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Descent into madness entwines Van Gogh, Artaud

PARIS: The shrieks of madwomen assault visitors entering the Musee d’Orsay’s new exhibit on Vincent Van Gogh, an arresting look at the painter’s work as seen through the eyes of the late avant-garde French theater director and playwright Antonin Artaud.

“The Man Driven to Suicide by Society” is a fitting title for a display of 55 Van Gogh works using Artaud’s own commentary to see them in a new light.

Artaud was one of the great stage theorists, renowned for his short but seminal 1938 tract “The Theater of Cruelty,” which was a “must read” during France’s 1968 student upheavals. Like Van Gogh, however, he was tormented throughout his life by hallucinations and hospitalized in psychiatric asylums.

In the exhibition space, a kaleidoscope of violent phrases culled from Artaud’s 1947 analysis of Van Gogh is projected on the floor – “anguish,” “delirium,” “bad blood.”

Recorded shrieks set the tone as four of Van Gogh’s self-portraits stare back at the viewer. With thick brushstrokes of blue and green underlining the piercing blue eyes and a wary, proud expression, Van Gogh challenges us to say whether it is him or society that is mad.

Artaud would claim the former. Although born six years after the painter’s death, the author of the influential theater manifesto felt a kinship for the Dutch artist who died after shooting himself in the stomach in 1890.

Artaud defended Van Gogh in a 1947 book that blamed society for his death. A publisher had convinced the playwright that his own mental health issues would make him an ideal interpreter of Van Gogh.

Rather than a madman, Van Gogh was to Artaud someone unafraid to portray reality, an artist who could, he wrote, “scrutinize a man’s face with such overpowering strength, dissecting its refutable psychology as with a knife.”

Curator Isabelle Cahn said Artaud’s text challenged the conventional ideas of Van Gogh’s supposed madness.

“Artaud wrote, ‘No, Van Gogh is not crazy, he was pushed to suicidal despair by a society which rejected his works,’” she said. “From that moment on, he went on to accuse people of pushing Van Gogh to suicide and society as a whole.”

From the sinewy tree trunks and quivering vegetation in 1889’s “The Garden of the St. Paul Hospital” outside the asylum walls, to the swirling wallpaper pattern in “Augustine Roulin (Woman Rocking the Cradle),” Van Gogh’s canvasses put raw, unsettling emotions on display.

Van Gogh once complained to his brother Theo that the difficulty of drawing was akin to “working one’s way through an invisible iron wall” that separates feeling from execution. This frustration reverberated with Artaud.

“No one has ever written or painted, sculpted, modeled, built, invented, except to get out of hell,” wrote Artaud, who after a lifetime exorcising his own demons was found dead in 1948 at age 51 in his clinic bedroom, possibly of an overdose of the hypnotic drug chloral hydrate.

Artaud said his struggles were akin to those of Van Gogh, whom he said painted “inert things in nature as if they were having convulsions.”

“Every day I marshal tremendous inner turmoil,” Artaud said.

The exhibition includes a photograph of Artaud as a young man taken by surrealist Man Ray. Fans of the Orsay will recognize “Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles” and “Starry Night” from the permanent collection. Visitors will also see little-known paintings including “A Pair of Shoes,” in which one is overturned to expose a ruined sole, and “Crab on its Back.”

The overturned crab, exposed and vulnerable, maybe dead, creates a sense of fragility and struggle.

“It’s artists who carry our anxiety and the anxiety of society from their time, and in which we can discover contemporary anxieties,” opined Cahn. “But they show us above all how we can go beyond them through art. It’s a great help.”

“The Man Driven to Suicide by Society” runs at Paris’ Musee d’Orsay until July 6.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2014, on page 16.

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