I am making my way slowly through the massive (900 page) new biography of Vincent Van Gogh, which begins with a chapter about his mother - who didn't like him from the beginning, it seems, and persisted in disapproving of him and his art long after he was dead and his paintings were critically acclaimed and wildly popular. The biographers have framed this book with that relationship, in other words. They see his life as being one of desperately trying to Be Someone his parents could approve of. I see that. I tend to frame it just a little differently, as a man desperately fighting himself, his true self and his vision.
He went through intensely religious periods in his life, and tried to study for the ministry, to be like his father, but just couldn't make it. At the point where I am in the book, 200 pages in, he has been increasingly envisioning It: the divine essence, which he could see in everything, including the starry night. And shoes. Below is one of many pictures he painted of shoes, which are discussed in this article in Harper's, if you're interested. There you can also see this picture large enough to enjoy the brush strokes.
His father, a Protestant minister, didn't prize him either, but I gather there is evidence that it was his mother's love he so craved. She represented Home, the insular parsonage, in which he never felt at home, so he carried a great nostalgia for it. I am now reading about his early twenties; he is abusing himself with fasting, not bathing because soap is a sinful luxury, and going barefoot in winter. He is drawing more. And painting pictures in words, in his copious letters to his brother, Theo.
Here's the interesting thing I keep thinking about: Vincent suffered greatly from this rejection, and his temperamental inability to fit in anywhere. Wanting to be like his father he descended into fierce religious studies. He washed out of school, and began to experience the divine, to see and paint it - which he called It - in everything in an absolutely unique (insane) style.
And he would not have been that person if his mother had loved him. (There's a whole backstory about her sad life, by the way, and the important influence of Dutch culture and politics.) It seems to be his suffering from that profound wound that motivated his art. People love and live with prints of his paintings who know nothing about art. I think we feel or intuit that visionary mind, that saw the divine in a sunflower and a star, and a pair of shoes.
So was that good or bad, that miserable childhood? Were those descents into hellish depression and mania and psychosis necessary to produce this art that brings a drop of spiritual insight into many lives?
Thinking about all this I was quite struck recently when a friend posted a bit of psych nurse humor that said, "You can't fix stupidity - but you can sedate it." Of course, madness has nothing to do with stupidity. But it spoke to me, as a bipolar who had long hospitalizions in the hands of psych nurses. Scrolling through Facebook I sometimes hit on a land mine like that. I didn't comment, but I thought, Just make sure you're not sedating Van Gogh.