Thursday evening, around 7 p.m. Molly, Judy and I entered the Musée d’Orsay to see the exhibit “Van Gogh/Artaud: Le Suicide de la Socitété,” our hearts set on seeing some fantastic Van Gogh’s and discovering what the big hype was about this new exhibit.
Several hours later, we emerged from the museum into the balmy evening tired, hungry, and with our hearts a little heavy. While we loved seeing the Van Gogh’s, there was something about the exhibit that was mentally draining. We decided to go home, get some ice cream, and watch The Devil Wears Prada because Meryl Streep and sorbet citron fixes everything.
The exhibition had three complex and thought provoking layers, the first being the actual curation of the show: where the paintings were placed, how they were organized and intertwined with Artaud’s work. The next layer was Antonin Artaud’s essay, Van Gogh Le Suicidé de la Société (In English, Van Gogh the Man Suicided by Society) which Artaud wrote after being institutionalized for his mental health problems in 1947. The essay pays homage to the painter, and scrutinizes the reason for his madness. Artaud makes the argument that Van Gogh had a lucidity about him that scared people and made them believe he was mad, when in fact he was a genius. In this way, Van Gogh’s illness wasn’t his alone, but was caused by society.
The third layer was Van Gogh’s own work, which I felt had the ability to speak for itself, without the aid of Artaud or the curator of the show. Looking into each frame, I felt I understood Van Gogh more, while at the same time discovering new complexities that made me understand him less.
Artaud and Van Gogh’s works are not similar in the slightest–surrealism vs. impressionism–but the exhibition did a good job at capturing their connection. My favorite part was the self portraits. In one room there was a line of Van Gogh’s most famous self portraits and in another was a collection of Artaud’s black and white photographs of himself, where I noticed his sunken eyes and serious mouth matched Van Gogh’s. Though the mediums were completely different, I felt that the artists had an incredible connection through the way they saw themselves.
The most haunting part of the exhibit was the life stories of both artists. It was amazing to see their productivity, but it wasn’t very uplifting to see that the connection between them there was the amount of times they had been hospitalized for mental health issues and their final suicidal deaths. It’s hard to see artists and people you admire hurt by mental illness, and it’s also difficult not to romanticize it, to say that all artistic geniuses are burdened by their own minds. I’m not sure I completely agree with Artaud’s argument that Van Gogh was actually more lucid than everyone else, and was brought down by society, but I also know that sometimes the most amazing things come out of troubled times.
Either way, as we hung around the d’Orsay for a bit, then pranced across a bridge on the Seine, I remembered that I personally enjoy being happy, and like to see the beauty of Van Gogh’s paintings, rather than the pain.