Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Part Two Chapter 10

Dear Tilda,

On 23 March 1890, in Auvers-sur-Oise, Doctor Paul Gachet received a letter from Theo van Gogh asking whether he would be willing to look after Theo’s brother, Vincent, who’d been suffering from nervous complaints. The doctor was willing, and Vincent ended up spending the last months of his life in Gachet’s care.

One day, after taking his midday meal at the inn where he was staying, he went out into the fields and shot himself. The bullet entered his body just below the heart. He bled profusely, but managed to get back to the inn by nightfall.

Gachet and a second doctor who saw him determined that the bullet was inaccessible and that Vincent’s life could not be saved. Theo was called to his brother’s bedside. Going against the doctors’ pessimism, he urged them to encourage Vincent to hold out. But Vincent would invariably reply, ‘There’s no point. The sadness will last all my life’.

Two days later, at one-thirty in the morning, he died.

Marguerite, Gachet’s daughter—whose kindness had touched Vincent during these last months of his life—said of him, ‘His life was one moment of weakness after another, but in the end, what strength!’.

I’m no Vincent, Tilda, but on a night like this, when you are so near and yet so far, I console myself with the hope that one day you will see my moments of weakness redeemed by an ultimate strength.

And I say this despite the certainty lodged in my soul, the certainty that you too hold, that for me ‘the sadness will last all my life’.

Sprague

Marguerite Gachet’s statement is highlighted in Maurice Pialat’s film,
Van Gogh

THREE VISIONS OF VAN GOGH

I – Antonin Artaud: Van Gogh, the man suicided by society

Vincent van Gogh, Four Withered Sunflowers, 1887

II – Georges Bataille: Sun-Vincent-Flower

By Eric Michaud

 

My intention here is not to reinscribe Van Gogh’s automutilation within the economy of sacrifice as elaborated by Bataille. I want only to try to inflect his analysis by means of Van Gogh’s famous letters to his brother Theo, wherein the painter little by little discovered, with a deep horror, the destructive effects that are attached to artistic activity.

But what exactly does Bataille say? Very simply, first, that ‘Van Gogh’s life was dominated by the overwhelming relations he maintained with the sun’; that his ‘sun paintings only become intelligible when they are seen as the very expression of the personality (or, as some would say, of the sickness) of the painter’; that although these ‘sun paintings’ appear fairly early on within his production, for the most part they postdate that Christmas night of 1888. That night, the tension with Gauguin—who had come to stay with him and to paint at Arles—having reached an extreme pitch, Van Gogh severed his left ear (or rather the lobe of the ear), wrapped it, all bloody, in a newspaper, and sent this package to the prostitute Rachel in the brothel he frequented on the rue du Bout-d’Arles.

Bataille observed that ‘in order to show the importance and the development of Van Gogh’s obsession, suns must be linked with sunflowers, whose large disks haloed with short petals recall the disk of the sun, at which they ceaselessly and fixedly stare throughout the day’.

In this way he quickly succeeds in revealing a ‘double bond uniting the sun-star, the sun-flower, and Van Gogh,’ a double bond which he characterizes as ‘a normal psychological theme in which the star is opposed to the withered flower, as are the ideal term and the real term of the ego’. One expects what Bataille, having so strongly marked this double bond or double identification between painter and sun and painter and sunflower, will enlist here in the way of that functional ambivalence that Freud had recognized in all identification. And this all the more so in that he underlines how, in Van Gogh’s very painting, the ego ideal and the real ego sometimes exchange their characters: ‘The sun in its glory is doubtless opposed to the faded sunflower, but no matter how dead it may be this sunflower is also a sun, and the sun is in some way deleterious and sick: it is sulphur-colored [il a la couleur du soufre], the painter himself writes twice in French’.

But it’s less this ambivalence that engages Bataille than the heroic perspective which he will state in his ‘Sacrifices’ of 1936: the ‘heroic form of the me’ is that which, through the revelation that ‘life’s avidity for death’ is ‘pure avidness to be me,’ this me identifies itself with ‘the god that dies’. And in 1930 he writes:

The relations between this painter (identifying himself successively with fragile candles and with sometimes fresh, sometimes faded sunflowers) and an ideal, of which the sun is the most dazzling form, appear to be analogous to those that men maintained at one time with their gods, at least so long as these gods stupefied them; mutilation normally intervened in these relations as sacrifice: it would represent the desire to resemble perfectly an ideal term, generally characterized in mythology as a solar god who tears and rips out his own organs.

This enlistment of Van Gogh in the great heroic lineage of the West is soon reinforced by the pure and simple identification of Van Gogh with Prometheus.

 

From Eric Michaud, ‘Van Gogh, or The Insufficiency of Sacrifice’, October, Vol. 49 (Summer, 1989), pp. 25-39. The full article is availabe on JSTOR

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life with Sunflowers, 1889

John Everett Millais, The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare, 1876

III – Harold P. Blum: Van Gogh, Vertigo of the Double

Van Gogh had a confused double identity as a re-created, creative replacement, and as a ghost of himself and his deceased brother. The double represented triumph over loss and death, but was also a menacing harbinger of death. Theo joined Vincent in living out the parental shared fantasy of a twinship, a double, and eerily soon joined his brother in death. (Theo’s death has now been attributed to tertiary syphilis. His body was moved by his widow to Auvers, France, where the brothers are buried beside each other.)

Van Gogh experienced an acute psychotic episode shortly after learning of the pregnancy of Theo’s wife. He committed suicide in July 1890, six months after this new Vincent van Gogh’s birth. The replacement child was replaced by ‘Vincent van Gogh’, and this repetition contributed to his final psychological decompensation. With a despondent sense of failure as an artist, and anticipating Theo’s loss, van Gogh succumbed to depressive hopelessness. He had taken refuge in paintings of fantasized merger with Mother Earth, his namesake in the earth, and his idealized narcissistic objects in the heavenly blue sky. ‘We take death to reach a star, we cannot reach a star while we are alive’ (letter to Theo, August 3, 1888). His suicide enacted the fantasy of merger, as well as murderous aggression against himself and his object world.

 

From Harold P. Blum, ‘Van Gogh’s Fantasies of Replacement: Being a Double and a Twin’. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, January 2010. The full article is availabe at Sage Journals