"What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything."
- Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh, the master of imagery and colour, became a legend only after his death, enduring a lifetime in financial distress, intense suffering and ultimately ending his life in an asylum at the age of 37. At his death, he had produced about 2000 pieces of art, having started painting only at the age of 27. We know his paintings today because of his brother, Theo and sister-in-law, Jo Van Gogh-Bonger. His life and works are an inspiration for millions around the world.
Van Gogh’s life is more relevant today than ever before, almost a hundred and thirty years after his death. He was clearly wired differently. He saw the world in his own unique way and he translated his vision into his paintings. He would be “neurodivergent", had he lived today.
Below are some shots I took from the Van Gogh Immersive experience which is running in Singapore these days.
For those keen to explore, do check out the https://vangoghexpo.com/singapore/
A lot of people shudder at the life he led, the challenges he encountered, the absolute lack of regard he faced in his living days, the utter loneliness of his journey and so on. He has been termed the "mad artist" by many. And this is where I want to bring in the term “neurodivergent” People who are neurodiverse have non-standard traits. And yet they can have something extremely special. They just look at the world differently. What if we talked about Van Gogh differently? What if we regarded his life with curiosity, wonder and respect and what if he had been regarded differently in his times ? What if we chose to be moved by the utter beauty and magnificence of his works than focus our attention on his so-called “mental illness”, financial plight or unconventional life choices? What if we introduced him to our children saying here was a man who had his own vision of life and worked tirelessly to bring it to life ?
What if we changed the story in our minds about the great master? And in this change, what if we could experience the change we need to make in our perspective towards people who are differently wired? “Neurodiverse” – a set of people who are just differently wired. Many have deep within them talent and qualities that could be a gift to the world. Many Van Goghs exist out there who, if understood, could become great masters in their own right. Neuroscience teaches us that each one of us has a unique brain wiring, just like a thumbprint, exclusive to ourselves.
Neurodiverse people need love and respect in order to express their best selves.
Van Gogh was not a recluse or unfriendly. Again, an unfair label. He just wished to be understood, in a sincere way.
His need to be understood and find sincere friends is evident in this letter to his brother Theo, written on 11th Feb, 1883.
“I sometimes find it difficult to give up a friendship, but if I were to go to a studio and had to think to myself: talk about trivia, don’t bring up anything more important, and don’t say what your real feeling is about this or that in art, then I would be more melancholy than if I had stayed away. It’s hard for me to be content with conventional friendship, precisely because I seek and persevere in sincere friendship.”
In his lifetime, Van Gogh wrote 900 letters to his brother. On browsing through those (available in the public domain as https://www.vangoghletters.org/vg/letters.html, one gets the sense of a beautiful, coherent mind. Van Gogh refers to valuing "friendship" several times in his letters but that which was sincere and more "an action instead of just feeling."
I find it difficult to believe that a person who wrote such sensible letters could be labelled anything suggesting otherwise. As an applied neuroscience coach, I was naturally curious about understanding what could have plagued the great artist in the mind. I found very detailed descriptions in medical journals of “what could have been” - There is one which sums it up comprehensively - “In spite of the incontrovertible evidence that Van Gogh must have had suffered from some intractable neurological or psychiatric disorder, the precise nature of it is yet unresolved. The body of documents hint at epilepsy, Ménière's disease, and chronic absinthe intoxication as the three most possible conditions, though there are florid arguments to the contrary as well." ( Bhattacharya KB, Rai S; 2015) In 2016, the Van Gogh Museum even organised a symposium on this very topic. Trying to reach a consensus on what could be ailing the master artist but no one thing came up conclusively. In our quest to find out what is wrong, we somehow forget to focus on what is right. Genius is perhaps something beyond analysis and examination.
Van Gogh’s paintings have sold at astronomical sums such as $81 million and $72 million many decades after his death. But in reality, he is a global artistic treasure who's life and work are priceless. The joy and awe that his craft brings to admirers cannot be valued in monetary terms, even though in his lifetime he saw very little of it. To quote Don McLean’s famous song again “You took your life as lovers often do, But I could have told you, Vincent This world was never meant for one As beautiful as you.” We talk a lot of #neurodiversity and we hold symposiums and seminars. However, if we look around us we all will know someone who acts and behaves differently, may have non-standard traits. What if we looked at what's right with them instead of looking and analyzing what is wrong. Hopefully in coming times, for those people, the last sentence of this song will be not be true and the world will be just as suitable for them as for anybody else.
Bhattacharyya KB, Rai S. The neuropsychiatric ailment of Vincent Van Gogh. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2015 Jan-Mar;18(1):6-9. doi: 10.4103/0972-2327.145286. PMID: 25745302; PMCID: PMC4350215.
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