Depression, Despair and Hope

The Starry Night

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a personal confession: I was very late to appreciate the work of Vincent Van Gogh. I say this with some shame because I have always loved art and especially painting.

When I was young, it was very fashionable with students of my age to have a poster of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers stuck on the wall with cellotape – Bluetack had not been invested and they usually couldn’t afford to frame it. Somehow it never grabbed me at the time.

Years later, I saw an exhibition of his work at the London Tate and only then realised that he had painted the Sunflowers subject repeatedly throughout his life. Later still, I went to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam – such a beautiful city – to see what I consider to be the original and definitive version i.e. the one that had been used for the print that had graced so many student flats in the sixties.

Later still (1972) Don McClean released his beautiful tribute, Vincent, which became a number 1 hit here in the UK and reached number 12 in the USA charts:

It’s a song I still love, but it was years later that I found myself looking at the actual picture that gave the song its title. Eventually, I began to see just how brilliantly the picture had been painted and only then did I begin the dialogue with the artist. Before then, I could not listen, I did not know how, but now I understand:

Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they’ll listen now.

The painting was finished in June 1889, at the end of his life, whilst he was in the mental asylum in Saint Remy de Provence, Bouches-du-Rh, France. Forced to stay indoors, he painted this most famous picture entirely from his imagination. Completely freed from any considerations of having to impress anyone, understanding and not caring that the painting would never be sold (in his lifetime), he allowed something of his deep emotions to guide his hand.

The result contrasts the dour, earthly life he had come to know with his wonder and awe at the splendour of the night sky which represents his aspirations for a brighter new life following death. The dark stylised cypress tree that echoes the steeple of the church in the distance, ominously points out his intention to those that might listen. A year later, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. The bullet was deflected by a rib and lodged in his stomach and he died 29 hours later with his beloved brother Theo at his side.

It is this sad story that is often remembered rather than the prolific life of one of the greatest painters to have ever lived. Only after his death did his work finally become more widely recognised for its unique contribution to the progress of painting in the history of art. Perhaps without the depression with which he struggled all his life, he would have been unable to have produced quite such expression.

For anyone suffering from the same condition, the ignorant admonition to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘cheer up’ that comes from those around is simply misplaced. As with Vincent Van Gogh, perhaps such a mental condition can be seen as something of a gift. Given such a mental condition with the unique perspectives it brings, if that is your situation, what does this make possible for you? Without wishing to misrepresent the condition, in any way, perhaps this understanding might open the door to hope.

One thought on “Depression, Despair and Hope

  1. Anne

    This is very interesting. I remember this song, though only knew a handful of the words. Many a cold winter night while walking our dog, I would look up at the sky and sing, “Starry, starry night… ” and then I usually revert back to humming.

    I also did not know that the song was sung by Don MacLean whom I thought was a one-hit wonder. It’s funny too — who would have predicted that a song about a depressed painter would be an “instant hit”. I’m not really sure why exactly I liked it, but the song has a certain something about it, doesn’t it?

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