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The consoling power that Art could bring to a soul in need

Senior Instructor Ryan Gauvin engages in projects ranging from small, intimate drawings to etchings. Many of Ryan’s works hang in group shows as well as in private homes. Ryan is currently working on a number of commissioned projects including portraits and landscapes.

When Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles in the spring of 1888 he was in search of his Japan. What was meant by this was a type of light that was both intense and rich, allowing for an unparalleled explosion of colour. But Japan was not simply an artistic sensibility, it was also a state of mind and a symbol for the utopian world he was hoping to find and realize. A bountiful way of life that would benefit not only him, but in time support a thriving artistic community. A Studio of the South where all would work together in communal effort to lift modern Art to unprecedented new heights.

This was Vincent’s Japan, a vision he projected outward onto the surrounding landscape of Provence. The works he created were notable for their large, flat zones of colour, richly applied with vigour and energy. Shadow was minimized — or altogether eliminated — in keeping with the Japanese prints he so adored. These images were not the objective studies of Life in the manner of Monet. Rather, they were evocations borne of his inner existence. An attempt to overcome the negative influences buried deep — but all too alive — within his psyche.

Painting was a type of talisman, directed at nullifying a past which was forever threatening to overwhelm him. Therefore, he sought refuge in symbols of regeneration and affirmation. Spring blossoms and summer sunflowers. The harvest and the harmonious properties of colour. Thus he worked through the summer and fall of 1888, under-nourished, drinking and smoking excessively, yet producing work of great strength.

In October the news finally arrived that Gauguin had agreed to join Vincent in Arles, only two months into which came the episode which lead to Vincent’s complete breakdown. It was now that he suffered the first of his debilitating attacks, and the moment of his self-inflicted mutilation — which brought him very near to death. He survived, but now in fearful dread of an irrevocable descent into nightmare, delirium and madness.

He was 35 years old. 

Unable to cope, Vincent had himself committed to the asylum of St-Paul-De-Mausole in St Remy. In this new environment his work was to undergo another transformation. Gone was the ideal pursuit of a utopian Japan. This and all such illusions of a better life now decayed and withered. Thus it was in St Remy that the undulating, unstable compositional rhythms began to infiltrate his work. Here that the vortex-like, swirling restlessness governing his brushwork, and the violent distortions of form occur.

Through his Art he now tried to uncover the fundamental nature of his life and condition, hoping that a certain objective understanding would thereby help to minimize or even eliminate its destructive influence. But the continued reflection on mental illness that typified life in the asylum also became a kind of focusing lens: a means through which to explore how subjective, mental derangement could be put in the service of complex visual expression. Thus, the idea of madness itself became a driving force in his creativity.

It’s important to recognize, though, that the actual working methods Vincent deployed were methodical and erudite. The works were made in moments of calm lucidity and never in the grips or aftermath of a seizure. They display all the assurance of a well-honed personal technique, caught in a ceaseless, fluid development. But as his time in St Remy stretched passed a year — one which saw further debilitating attacks — Vincent came to understand that his illness would never abate.

In the greatest distress he left the Midi and settled in Auvers-sur-Oise on the northern outskirts of Paris. There, after one last outpouring of creative energy he mortally wounded himself and died two days later.

He was 37. His career as a painter lasted only ten years. 

All his life, Vincent van Gogh held to a belief in the consoling power that Art could bring to a soul in need. That whatever natural gifts one may possess, to work with passion and a serious consideration was both a noble and worthwhile offering. That Art was not merely an idle pastime or pleasing recreation, but a calling and a quest. An authentic search for the disolution of the self — with all its cruel vicissitudes — into the wellspring and revelation of Nature’s eternal embrace.