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Culture

Van Gogh’s legacy gets new treatment in Paris

© Joseph Bamat

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2014-03-14

A new exhibition in Paris dedicated to Dutch master Vincent Van Gogh puts forth two daring questions: Was he crazy? And who was responsible for his suicide at the age of 37?

The Musée d’Orsay is offering a new perspective on the life and work of artist Van Gogh, by presenting the man through the eyes of the late French dramatist and poet Antonin Artaud.

In 1947, more than a half century after Van Gogh’s death, Artaud published “The Man Suicided by Society”, an influential essay defending and paying tribute to the painter.

Artaud, who was also nearing the end of his life when he penned the text, challenged the widespread notion that Van Gogh’s excesses as a painter were due to his bouts of madness. The French writer argued that society could not recognize Van Gogh’s genius and resorted to medical diagnoses to explain what it failed to understand.

Artaud goes further, squarely placing the blame for Van Gogh’s 1890 suicide on the painter’s beloved brother Théo, and on his physician, Dr. Paul Gachet.

If Van Gogh pulled the trigger, it was an intolerant society and his closest companions who pushed him to the brink, Artaud wrote.

Isabelle Cahn, the show’s curator, said her objective was not to champion Artaud’s theory, but did hope that visitors could shed their established ideas about Van Gogh and forge their own opinion about the man and his legacy.

Not a Van Gogh 'master class'

“Van Gogh/Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society” counts only 40 paintings, some on loan from international museums, and many from the Musée d’Orsay’s own impressive collection.

“This is not meant to be a master class on Van Gogh, or his definitive retrospective. What we sought was to elicit an emotion from visitors, so we have limited the amount of information inside the exhibition,” Cahn told FRANCE 24.

The show also tries to draw similarities between the renowned post-impressionist painter and Artaud, who struggled with mental illness himself. A few drawings by the Frenchman reveal his own artistic talent.

Despite the new insight offered by excerpts from Artaud's texts, the artist’s always dazzling shapes and colours are likely to resonate most with visitors.

As Artaud himself wrote,  “An exhibition featuring Van Gogh’s paintings is always a historic event, not in the history of art, but in history, period.”


Van Gogh/Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society will be at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris from March 11 through July 6, 2014.

Date created : 2014-03-14

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