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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

On Creativity

The other day we visited the Van Gogh exhibition which is touring in our community. If you have the chance to see this exhibit, I strongly urge you to do so. For those who have not heard about it, the show uses digital projectors mounted all around a large and otherwise bare room to project images on the walls and floors in such a way that the images become a new and immersive art form. Unlike a museum where one remains relatively fixed in relation to a painting or sculpture—this multimedia approach allows the viewer to experience the art not only from multiple perspectives but also at such a enormous scale that you almost feel as if you are inside the art, a part of it rather than an observer.

The idea of using digital technology to showcase the work of Van Gogh was inspired. His use of color and painting techniques are particularly effective at large scale but what comes across most vividly is the profound emotion he expressed in his work, in the over 30 self-portraits he completed in his very brief life, and in virtually every painting from still lifes to his dreamy views of Paris and the French countryside. Some are bursting with affirming and joyous colors and images while others betray a profound and somber sadness. All were largely unseen during Van Gogh’s lifetime. They are the fruit of only a little more than ten incredibly productive years, some 3,000 or so drawings, and paintings, the majority of which are now housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

What is known of Van Gogh’s life comes to us mostly through letters to his brother, Theo, with whom he regularly corresponded, even while in asylum following the breakdown that led to his self-mutilation. What triggered that is unknown though it followed a furious argument with another artist, possibly Paul Gauguin, with whom he briefly lived and worked. Whatever emotions led to this drastic act played out just a few years later in his suicide but we are left with the feeling that Van Gogh thought himself a failure among the brilliant impressionists of his day. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

As I stood in the room taking in these powerful images my mind wandered back to a text I had read in undergraduate school, Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process, by Dr. Lawrence Kubie. Received wisdom on the subject of art and artists almost universally portrays all creative genius as fundamentally neurotic. It is understandable then that many would suggest Van Gogh was a personification of this trope but as Kubie clarifies in his extraordinary essays, that is not the case. We do not know what finally drove Van Gogh to take his own life, but we can say that emotional instability and creativity are not cause and effect.

At the risk of doing Kubie’s work an injustice born of brevity, I urge you to read his book. The main axis, however, presents us with a brilliant insight. To create, there must be sufficient control of the symbolic process to overcome neurosis. Let me put that more simply. Creativity is an inherent human attribute. It is not an idle trait summoned at will but a necessary function of our ability to survive—to think our way through the circumstances with which we are presented. We don’t need to provoke a simmering instability to obtain creative vision, just the opposite. We need to clear our minds and emotions of the neuroses that make it impossible to tap into our pre-conscious wellspring of thought and feeling. In short, to create, we must get out of our own way without our conscious mind—or ego, getting in the way.

That is what I saw when I immersed myself in Van Gogh’s art. An artist who freed himself from strict representation, from the dictates of convention to paint what he felt, not merely what he saw. Bathed in the light of a brilliant sunflower or a sunny room you can feel the hunger for life radiating around you. And in the quiet depths of the starry night that Van Gogh painted from his room at the asylum I felt my own insignificance against the magnitude of the heavens and the solitude that accompanies such feelings.

As Vincent himself said, “if you hear a voice within you that says you cannot paint, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” Surely this is the essence of what Kubie writes about, the creator denying his doubts, his subconscious fears, to express what lies within.

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