Van Gogh’s Insanity Is the Heart of a New Show

It will feature the revolver with which he took his own life.

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait(1887). Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Fans of Vincent van Gogh may want to steel themselves for a show that is certain to pack an emotional punch. The Van Gogh Museum‘s important upcoming exhibition takes a hard look at the artist’s psychiatric illness, which has become part and parcel with his legacy and legend. Some 25 paintings and drawings from van Gogh’s final years accompany original documents, including letters and statements, in a show titled “On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness.”

The personal objects are intended to contextualize van Gogh’s creative output. As the museum’s curator, Nienke Bakker, told the New York Times in a recent interview: “It’s amazing the amount of art he was able to create, especially considering that there were sometimes quite long periods when he wasn’t able to work.”

Despite boasting the largest collection of the artist’s works, the Amsterdam museum has secured key loans to support the new exhibition’s curatorial impetus. According to a statement from the museum, the most important of these is a vibrant portrait of Dr. Rey, which permanently lives in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The portrait complements a newly discovered letter written by van Gogh’s doctor, who confirms in his testimony to biographer Irving Stone that the artist did in fact sever his entire ear.

A letter from Felix Rey to Irving Stone with drawings of Vincent van Gogh's mutilated ear (August 18, 1930). Courtesy of Van Gogh museum, Amsterdam.

A letter from Felix Rey to Irving Stone with drawings of Vincent van Gogh’s mutilated ear (August 18, 1930). Courtesy of Van Gogh museum, Amsterdam.

Notably, among the other articles on view is a revolver that experts suspect the artist used in Auvers-sur-Oise to claim his own life. The weapon, which the museum describes as “badly corroded,” belongs to a private collection. Its inclusion in the show marks its public debut.

The decision to organize an exhibition around van Gogh’s psychiatric conditions is groundbreaking. Links between creativity and mental illness have long been the subject of serious scientific inquiry.

In a 2007 essay for Stanford University’s Journal of Neuroscience, Adrienne Sussman notes that the “list of afflicted artists is staggering.” She continues: “Thus far, we have seen that manic depressive disorder and schizophrenia are both significantly more prevalent in artists than in the rest of population.”

On the other hand, van Gogh himself once said: “If I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done.”

On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness” is on view at the Van Gogh Museum, Museumplein 6, Amsterdam, July 15–September 25, 2016.

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