We all know that Vincent van Gogh didn't have the best mental health, but a recent, comprehensive biography gives a sense of how cracked he really was. The question is, does that matter for his paintings? In the latest issue of Newsweek, I write about Van Gogh and insanity, and argue that his imbalance matters because his pictures were intended to portray it. His fans wanted him, and his art, to be crazy. Van Gogh Up Close, a new show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ignores biography altogether, to look at some late pictures where the painter zoomed in. But maybe even these views of almost nothing should in fact be read as pictures of folly. I try out that reading in this slide show of his art.
Take this famous image of sunflowers from 1888 or 1889, for instance. It's worth remembering that, in van Gogh's Paris, this might not have been considered a normal tabletop bouquet. The subject would have been as eccentric as the way it was painted. And note that van Gogh owns that eccentricity, by making it look as though the vase bears his name. Are these wacky flowers, wackily painted, meant as a kind of self-portrait?
– Blake Gopnik