28 Mar

“As far as I can judge, I am not actually mentally ill.” Vincent Van Gogh, shortly after cutting off part of his ear and giving it to a prostitute.


Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in ‘Lust for Life’, 1956.

Poor old Vinnie has been pathologised in a hundred different ways: epilepsy, chemical poisoning, bipolar disorder, alcoholism. Clearly there was something seriously wrong with the paint-eating, ear-slashing, self-medicating and ultimately suicidal painter who sold almost nothing and was known to almost nobody during his lifetime. But in that last fact, it seems to me, lies a large and relatively simple part of the answer. As somebody who’s spent their whole adult life battling to become and remain a worthwhile artist and writer, and to much more success while I’m alive than Vincent ever had (albeit still not very much, and only really by default because he had no success or recognition at all), I can wholly sympathise with and understand his sadness, frustration and depression upon finding that his passion was deemed ridiculous, that his way of seeing the world got him labelled a lunatic, and his vocation was dismissed as a hobby that had no value either monetarily or artistically.


The artistic temperament as a medical condition: ‘Lust for Life’ with Kirk Douglas as Vincent and James Donald as his beloved brother (and art dealer) Theo.

It’s easy for some salaried academic to pontificate on medical causes, but much harder for most of them to viscerally understand that just being poor and feeling unloved are more than enough to drive a person to crazy extremes. Whatever was medically or psychiatrically wrong with him couldn’t be properly understood in the 1880s anyway, and certainly not treated effectively even if it had been. The troubled lives of artists, especially if they die young, are frequently romanticised; but it’s not romantic to fuck your own life up, to commit suicide, to be starving or to live in such a dire state of mental distress that you attack people, eat paint or mutilate yourself. Think of what your own life would look like if you were posthumously deemed important in some way, even though you were (or felt) mostly ignored in your lifetime. What would your private letters or emails look like in the context of art history? Would you be diagnosed with something nasty, or be portrayed in a biopic as a nutcase? Would you like your deepest desires and inspirations dismissed by some doctor as a side-effect of epilepsy, poisoning or bad eyesight? Would you prefer to be famous and dead, or alive and unknown but supported and loved?


Vincent (Kirk Douglas) does the artist as mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Many writers and film makers have been attracted by the jumbled enigma of Van Gogh’s life, by his posthumous re-assessment as an important artist– perhaps one of the most important and influential of the modern era– by his frequent and occasionally harrowing appearances in his own work, and by his copious, revealing letters that are sometimes in their own way as emotionally raw as his paintings are. The result is an almost Shakespearian depth and grandeur to the character of Van Gogh, a man who can be played in as many ways as an actor can play Hamlet. Kirk Douglas in the lengthy (occasionally absurd and sentimental) ‘Lust for Life’ has a great face and temperament for Vincent’s volatility and self-righteousness, and also gives a great account of how profoundly unnerving and weird the gifted can seem to ordinary people. His relationship with Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn, who plays Gauguin as a kind of proto-Ernest Hemingway) is less convincing and makes it hard to see why the two men would ever have tolerated each other, let alone been as close to each other as they really were. I haven’t seen the film for a while, but I seem to remember Van Gogh and Gauguin getting into a fight with some clowns. Or maybe I’d just been eating too much paint that day and I hallucinated the clown fight.


The IMDB page of ‘Lust for Life’, by the way, suggests the following image as a still from the film:


I’d pay good money to see a mashup of ‘Lust for Life’ and ‘Gremlins’. Don’t feed Vincent after midnight, and never let him get wet or he multiplies into numerous evil Vincents. I can also imagine Vincent in the wrecked bank, delivering that morbid monologue about hating Christmas because he always remembers the year he found his father’s decaying corpse stuck up the chimney, dressed as Santa.


Tony Curran as Vincent Van Gogh in ‘Doctor Who’.

Tony Curran’s portrayal of Van Gogh (in ‘Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor’) is a much more recent and equally creditable stab at a nuanced Van Gogh, somewhat vindicating him as an artist instead of merely a nutter. Despite a typically saccharine and crudely manipulative script by Richard Curtis, despite the clumsy and very unfunny lampshade hung on the fact that the Dutch artist has a Scottish accent even though everybody else is either a bit French or RP– which would be less weird if he wasn’t interacting with a Scottish actress playing a Scottish character– and despite the perfunctory (also particularly lame and silly, mostly unconnected thematically) monster of the week, Curtis does at least smuggle a few sensitive talking points about depression into the daft family adventure format, and Curran manages to give a performance that acknowledges the artist’s mental instability and his hardships without stigmatising either the person or the illness. There are also some inspiring, faithful recreations of places and sights painted by Van Gogh that are a credit to the director and the production design team.

I haven’t seen the show depicted in the still below (a BBC drama-documentary called ‘Painted With Words’), but I mainly wanted to share Benedict Cumberbatch’s Vincent Van Gogh fancy dress costume with you. Went a bit too ginger, didn’t you Benny? Did Vincent really buy his clothes from a sale rail at The Gap? It doesn’t bode well. And I’d be careful, Mr Cumberbatch, if you’re drinking that wine because alcohol dissolves the glue they use to stick fake beards on.


Finally, my own contribution is the profile picture I’ve been using for the past year or so. It’s a tribute to Van Gogh’s self portrait with a bandaged ear. It’s in the Courtauld Institute in London. His self portrait, I mean, not mine. His ear’s not in the Courtauld, either. I was obviously empathising particularly strongly with Vincent that day. Perhaps nearly as worrying is the fact that I had all the necessary items for spontaneous Vincent Van Gogh cosplay immediately to hand in my home. Unlike Vincent and Maude Lebowski I am not a redhead. I do however have my own genuine art doppelgänger.



  1. Xandriss 30/03/2013 at 10:36 PM #

    Vincent was an amazing artist and an inspiration in many, many ways. He was very spiritual and deeply committed to everything he did. He was so passionate. He was frustrated by many things he had no control of and did have an illness, though there’s no consensus as to what. I lean toward epilepsy, myself. I do wish the much deeper and sensitive aspects of him were portrayed in the movies and writings of him. It does come through in his paintings though.

    • Alistair 02/04/2013 at 10:05 PM #

      As you can probably tell, I feel quite close to him too. I think the problem with portraying depth and sensitivity is that they’re not the most obviously dramatic things and– I say this as somebody who’s written plays, novels and short stories– they’re among the hardest things to write convincingly in a dramatic format without being sentimental or glib (e.g. Richard Curtis, mentioned in the article above). In some ways it’s unfortunate, but ranting, violence, struggles and stereotypical craziness play better on the screen than showing the times when a person with a disability or an illness is just getting on with their life, going to work, feeling that things are going OK, and so forth.
      Having said that, I agree it would be nice to see less melodramatic and more realistic fictional depictions of people with conditions like epilepsy, dementia or depression in particular, things that are still quite stigmatised and misunderstood despite the fact that they’re so common– depression especially– that almost everybody at some point in their lives will have to deal with having one of these conditions or deal with knowing, loving and trying to support somebody who does.

  2. Alistair 31/03/2013 at 3:49 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

  3. Xandriss 08/04/2013 at 8:40 PM #

    I appreciate your words and agree, Alistair. It’s so much easier to focus only on the negatives and extremes of a person, even if it’s only one part of them or one event in their lives. While the accounts may true, it’s not an accurate portrayal of a person. He was an extreme person, but that went in so many directions. If I were to sum him up, he was all about living passionately in all that he did and in truth. If he was mad, he was so much more than his madness. I suppose that’s not as interesting a view for the movies. Pity.

    In his own words, “…I also love others who are quite different and work quite differently. And as for myself and my own work, perhaps there is a similarity between us at times, but there is certainly a difference as well.” [referring to Mauve, a friend and fellow painter] “If I love someone or something, then I do so in earnest and sometimes with real passion or and fire, but that doesn’t make me think as a matter of course that only a few people are perfect and all the others worthless- far from it. Freethinker, that is a word I really detest, although I have to use it occasionally faute de mieux.” (for want of anything better) “The fact is that I do my best to think things through and try in my actions to take account of reason and common sense. And trying to belittle someone would be quite contrary to that.” In a letter from Vincent to his brother, Theo, Jan. 7th or 8th, 1882. Cited from The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh,edited by Ronald DeLeeuw.

  4. Vanessa (@van_squirgle) 22/05/2013 at 11:31 PM #

    Your comment about Benedict Cumberbatch is hilarious, because even though the still is highly saturated, that’s actually his natural hair color.

    • Alistair 23/05/2013 at 10:16 AM #

      As they say on Wikipedia: citation needed, Vanessa! Though if true, evidently Benny himself also thinks he’s too ginger.



    […] children in 1886 because his art was more important. He also managed to make his erstwhile friend Vincent Van Gogh a hundred times worse before abandoning him too. After 1991 Gauguin fucked off to the South Seas […]


    […] mouth-painting technique. Either that or he idolises Van Gogh so much that he decided to go bonkers and eat paint like his hero. I advise keeping Cheetah away from razors to prevent the occurence of some hideous mashup of Lust […]

  3. THE ONLY ART PRIZE THAT MATTERS | Art of Eric Kuns - 15/09/2013

    […] most my followers are bogus anyway), but I still like the idea of doing it. I also recommend his post about Van Gogh. I shared another blog I really enjoy here. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark […]


    […] lessons we can learn from Vincent include “don’t eat paint”, “don’t slice off your earlobe and give it to a loca…, and don’t kill yourself to increase the value of your art, but hopefully most of you […]

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