Van Gogh exhibitions tend to attract record-breaking crowds. I’ve looked at this Dutch artist’s powerful paintings and masterful drawings amid jostling throngs in temporary shows mounted by the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Now I can add to that list the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which, as the mother lode, co-organizes and lends masterpieces to its colleagues.
“On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness,” which just closed at the museum, traced van Gogh’s mental health from his slashing off his right ear with a razor on December 23, 1888, through his year-long commitment at the asylum of Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France, to his fatally shooting himself in the chest on July 27, 1890. The compelling survey featured absorbing paintings and works on paper from the museum’s own extensive holdings, a few loans, illuminating documents, and some objects you don’t ordinarily find in an art exhibition. A wall towards the end of the show listed the artist’s various diagnoses and the years in which doctors gave them suggesting that they conformed to what interested the medical community at the time.
There was much to discover in the show. Take the self-portrait on view from 1887–88. Before van Gogh cut off his ear, he tended to favor the right side of his head when executing his own image. Afterwards, he changed this orientation, instead portraying the left side of his face to hide his injury. Then, there was the matter of how his palette was rendered. It seems that the way van Gogh actually organized his oil colors was very different than the palette as his friend and housemate Paul Gauguin depicted it in his portrait of van Gogh from 1888. Van Gogh’s version has creamy paints arranged in lines while Gauguin’s has thin patches of color through which the weave of the canvas is visible.
A gorgeous still life jumped off the wall. It shows a plate of onions, the artist’s pipe and tobacco, a stamped, postmarked envelope, a lit candle, and a book. Unlike other volumes van Gogh depicted, this one isn’t by Émile Zola or other literary authors he admired. Near the painting at the museum, a vitrine held what he pictured: Manuel annuaire de la santé, a self-help health guide by Francois-Vincent Raspail that the Dutch artist would consult.
“On the Verge of Insanity” also conveyed how van Gogh must have felt when he was allowed to paint outdoors rather than being restricted to the dormitory and vestibules of the asylum at Saint-Remy. The landscapes are vibrant and lively; the interiors, subdued and plain. Two portraits of other inmates are so dark that both men seem more like criminals than fellow patients.
As for van Gogh’s living conditions at Auvers, they were not ideal either. The artist, now alone and on his own, slept in a dark, windowless attic space during the last weeks of his life. It’s not difficult to imagine how disorienting it must have been for him to descend a series of staircases and open the door to glaringly bright, hot July days. In the catalogue, you learn that van Gogh made more than 75 paintings and over a 100 drawings in 70 days. This survey included Tree Roots, which the museum argues is the last canvas he worked on before taking his own life. It’s a compendium of swirling strokes limning tree roots. Because it’s unfinished, you get to see how he gave his oil colors a chance to dry before he laid down all the brush marks next to one another.
The various documents on view were fascinating. Indeed, it was the discovery of a note in the Irving Stone Archives at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley that inspired the exhibition. On August 18, 1930, Dr. Felix Rey, whose well-known portrait by van Gogh belongs to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow—it was borrowed for this survey—wrote to Stone, then researching Lust for Life, his novel about the Dutchman that would be published a few years later, about treating the artist in the hospital in Arles after his self-mutilation. The doctor made two drawings for the author, and these are in the show, too: one of the ear that was cut off and the other of, as he put it, “the appearance of what remained of the earlobe.”
Also on view were two revolvers. A rusty one was found in a field in Auvers around 1960 and is understood to be the one van Gogh used on himself. The other was a pristine gun of the same type from a private collection.
“On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness” represents the latest manifestation of populist museum display, which involves supplementing some amazing paintings and impressive drawings with documents and objects that function as if they are the sort of links computer users follow when doing research. In Amsterdam, lots of people seemed as enthralled by this material as they were by the art. At the Art Institute of Chicago’s recent van Gogh show, gallerygoers read so much wall text, they caused circulation problems. Still, van Gogh’s art and life are so rich, they are wonderfully conducive to such treatment.