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Review: Van Gogh: His Life in Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

Vincent van Gogh is arguably one of the most famous artists in the world, but general public knowledge only scratches the surface his artwork, who he was as a person and what his story is. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston does him, and us a valuable service with "Van Gogh: His Life in Art," on view through June 27.

We traveled to Houston to see it in April, and needless to say, we weren't the only ones there!

The two most well-known pieces displayed were one of Van Gogh's self-portraits and "Irises."

While I had seen this painting countless times in prints, on merchandise, etc., the real thing was still stunning and even more beautiful and interesting in person. The gold-colored paint shines nearly metallic, and time has turned the flowers from purple to varying shades of blue.

"By placing the purple flowers against a yellow background, he made the decorative forms stand out even more strongly. The irises were originally purple. But as the red pigment has faded, they have turned blue." -Van Gogh Museum.

I loved its vibrancy and energy, and how so many different colors, patterns and textures came together in a piece so cohesive and impactful.

"Portrait of a Man, 1888" was also memorable. Van Gogh captured the essence of this person through his expression and features so precisely, while staying true to his loose, post-impressionistic style.

"Impressionism recorded nature in terms of light and color. Post impressionists rejected these limitations and instead sought to be more expressive. They were not concerned with depicting the effects of light and other visual effects like those seen in the impressionism movement, they were less idyllic." -Van Gogh Gallery.

But where "Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art" really shone was in telling a more complete story of the artist, and taking viewers deeper into his life and relationships. Rather than simply displaying these famous pieces, this exhibition was given more depth and context through the story of Van Gogh's relationship with his brother, Theo, who supported Vincent for much of their lives.

Vincent van Gogh's is one of the most salacious stories in art history. We know him as a profoundly talented artist who, oh yeah, sliced off his own ear. This plays into the stereotype of an artist as creative madman. "Yikes," we collectively say. "But that (type of mind) is what gave us these (types of artworks.)"

This is true, to a point, but also a bit simplistic. Van Gogh, like all of us was shaped by the totality his experiences and environment, but this one act has largely defined him.

In reality, Van Gogh struggled with the ups and downs of mental illness and external factors even beyond his infamous breakdown. For example, his brother Theo supported him emotionally and financially, but Theo's life evolved to include a family and perhaps a career change that might impact that support. Historians speculate that this contributed to the depression that lead to Van Gogh's suicide.

What this deeper and more universal, less dramatic perspective says to me is that many people struggle, including artists. Not that Van Gogh or any other artist is more predisposed to "madness" than others. It's definitely true that making a living at art can be more precarious and scary than other types of careers, but what Van Gogh struggled with wasn't a flash of "insanity," but rather a slow piling up of stress and instability combined with what seems to be an intense, years-long mental illness. And those factors are present in people of any careers and aptitudes. On the flip side, dismantling and humanizing the stereotype of the "tortured artist" proves that artists who are stable and mentally healthy can produce beautiful, interesting art.

For a deeper (and more articulate) look on the complicated intersection of art and mental health, click here.

All this to say that Van Gogh's story is fascinating but also human and very sad. He lived in a time where there were little to no resources to help him, and so he was dependent on one person who tried his best, and it wasn't enough. I'm sad for Theo, too. I wish Van Gogh's story was underscored instead by many more years of his beautiful work.

Van Gogh: His Life in Art is worth a look, whether you live in Houston or can drop in for a visit. His paintings are world-famous for a reason; his artistic style is still quite unique to him, and his story is even more interesting and poignant surrounded by paintings that his hands created, and artifacts that share his intimate personal story.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts, resources specific to creatives include: Foundation 45 (Dallas) and The SIMS Foundation (Austin). If you live elsewhere, please contact them anyway - perhaps they can refer you. The important thing is to take the first step and reach out.

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