PARIS: The shrieks of mad women 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 theatre director and playwright Antonin Artaud.
“The Man Driven to Suicide by Society”, opened yesterday 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 theorisers 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 hospitalised 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 Gogh.
Rather than a madman, Van Gogh was to Artaud someone unafraid to portray reality, an artist who could, he wrote, “scrutinise 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, a frustration that reverberated with Artaud.
“No one has ever written or painted, sculpted, modelled, 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 chloral hydrate.