Vincent Van Gogh, “Two Cut Sunflowers” (1887) (all images via Wikimedia unless otherwise noted)

“There are no ghosts in the paintings of Van Gogh, no visions, no hallucinations. This is the torrid truth of the sun at two o’clock in the afternoon.” —Antonin Artaud, Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society

PARIS — In 1947, at the urging of Paris gallery owner Pierre Loeb, anguished French poet, actor, philosopher, madman, genius, playwright, and director Antonin Artaud fêted Vincent Van Gogh in a bizarre but exquisite text that rails against universal imbecility. Entitled Van Gogh le suicidé de la société (Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society), it was published by Éditions Gallimard that same year. As Artaud himself had spent nine years in a psychiatric hospital, Loeb had believed that he would write suitably about an artist widely considered mad, and he did, taking issue with his supposed madness.

Artaud’s turbulent text is today the basis of the exhibition Van Gogh / Artaud, The Man Suicided by Society at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, curated by Isabelle Cahn.

At the outset of its writing, Artaud, one of the great theorizers of nervous performance as ritual and renowned for his seminal 1938 tract The Theatre of Cruelty, was motivated by reading about a Dr. Beer’s text called Du démon de Van Gogh (Van Gogh’s Demon) that portrayed Van Gogh as a mad degenerate. Artaud subsequently discovered first-hand Van Gogh’s paintings during two brief visits to a retrospective of Van Gogh at the Musée de l’Orangerie à Paris, where he was struck with the convulsive storminess of Van Gogh’s brushwork. To support his anti-Beer theory, he drew on these paintings that he compared to atom bombs.


“Portrait of Père Tanguy” (1887-8)

But frankly, when seen today, they look rather far from explosive — or even very tormented — to me. Rather they look completely calmly composed and executed in a steady stylistic application of delicate daubs and strokes (very reasonably structured, by comparison to even Cézanne’s apples) within a beautiful and erudite color palette. This is most obvious in the very beautiful painting “Portrait of Père Tanguy” (1887–8).

“It is not a certain conformity of manners that the painting of Van Gogh attacks, but rather the conformity of institutions themselves. And even external nature, with her climates, her tides, and her equinoctial storms, cannot, after Van Gogh’s stay upon earth, maintain the same gravitation.” — Antonin Artaud, Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society

Even the most sinewy of tree trunks and the most quivering of vegetation in Van Gogh’s painting “The Garden of the St. Paul Hospital” (1889) (a scene outside his asylum), or the unfathomable “Starry Night over the Rhone” (1888) felt calm and restrained to me. Yes, there is some wobbly expressionist distortion in a few of his paintings, such as in “The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet” (1890), but nothing to get very worked up about.

Ostensibly, the Musée d’Orsay exhibition focuses on Artaud’s analysis of Van Gogh’s work, but only by reading the text (grace of Peter Watson’s translation) at home, does it become apparent that nothing even close to that occurs in the text. It is a text much more about madness and psychiatric asylums then the art of Van Gogh.

“The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet” (1890)

“The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet” (1890)

“One can speak of the good mental health of Van Gogh who, in his whole adult life, cooked only one of his hands and did nothing else except once to cut off his left ear, in a world in which every day one eats vagina cooked in green sauce or penis of newborn child whipped and beaten to a pulp, just as it is when plucked from the sex of its mother.” —Antonin Artaud, Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society

Regardless, in it Artaud blames the treatment ordered by Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (Van Gogh’s physician) as the reason for Van Gogh’s suicide by gun at age 37 in 1890 (although no gun was ever found). Artaud also blames Van Gogh’s beloved brother Théo for the suicide and goes on to contend that those who were disturbed by his painting drove Van Gogh to it. Then, Artaud, in disputing Beer’s theory of Van Gogh’s mental health, blames society at large for preventing Van Gogh from uttering certain “unbearable truths” (undefined truths that society resorted to medical diagnoses to explain what it failed to understand). What these supposed truths are, Artaud does not say either (other than Van Gogh’s genius), and they are something I still don’t understand.

“It is the wet gleam of a meadow, of the stalk of a slip of wheat which is there to be extradited. And for which nature will one day answer. As society will also for his untimely death.” — Antonin Artaud, Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society

Queuing up amongst the crowded but polite Musée d’Orsay, it was hard for me to prepare for an experience of supposed anti-crazy craziness, in this most popular, tame, sane, and controlling of institutions. Notwithstanding, any excuse to come in contact with eight of those magnificent Artaud drawings, so full of grief, is a good enough one for me. I had seen the MoMA show Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper in 1996, a show that had something like seventy drawings from the 40s (mostly from the Centre Pompidou Collection) and I had flipped out over them.

Artaud Antonin, Autoportrait 11 mai (May 11 Selfportrait) (1946)

Antonin Artaud, “Autoportrait 11 mai (Self-portrait May 11)” (1946) (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)

“No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.” — Antonin Artaud, Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society

Vincent Van Gogh, “Self-portait” (1889)

Vincent Van Gogh, “Self-portait” (1889)

In the realm of the affective imponderable, the image provided by my nerves takes the form of the highest intellectuality, which I refuse to strip of its quality of intellectuality. — Antonin Artaud, Manifesto In Clear Language

Furthermore, the question came to mind: Are two crazy artists better than one? Or were they crazy at all? Artistically, clearly not, even though in his essay, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” Jacques Derrida described how Artaud’s thinking might be seen as impossible in terms of the established structure of Western thought.

To start the exhibition, I was delighted to walk through a dark circular space where Artaud’s text fragments wind their way on the walls and floor as verbal utterances, screams, pants and chants from Artaud’s banned radio play Pour finir avec le jugement de dieu (To Have Done With The Judgment Of God) (1947) are looped. The play is full of the seemingly random cacophony of xylophonic sounds mixed with various percussive elements, mixed with the noise of alarming human cries, screams, grunts, onomatopoeia, and glossolalia.

Antonin Artaud, “La Tête bleue” (1946) (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris)

Passing through it, I was then met with one of Artaud’s self-portraits on paper and various books and notebooks concerning his research into Van Gogh’s élan vital.

There were many excerpts from Artaud’s film appearances and many photo portraits of Artaud (including a photograph of him as a handsome young man by Man Ray) some just prior to his early death in 1948 (at age 51) from rectal cancer and/or possibly of an overdose of the hypnotic drug chloral hydrate.

The show makes paroxysmal connections to art as a madness-more-sane-than-sanity palpable with around forty of Van Gogh’s colorful canvasses (set off against soothing cool deep-gray walls) and some drawings and letters, all framed by (or presented in close proximity to) Artaud’s absolutely sad, but marvelous, drawings. These drawings by Artaud’s are, for me, more marvelous than Van Gogh’s drawings or paintings. I highly recommend seeing them, if you can — hopefully during off peak hours.

Van Gogh / Artaud, The Man Suicided by Society continues at the Musée d’Orsay (1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris) through July 6.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...

One reply on “Artaud and Van Gogh Against Society”

  1. Thanks, Joseph!

    Funny how certain elements in French cultural life have suddenly become transfixed with what we (sarcastically) call Le Desespoireu! There’s a good example of that at the tail end of the Carpeaux show at the Met, also organized by the Musée d’Orsay.


    Hystérix le Gaulois
    Paris Desk
    WOID, a journal of visual language

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