This past weekend we went to the Van Gogh gallery. It's always something special to be able to stand right in front of images that have been part of the universal visual environment for all of your life. You know these pictures, but you've only ever seen representations of them, and here you are, inches away from the actual paint on the actual canvases.
I didn't expect to be so deeply affected by it. It was the self portraits that started it for me - one in particular, where the subject seemed to be staring at the artist with an expression that said “What do you want from me”. There were some words on a wall about Vincent's mental illness. They still don't really know what was wrong with him, they said. Seems pretty clear to me. Periods of suicidal depression and feelings of complete worthlessness, and then spells of intense activity, creation and mania. Van Gogh was bipolar, surely. He struggled to keep relationships with the other artists he knew, often ruining friendships with his indiscriminate attacks of desperate anger. His brother believed in him, at least as a human, and seemingly also as an artist. But often he was the only one, and to Vincent, I wonder how much it felt like an act of fraternal charity rather than genuine encouragement.
In the last ten weeks of his life, in a final whirlwind of mania, he painted more canvases than he had days left. I found myself wondering what fuelled his creation in that period. Was it belief that he was good, and must therefore make as much work as possible, or could it have been a frenzied attempt to keep painting until he produced something that he thought might be good? Perhaps it was as simple as being the only thing he knew how to do. Either way, he left a lot of beautiful paintings, before he left himself.
The work hanging there moved me, of course, but it wasn't a painting that caused me to unravel. In a glass case we saw his palette and some tubes of his oils. One of them was half used, folded over. You could see where his thumb had pushed against the little metal tube to squeeze out some paint. I couldn't stop looking at it. An everyday object, but precious. He'd never consider in his wildest dreams that people would be gawping at it in a gallery 130 years later. But here we were, staring at the tools that created all those beautiful things.
The gift shop, as art gallery gift shops can often be, had its depressing bits. To see his work slapped on every conceivable piece of merchandising - Vincent Miffy dolls, Sunflower iPhone cases, Starry Starry Night oven gloves - threatened to leave a sour taste in the mouth. But then I picked up notebook next to a rack of pens. People had been using the display notebook to test out the pens. The thing was full of visitors versions of sunflowers, almond blossoms, bedrooms, and portraits of Vincent himself. And that sour taste was sweetened.