style. I loved the bright, almost luminescent, colours that defined his paintings. I loved how gazing longingly at his artwork made me feel; lost to his creativity, to his brilliance, to his expertise. It was years before I discovered the extent of his mental illness, years before I learnt that he and I shared a commonality with bipolar affective disorder. And when I discovered this, it only made me love him more. It connected us. I had something in common with the master of contemporary art. Even though I would never follow in his footsteps – my artwork leaves a lot to be desired – Vincent and I had something in common. We shared a diagnosis. We shared a condition that many attempt to understand but few ever will. It helped me get under his skin, it helped me to understand how he felt whenever he put brush to canvas, desperate to ease his pain through his love of art, his unrelenting desire to unleash his creativity for the world to see.
When he cut off his own ear, I could understand the pain that he went through. Not physically, no, for I have never mutilated myself to such an extent, but emotionally, psychologically, for there have been times when I’ve felt I had no option but to carve off my ear or sever a toe. All the times I’ve self-harmed, that I’ve set upon myself with knife, scissors or blade, I can understand the chaos that was reigning supreme in his mind that dark, dark night. There are rumors too, that he heard voices, that he communicated with people only he could hear, so that is something else we have in common. Another link, another commonality, that I share with this genius, this creative savant, this painter of exquisite, world-renowned images.
And just when I thought my connection to Van Gogh couldn’t get any deeper, along comes the Doctor – my hero, my savior – to intervene in the painter’s life. Granted, it was a work of fiction, but the episode Vincent and the Doctor strengthened my connection to Van Gogh in ways I could only dream of. It is a masterwork of writing, of mental illness metaphors and of a performance so sublime, so divine, that it is worthy of the master himself. Tony Curran inhabited Van Gogh. He brought the troubled painter to life; flaws, faults, mental illness and all. This episode, this masterpiece of television, is easily the best of Matt Smith’s tenure in the role of the mythical Time Lord; and Van Gogh’s inclusion is the reason for that.
There are many painters that I admire – Fred Williams, Frederick McCubbin, Monet – but none in the same way that I admire Van Gogh. His work, his life, speaks to my very soul. He is a hero; a man whom I admire more than any other. A man who fought the demons inside of him to paint some of the most respected and loved artworks in the history of the world. He lived side-by-side with mental illness his entire life, yet he never let it best him, he never let it stop him doing what he wanted to do. And even though his demons eventually got the better of him, tearing him from the world at too young an age, he is a man to cherish, to revere, to love. He is a man unlike any other; and I will adore him until my dying days.