Tormented Artists Aren't 'Crazy'

When a guy cuts his ear off and gives it to the girl he loves as a gift, there’s probably some mental illness there. Sorry to put van Gogh up as the poster child for the tormented artist again, but he makes a strong case for himself.

I had an art history teacher in college who summed up van Gogh’s mental health issues with a wave of a finger around an ear. As a society, we don’t do that anymore. We don’t say ‘crazy,’ we categorize mental illness into disorders that we can identify and treat.

Depression. Bipolar disorder. Brain tumor. Temporal lobe epilepsy (possibly caused by absinthe). Porphyria: an often-hereditary nervous system disorder that can cause anxiety, depression, seizures, hallucinations, even psychosis (?the ear?).

These are some of the disorders van Gogh could have had. Porphyria is obscure, but bipolar disorder is mainstream…

“It seems as if he were two persons: one, marvelously gifted, tender and refined…the other, egotistic and hard-hearted,” wrote van Gogh’s brother Theo to their sister. “They present themselves in turns, so that one hears him talk first in one way, then in the other, and always with arguments on both sides. It is a pity that he is his own enemy, for he makes life hard not only for others but also for himself.”

Those are familiar symptoms to us today, whether van Gogh had bipolar disorder or not.

The argument for hereditary porphyria “could also explain Theodorus’ frequent illnesses and even the ailment that led van Gogh’s youngest sister, Willemien, to spend half her life in an insane asylum,” according to the New York Times

In addition, van Gogh “had earlier suffered two distinct episodes of reactive depression, and there are clearly bipolar aspects to his history. Both episodes of depression were followed by sustained periods of increasingly high energy and enthusiasm, first as an evangelist and then as an artist,” according to the American Journal of Psychiatry

Disorders. Family history. Not exactly the wave of the finger my art history teacher used.

Charlie Smith