Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

05 JUNE, 2014

Van Gogh and Mental Illness

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“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.”

Around the time that Tolstoy was tussling with depression and his spiritual crisis, on the other side of Europe another creative icon was struggling with the darkness of his own psychoemotional landscape. As he was painting some of the most celebrated and influential art of all time, Vincent Van Gogh was combating his anguishing mental illness — frequent episodes of depression, paralyzing anxiety and, according to some accounts, the symptoms of bipolar disorder — which would eventually claim his life in 1890, shortly after his 37th birthday.

Van Gogh’s most direct and honest account of his psychoemotional turmoil comes from the letters to his brother Theo, originally published in 1937 as the hefty tome Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh and later excerpted in My Life & Love Are One (public library) — the same wonderful 1976 gem that gave us his thoughts on love, tracing “the magic and melancholy of Vincent van Gogh.” The title comes from a specific letter written during one of the painter’s periods of respite from mental illness, in which he professes to his brother: “Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.”

Dutch newspaper report from December 30, 1888: 'Last Sunday night at half past eleven a painter named Vincent Van Gogh, appeared at the maison de tolérance No 1, asked for a girl called Rachel, and handed her ... his ear with these words: 'Keep this object like a treasure.' Then he disappeared. The police, informed of these events, which could only be the work of an unfortunate madman, looked the next morning for this individual, whom they found in bed with scarcely a sign of life. The poor man was taken to hospital without delay.'

In one of the early letters, Van Gogh expressed an aspiration that remained significant for him throughout his life:

Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.

It’s also a thought bittersweet in hindsight, given the self-compassion it implies for being eccentric. Years later, that very eccentricity would be interpreted as madness by his neighbors, who would evict him from his house and lead to his checking into an insane asylum.

Meanwhile, his bouts of depression, when they descended upon him, were unforgiving. In another letter to Theo, he writes:

I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh, winter 1887/1888

But underlying his deep despair is a subtle sense of optimism that carries him and enables him to continue painting despite the mental anguish:

This is my ambition, which is founded less on anger than on love, founded more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things. Believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity, of which not a hair of my head is guilty — I, who am really no one but a friend of nature, of study, of work, and especially of people.

Like artist Maira Kalman, who asserted nearly a century and a half later that work and love are the two keys to a full life, Van Gogh begins to see his work as his unflinching sense of purpose, his salvation:

How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work.

Having at one point subsisted primarily on bread, coffee and absinthe, he embraces work as life’s highest reward, worth any sacrifice:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort.

'Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,' 1889, painted shortly after he sliced off his own ear

But in reflecting — as Kurt Vonnegut memorably did — on what makes life fulfilling, it seems that rather than conveying a conviction to his brother, Van Gogh is trying to convince himself:

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

And yet, Van Gogh ultimately sees his psychological struggles not as something to negate but as his artistic truth, as a vital part of his honest experience, which is the necessary foundation of great art:

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and sincere sentiment.

Complement My Life & Love Are One with Kierkegaard on creativity and anxiety, then revisit Van Gogh’s never-before-revealed sketchbooks.

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04 JUNE, 2014

Andy Warhol on Sex and Love

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“Romance is finding your fantasy in people who don’t have it.”

“Is sex necessary?” young E.B. White and James Thurber asked in their endlessly delightful 1929 collaboration. “When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent,” Dorion Sagan, son of Carl and a terrific science storyteller in his own right, wrote in his fascinating history of sex. “Part of the modern ideology of love,” Susan Sontag said in her 1978 meditation on love, sex, and the world between, “is to assume that love and sex always go together… And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.” But hardly anyone has articulated this paradoxical premise better than Andy Warhol in his 1975 sort-of-memoir The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (public library) — a compendium of his reflections on everything from art and beauty to food and fashion to money and success.

Warhol, who identified as gay and whose work drew heavily on his participation in the LGBT community, confessed to his biographer in 1980, at the age of fifty-two, that he was still a virgin. His assertion has been disputed, but whatever its biological veracity, it does reveal rather unambiguously Warhol’s reservations about, or perhaps even apprehension toward, sexuality and desire. This lens makes his meditations on the subject particularly intriguing, bespeaking at once his own ambivalence about it and our broader cultural conflictedness about love and sex, but especially about the relationship between the two.

Portrait of Andy Warhol by Jack Mitchell

Warhol’s central premise is that our greatest anguish about love and sex comes from the buildup of our fantasies and their inevitable clash with reality — the bodily counterpart to Stendhal’s “crystallization” theory. Warhol writes:

The most exciting thing is not-doing-it. If you fall in love with someone and never do it, it’s much more exciting.

Consciously or not, his facetious approach to the subject becomes a meta-testament to his core admonition — that we, as a culture, are taking sex far too seriously to actually derive joy from it. He offers an appropriately facetious solution:

There should be a course in the first grade on love. There should be courses on beauty and love and sex. With love as the biggest course. And they should show the kids, I always think, how to make love and tell and show them once and for all how nothing it is. But they won’t do that, because love and sex are business.

But then I think, maybe it works out just as well that nobody takes you out of the dark about it, because if you really knew the whole story, you wouldn’t have anything to think about or fantasize about for the rest of your life, and you might go crazy, having nothing to think about, since life is getting longer, anyway, leaving so much time after puberty to have sex in.

Warhol takes it a step further and applies Susan Sontag’s radical idea about remixing education to sex-ed:

Instead of telling kids very early about the mechanics and nothingness of sex, maybe it would be better to suddenly and very excitingly reveal the details to them when they’re forty. You could be walking down the street with a friend who’s just turned forty, spill the birds-and-the-bees beans, wait for the initial shock of learning what-goes-where to die down, and then patiently explain the rest. Then suddenly at forty their life would have new meaning. We should really stay babies for much longer than we do, now that we’re living so much longer.

It’s the long life-spans that are throwing all the old values and their applications out of whack. When people used to learn about sex at fifteen and die at thirty-five, they obviously were going to have fewer problems than people today who learn about sex at eight or so, I guess, and live to be eighty. That’s a long time to play around with the same concept. The same boring concept.

Illustration from 'This Is Warhol.' Click image for more.

That boredom, Warhol argues, arises from the disillusionment of facing the rift between the fantasy and the reality of sex and romance:

Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets anyway. Let the kids read about it and look forward to it, and then right before they’re going to get the reality, break the news to them that they’ve already had the most exciting part, that it’s behind them already.

Fantasy love is much better than reality love. Never doing it is very exciting. The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet.

And yet fantasy, for Warhol as for Stendhal, is the necessary hotbed of romance:

People’s fantasies are what give them problems. If you didn’t have fantasies you wouldn’t have problems because you’d just take whatever was there. But then you wouldn’t have romance, because romance is finding your fantasy in people who don’t have it.

One aspect of fantasy is the notion of nostalgia — a romanticized fantasy of the past — which Warhol sees as central to desire:

It’s safe to say that most sex involves some form of nostalgia for something.

Sex is a nostalgia for when you used to want it, sometimes.

Sex is nostalgia for sex.

Illustration from 'This Is Warhol.' Click image for more.

He goes on to consider the interplay between love and sex:

Love and sex can go together and sex and unlove can go together and love and unsex can go together. But personal love and personal sex is bad.

Warhol offers a psychological prescription for reconciling the disconnect by bringing awareness to our individual predilections:

The best love is not-to-think-about-it love. Some people can have sex and really let their minds go blank and fill up with sex; other people can never let their minds go blank and fill up with sex, so while they’re having the sex they’re thinking, “Can this really be me? Am I really doing this? This is very strange. Five minutes ago I wasn’t doing this. In a little while I won’t be doing it. What would Mom say? How did people ever think of doing this?” So the first type of person — the type that can let their minds go blank and fill up with sex and not-thinking-about-it — is better off. The other type has to find something else to relax with and get lost in. For me that something else is humor…

If I went to a lady of the night, I’d probably pay her to tell me jokes.

Illustration from 'This Is Warhol.' Click image for more.

He explores another dichotomy of sexual personality types, suggesting — in part self-servingly in light of his alleged virginity, and in part with a broader generosity of sentiment — that much of our sexual anguish comes from trying to conform to cultural norms that come in conflict with our inherent tendencies and characteristics:

Just being alive is so much work… After being alive, the next hardest work is having sex. Of course, for some people it isn’t work because they need the exercise and they’ve got the energy for the sex and the sex gives them even more energy. Some people get energy from sex and some people lose energy from sex. I have found that it’s too much work. But if you have the time for it, and if you need exercise — then you should do it. But you could really save yourself a lot of trouble either way by first figuring out whether you’re an energy-getter or an energy-loser. As I said, I’m an energy-loser. But I can understand it when I see people running around trying to get some.

It’s just as much work for an attractive person not to have sex as for an unattractive person to have sex, so it’s helpful if the attractive people happen to get energy from sex and if the unattractive people happen to lose energy from sex, because then their wants will fit in with the direction that people are pushing them in.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol is a curious read in its entirety. Complement it with a graphic biography of Warhol, then see Alain de Botton on how to reconcile the paradoxes of sex.

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04 JUNE, 2014

Maira Kalman at TEDxMet

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What teenage Vladimir Nabokov has to do with the spiritual power of shoes.

There are few artists today whom I admire more wholeheartedly than Maira Kalman. In addition to her magnificent books and projects — including the especially glorious The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World) — she is also a bottomless well of wisdom on life, with a penchant for the endearingly quirky and a special gift for children’s books.

In this wonderful short talk from TEDxMet, Kalman traces the timeline of her life as an artist, delivered with a hearty helping of her immeasurably gladdening sense of humor.

Walking is the antidote to a lot of misery and boredom. Whatever you do, you should always try to walk somewhere before you do it.

Complement with Kalman on the power of not thinking and the two keys to a full life, then revisit her recent collaboration with Daniel Handler and MoMA, the charming Girls Standing on Lawns.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.