Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams, Vincent van Gogh & A Spark of Madness by Benedict Cumberbatch

Courtesy BBC
"I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process."
- Vincent van Gogh

Self–Portrait with a Straw Hat 1887 - Metropolitan Museum of Art
 "If I succeed in putting some warmth and love into the work, then it will find friends." -Vincent van Gogh
Recent news reports of untimely celebrity deaths - in light of the suicide of Academy Award winning actor Robin Williams - have also brought Vincent Van Gogh to mind for some: the Picasso painting sent by Disney in an attempt to settle a dispute (in which Picasso painted himself as van Gogh) or, a similarity in personalities (a genius with a touch of madness who found life too difficult) Observations and opinions are flooding website and social media, as well as the sorrow felt by others whenever a brilliant mind, capable of creating vivid images and emotional connections through prose, personality or paint, is - however briefly - unable to cope with living and takes ultimate control by cutting their life short.

Mental health is far too complex an issue to be addressed in a blog such as this. If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with depression or any condition that affects well-being, you know how complicated treatment is, how terrifying it is to be unable to control your thoughts and feelings, how others can misunderstand - and what is unhealthy for you to watch or read.

What we can do here is celebrate the legacy of beautiful minds in strong bodies who kept working, despite the challenges caused by emotional, psychological and/or mental distress. Robin Williams widow  released a statement regarding her husband: " he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson's Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly. It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid."

Seventeen of van Gogh's paintings are currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the the first time in a great many years. Their website offers a brief biography of Vincent, as well as images of all seventeen van Gogh works they own - and usually loan to other galleries. "A Visit with Vincent" by The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl alludes to a quality I think is shared by artists like van Gogh and Williams when he writes of Vincent's work:
"It was the value of joy, irrespective of happiness and, certainly, of intellectual pride."
Although the mediums they chose were vastly different, both van Gogh and Williams WERE artists - and we felt joy through their work, and were impressed by whatever it was they had inside them that made such creativity possible. We may not have always understood it - or appreciated it - but we knew it was rare - and special.

Oleanders, 1888 (via Metropolitan Museum of Art)
For fans of Benedict Cumberbatch, there is another way to learn more about van Gogh. Based on letters written by the artist to his brother, Theo, and to others, "Vincent Van Gogh, Painted with Words" is a 2010 documentary (of sorts) from the BBC.  It doesn't have the expected quality of traditional documentaries of the past, which (to me) can be on par with vacation slide show presentations your friends share on social media. Cumberbatch's work may not have been widely appreciated when the documentary first aired on BBC Two, but it is fascinating to see the actor interpret the words and inhabit the persona of the artist, who would describe himself as a "madman" in letters written to his brother while undergoing medical treatment. 

A Corridor in the Asylum (1889) Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Life weighed so heavily upon him." 
- Theodore van Gogh

The scenes in which Benedict (as Vincent) expresses his fears of being a burden to Theo are particularly poignant - and will likely resonate with those who have been involved in similar situations. This role, like many Cumberbatch chooses, allows him to explore the facets of dynamic and complex personalities - and he takes the time to allow each facet to catch the light. Viewers may not empathize, but they can hopefully understand what motivates and moves the character - whether a historical figure or work of fiction. Learning about each other and the human condition has value. When art helps us understand, as well as entertain and engage us? Even better. 

As of this writing, the BBC docu-drama is currently unavailable on their site for viewing (or for purchase.) You can find a number of versions on YouTube with a variety of subtitles. I found this version through the blog Free Documentaries Plus More:

 "No thought to the winnings - one loves because one loves." - Vincent van Gogh

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