Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Starry starry night: musings on the tragedy of van Gogh

My good friend (let's call him PH) here introduced me to this gem of a song by Don McLean (he of "American Pie") last week. Most of you might be familiar with it; I wasn't. Now I am a hooked.

It's called "Vincent" and it's McLean's beautiful homage to the life of artist Vincent van Gogh.

McLean's voice is so clear and gentle in this song. And the lyrics. Oh man, the lyrics.

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls

Such amazing poetry.

This song set off a period of van Gogh obsession for me. After making an obligatory pilgrimage to his wikipedia page, I was astounded to learn how difficult and tragic his life actually was. Prior to this I always assumed he became famous during his lifetime and suffered from mental problems toward the end of his life due to mercury or lead poisoning.

Turns out he spent most of life as a failure, forever frustrated, both at himself for failing to achieve goals he set for himself and at the world for not reciprocating his earnest attempts to define it. Vincent was a veritable Europe-trotter, moving and staying in various towns and cities across multiple countries. He wanted to become a priest and enrolled multiple times in schools, but always found himself getting thrown out (once for being too spartan and austere - he slept in a stable because he believed he should suffer to enhance his piety). Periods of apprenticeship in art shops and schools also ended in failures.

Vincent wrote a lot of letters to his brother, an art dealer, and much knowledge about his life comes from those letters. He struggled with loneliness and terrible mood swings. He contracted syphilis (much like Nietzsche), which almost certainly contributed to the neurological symptoms later in his life.

But through it all, he kept drawing and sketching, down to the last days of his life. At age 37, after multiple visits in and out of sanitariums and asylums, he shot himself. Reportedly his last words to his brother were, "The sadness will last forever."

van Gogh's paintings are, of course, uber famous today. Starry Night, Sunflowers, View of Arles.  But I wanna show this one portrait he drew, mere two months before his death.

At Eternity's Gate

I like to think that's Vincent imagining himself as an old man, deep in his sorrow.

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