Monday, November 1, 2010

starving for art: food for the soul

An extract from Gherkins&

Ask people if they’ve heard of Vincent van Gogh, and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, that crazy artist, the dude who cut his ear off and gave it to some hooker.” True. Using a straight razor, van Gogh sliced off part of his left ear, wrapped it up in a white napkin, and presented it to a prostitute named Rachel in Arles, France.

Crazy as mudbugs on a hot griddle. Or was he?

What if that famous incident actually had more to do with hunger and malnutrition than with mental illness?

What many people don’t realize is that Vincent van Gogh, who died a suicide in 1890, spent most of his adult life in a state of semi-starvation. Vincent van Gogh was indeed the stereotypical starving artist. Clearly his poor eating habits contributed a great deal to his physical and mental suffering. We can’t be absolutely sure of anything without having access to Vincent himself, in the flesh, but the evidence suggests very strongly that starvation, or at least chronic hunger, played a huge role in guiding Vincent’s life. He bought paint and canvases and brushes before he bought food, so his hunger for art taking precedence over his hunger for food.

Looking at van Gogh’s character through the prism of hunger is intriguing. Beneath van Gogh’s sheer, overwhelming poverty was an underlying text of religious asceticism, associated with fasting, similar to that which he practiced during his time as an evangelical lay preacher in the Borinage mining area of central Belgium. There, he gave away most of his clothes, his belongings, and much of his food to the poor miners of the area.

He constantly commented about the choice he had to make between food and art supplies. In one of his last letters he revealed to Theo that, “I am risking my life for my art, and my reason has half-foundered because of it … "

And the world is a better place for his making that choice.

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