BY DAPHNE FONG
Before leaving Shanghai, I made plans to see all of my friends individually at least once. Almost all of our plans centered around either eating or walking around looking for more things to eat, and I began to worry about putting on the freshman fifteen before even stepping foot on campus, or on American soil. Choosing to feed my soul instead, I asked one of my most artistic friends to the Van Gogh Alive traveling exhibition.
Upon entry, I was bouncing off the walls, pointing excitedly at paintings I recognized, staring intently at ones that I didn’t, taking pictures of anything that wasn’t completely blocked by a sea of people.
Then we went into the huge inner hall, the main gallery, every wall a screen that displayed digital images of Van Gogh’s pieces that automatically changed every few seconds. In awe of this modern showcase, I flitted from screen to screen like a moth distracted by too many flames. This is pretty typical; my mind is constantly sprinting. With a growing stack of books to read, online courses to take, essays to write, songs to discover, social gatherings to keep up with, food to consume, and Instagram posts to double-tap, my thoughts race back and forth between activities with no end in sight. In this gallery, even though the screens would always display a harmonious theme, I noted that every screen was at least slightly different. I found myself spinning around and around, not wanting to turn my back on any screen and risk missing out on a single thing.
“Do you want to sit down?”
On the ground, I continued craning my neck, trying desperately to soak up every moment. But then I caught sight of my friend, the actual art expert, calmly facing a couple of screens. From her vantage point, there was no way she was seeing everything the gallery had to offer. But that seemed to be okay with her, so I took a deep breath and tried to make it okay with me too. Truth be told, I’m a little scared of being still. It feels dangerous to be alone with my thoughts. They tend to plummet fast. But quieting my heart, slowly forcing myself into stillness, I realized that I don’t have to see everything to breathe it in.
Van Gogh’s art was incredible. Is incredible. It’s shocking that he only sold one of his 2,100 artworks during his lifetime – his vivid coloration and wild brush strokes are enough to evoke intense emotions in any philistine, and yes, I’m admittedly very much one myself. But as I sat there admiring the richness of his paintings, the rawness, the distinctive swirls, I remembered the whirling chaos of his personal life as well.
Scholars debate over the exact illness that plagued the Dutch post-Impressionist’s mind. He’s hard to diagnose, especially because of the difficulty in precisely pinpointing substance abuse disorder and other potential mental illnesses. However, his letters to his sister do provide some insight; he writes, “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me; now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… and at times I have attacks of melancholy.” Along with moments “twisted by enthusiasm or madness or prophecy,” his mood swings are indicative of manic depression. Van Gogh also struggled with paranoia, hallucinations, and epilepsy, particularly towards the last years of his life.
On May 8th, 1889, he voluntarily checked into the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
While he continued to suffer from prolonged psychotic fits, the last couple years of his life marked one of his most prolific periods, during which he created some of his most renowned paintings, such as Café Terrace at Night, Bedroom in Arles, Sunflowers, Wheat Field with Cypresses, Vase with Irises, and of course, The Starry Night, all between 1888 and his death in 1890.
Van Gogh deserves a great deal of respect, first and foremost for the excellence of his work, but also for battling with his condition for years, which is not exactly atypical for an artist. Studies by Andreas Fink and his colleagues have shown that people who work in creative fields are 8% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder, and writers are 121% more likely to live with the illness as well.
But I respect Van Gogh most of all for what he has done with his mental illness, and that is to embrace it. This is not to say that he loved it; it only means that, as with an actual embrace, he took it in. He was conscious of the stormy fluctuations in his moods, and admitted that “emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.” But he refused to let his illness steer him away from anything good. After struggling through a period of despondency, he said, “In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”
We all know that mental illnesses can restrict, block, and encumber us. They are terrifyingly powerful, and as they overwhelm the control center of our bodies, they can make us feel terrifyingly powerless.
But with them, we can make terrifyingly beautiful things.
As we can see from Van Gogh’s life, the tempests inside erupted onto his canvases as controlled, majestic expressions of his perceptions.
As for my friends, one with depression pours hours and hours into her writing, imbuing each piece with a shocking, captivating vulnerability. Another channeled the destruction and death in her life into being the kindest, gentlest person I know, and the light she radiates is nothing short of artistic.
I encourage you to seek help with whatever you’re dealing with. However, the fight to attain optimal mental health can take years, and recovery rarely occurs on a smooth, ever-upward-sloping trajectory; a graphical representation would more often than not have as many highs and lows as an electrocardiogram. So I’m not asking you to just “choose happiness” or anything ridiculous like that. I’m asking you to choose to feel deeply, feel tenderly, and choose to see your worth.
Daphne Fong is a managing editor at Beautiful Minds Magazine, and an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Art by Theodore Fried, “Still Life with Yellow Roses,” at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.