Van Gogh/Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society
“All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of Beggars’ Teeth.”*
Is the mark of a great artist that they walk a fine line between genius and insanity? While the rest of us mere mortals toil in our mediocrity, does the visionary merely summon their muse in bursts of creativity that produce great works in days? Does their innate, inborn talent supplant the need for hard graft?
I found myself thinking about these questions when I recently visited the Musée d’Orsay’s wonderful exhibition “Van Gogh/Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society.”
For us mortals it can be discouraging to hear the stories of the creative genius who can produce a masterpiece in a morning. Perhaps, in our less charitable moments, we are comforted by the cost that appears to accompany their talent– the seemingly inevitable collapse into depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. So the tale is told, again and again; think Amy Winehouse, think Kurt Cobain, think Vincent Van Gogh.
Antonin Artaud is another one of history’s crazy artistic geniuses. His work had an enormous formative impact upon me as a teenager. My A-Level Theatre Studies final performance included an excerpt from “Artaud at Rodez” by Charles Marowitz; almost all I wrote during my year studying drama in London was short plays inspired by Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty; even the proposal for my doctoral thesis (on insolvency law) began with a quote from The Theatre and its Double. So I was pretty excited to be going to see this exhibition. But by the end of the day, not only had my perspective on Artaud and Van Gogh been changed, but also my thoughts on the sort of writer I want to be.
So what is the connection between Artaud and Van Gogh? Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most famous and celebrated painters who has ever lived. When he is not being deified for the extraordinary colour and emotional honesty of his work, he is portrayed as a rather tragic figure, a quintessential tortured genius who killed himself with a gunshot wound to the belly in 1890.**
Antonin Artaud, born 6 years after the death of Van Gogh, moved to Paris in 1920 to be a writer and an important part of the surrealist movement. His development of the Theatre of Cruelty had a huge influence on both theatre and cinema. He is also known for life-long mental health and drug addiction problems. He died of a lethal dose of chloral hydrate in 1948, shortly after discovering that he had cancer.
In 1946 Pierre Loeb asked Artaud to write about Van Gogh, on the basis that as Artaud had spent 9 years in a lunatic asylum he was in an excellent position to write about one of history’s most celebrated madmen. Unsurprisingly, Artaud was not immensely keen on the idea. He changed his mind after reading excerpts from a new book, Van Gogh’s Demons by the psychiatrist Joachin Beer, intended to be released alongside a new Van Gogh exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie.
In Van Gogh’s Demon Beer had argued from a clinical standpoint it was Van Gogh’s mental illness that had led him to commit suicide. This incensed Artaud. He blamed Van Gogh’s death both on the treatment from Van Gogh’s physician, and a society that was unready for the “unbearable truths” that Van Gogh’s art expressed. So he changed his mind and wrote the book Leob had asked for, calling it Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society, and seeing it published at the end of 1947.
The exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay attempts to bring together both Artaud as an artist, and his work on Van Gogh, with the paintings he is talking about. The exhibition begins with a dark space. Lighting projects moving words in spirals around you, creating a gently disorientating effect whose message is clear: beware, beyond this gateway crazy people lie. In the next room are a selection of artefacts and images explaining the genesis of the The Man Suicided by Society, followed by beautifully lit selections of Van Gogh’s work. There are cinema clips from the films in which Artaud performed, and sound reels from his bizarre radio play To Have Done with the Judgement of God, filled screams, wailing and other disturbing noises.
The unifying symbolism is clear. Artaud and Van Gogh are presented as crazy, crazy, inspired geniuses, unified by the madness that permitted their artistic vision. This is a cracking way of exploring Artaud’s often impenetrable text and his central thesis that it was Van Gogh’s otherness that permitted him to see otherwise unspeakable truths, and an exciting way of looking at his work.
To my surprise, however, I wasn’t buying it. And it began with a strange disappointment I experienced returning to look at Artaud’s work. It just wasn’t as good as I remembered it. Maybe this was like going back to your old school and finding out it was really small. I think it was more to do with how I have been changed by completing a PhD. Because rather than seeming insightful and inspired, Artaud’s writing just felt to me like it was missing the point.
The Man Suicided by Society purports to be a text about Vincent Van Gogh. But to write this book Artaud basically just visited a Van Gogh exhibition and then had a friend read him a few of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. He then scribbled down some notes and dictated the rest to a colleague, who wrote it up for him. Who knew research could be so easy?
Artaud has form for just skimming the surface than presuming his great insight gave him authority. One of my favourite pieces of his writing, Theatre and the Plague, is predicated on the notion that the plague is transmitted via dreams.*** He thought that the Chinese Opera was an improvised art form. His quest for inner truths wasn’t immensely concerned with little things like fact or, erm, actual truth.
My inner scholar is pretty upset by this sort of behaviour, but of course Artaud wasn’t trying to produce a work of scholarship. Artaud was a surrealist. For a wonderful explanation of surrealism, particularly if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you should check out this excellent video with Peter Capaldi. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPD6okhfGzs
He explains that there are, broadly, two schools of surrealism. The first attempts to use images and symbols from dreams to replicate the emotional landscape of the subconscious. Strongly inspired by Freud, they are exemplified by the work of Salvador Dali.
The second attempts to tap the subconscious directly, writing and drawing in a stream of consciousness style, tapping into their own hopes and fears and reproducing them on the page. Artaud belonged to this second school (when he wasn’t falling out with them). In fact, taking a couple of months to produce a work was pretty slow for Artaud. His only stage play ****, “A Jet of Blood”, was written in a day while he was hanging out in the theatre.
This approach can produced astonishing work of raw authenticity and power. But an obvious limitation is that it doesn’t give you much to talk about other than yourself. There just isn’t a lot of time to think. So The Man who Suicided Society gives us a great deal of insight into the mind of Antonin Artaud without saying very much at all about Van Gogh.
Because it isn’t about Van Gogh. Most of it is about insanity and lunatic asylums. When he makes the accusation that “it was to Dr Gachet that Van Gogh owed his exit from life,” at least to some extent he’s thinking about his own experiences with Dr Ferdiere at Rodez (who introduced him to art theraphy as a means to manage his illness). Is he turning Van Gogh into an idealised version of himself when he declares that he “has one of those natures whose superior lucidity enables them, in all circumstances, to see further, infinitely”?
A certainly under-spoken truth about Van Gogh is that his “superior lucidity”, as it were, emerged relatively late in his life. He wasn’t born a great artist. He made himself a great artist. If you go to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam you can follow his often painful efforts to develop. For example, take this picture to the right from 1881. No, you aren’t missing anything. It’s shit.
Surrealists like to write about unspeakable truths and innate natures because, a bit like numbers and the 14th Rule, they sound impressive. They effectively convey feelings of being overwhelmed and in awe. That’s pretty cool. But it’s not the story of Van Gogh. For me, the fact that Van Gogh went from producing the sort of rubbish that fills my sketchbook and transformed himself, through sheer bloody hard work and perspiration, into one of the greatest visual artists who ever lived is a thousand times more inspiring than claiming he had some superior nature. In a letter to his brother describing how one gets to be able to draw, VG says “one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently.” (Letter from Vincent to Theo Van Gogh, The Hague, 22 October 1882). My word how he succeeded.
Artaud’s successes, such as they were, seem limited to me by his inability to overcome his own anxieties. The myth of talent does not serve him. Now I’m not denying the existence of talent. Maybe there is a talent that brings a certain vision, a certain perspective. Maybe it was talent that drove Van Gogh to work hard enough to be good. But this was not Artaud. Artaud was virtually crippled by his illness and anxiety. He was not highly productive as an artist or a writer (although he had a large repertoire as a film actor.) His flashes of brilliance are buried in large bodies of incoherence. And, unlike Van Gogh, it is hard to see real evidence of his development over the years. With the possible exception of the intervention of Dr Ferdiere who got him drawing, Artaud keeps on saying the same things in the same way his whole life.
Of course, maybe I’m treating Artaud as Artaud treated Van Gogh by presuming to understand his work after a morning looking visiting a gallery. I’ve read quite a bit of Artaud over quite a few years now, but I’m hardly an expert. And maybe as a teenager I liked Artaud because I wanted to believe I could have natural insight beyond others, but as a man I like Van Gogh because I want to believe it’s not too late for me to develop insight by working really hard.
How did this relate to me thinking about writing? First of all, and perhaps most importantly, Van Gogh is proof that you can always get better through hard work. I’m not talking about feeling like the work is hard (Artaud certainly felt that), but by producing painting, after painting, after painting, story on story, word after word. Feeling that most everything you do is shit may be part of being sufficiently critical to improve. But you have to overcome that and keep working.
Secondly, it got me thinking back to my earlier post about writing fast and writing slow. Writing fast can have more immediacy, more creative flow; but you are always going to be drawn back to what you know. It takes though, time, and work to see the world through another person’s eyes and encapsulate it in your work. It takes time and effort to see what is in front of you rather than what you fear is in front of you.
Artaud declared language incomprehensible because the effort to comprehend scared the hell out of him. He looked at the world and he saw himself, he saw ugliness and broken things. And what he saw paralysed him. He produced some amazing writing, but little insight (although it can inspire insight in the reader, which is useful in itself). Van Gogh strove with all his might to understand, to recreate what he saw on the canvas. And his legacy is beautiful. Never has Van Gogh seemed less of a tragic figure to me than when I stood in that final room in the Musée d’Orsay before those incredible paintings from the last years of his life. The two characters are not unified by madness but separated by Van Gogh’s artistic triumph over madness. Life is not all about how it ends, and if Van Gogh saw the world like his paintings then he lived a life surrounded by extraordinary beauty and passion. And that is a victory over suicide.
*Artaud A, Selected Writings, pt. 36, Indian Culture and Here Lies, ed. Susan Sontag (1976). Ci-Gît (1947).
** Or did he? Some claim he was accidentally shot and lied about it to keep the youth responsible from further trouble. I have to say I hope this was what really happened. When you think about it, the gunshot to the belly is a pretty odd way to commit suicide.
*** Hot tip: The plague is not transmitted by dreams. Beautiful idea though.
*** Ok, saying it is his only play is a not-uncontroversial statement. He certainly wrote radio plays and other material. But he wasn’t exactly a prolific producer of finished works.