"The Man Driven to Suicide by Society", opening on Tuesday in
Paris, 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 — one of the great theorizers about the stage, renowned
for his short but seminal 1938 tract "The Theatre of Cruelty" — was, like Van Gogh, 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 theatre manifesto
that was a "must read" during France's 1968 student upheavals
felt a kinship for the red-haired 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
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."
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"OUT OF HELL"
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, a frustration that
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 demons himself was found dead in 1948 at age 51
in his clinic bedroom, possibly of an overdose of the hypnotic drug
Artaud, whose photograph as a young man by surrealist Man Ray is in
the show, said his struggles with his art were akin to those of Van
Gogh, whom he said painted "inert things in nature as if they were
"Every day I marshal tremendous inner turmoil," said the
nevertheless prolific Artaud.
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, mortality 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,"
said Cahn. "But they show us above all how we can go beyond them
through art, and it's a great help."
The show runs until July 6.
(Reporting by Alexandria Sage; editing
by Michael Roddy and Andrew Heavens)
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