Both of these artists were known to suffer from mental illness. Munch had what is now believed to be bi-polar disorder. Van Gogh suffered from paranoia, and possibly a myriad of other mental ailments, including epilepsy and absynth addiction, that the psychiatric community still debates. It is clear that they both suffered in ways which most of us are fortunate to not understand, but how did it show up in their work.
Vincent Van Gogh : The Starry Night – 1889
In looking at the paintings of both Munch and Van Gogh, it may be tempting to say that Munch was the more disturbed of the two. In fact, Van Gogh was an influence for Munch. He painted emotion, raw emotion. These emotions were dark and “negative” and his work had a depth of sorrow and madness to it that may be unsurpassed. On the other hand, while Van Gogh’s paintings were often somber, hey do not seem to embody the depths of sadness and despair that are seen in Munch’s work.
Edvard Munch : The Scream – 1898
Munch definitely has the privilege of having painted a painting that has come to symbolize our own modern feeling of despair and hopelessness. The Scream has become an icon of the world today and many people can relate to – that feeling of just wanting to scream!
His paintings were part of his therapy with his forward thinking doctors feeling that it would be beneficial for him to paint and express his feelings whilst in the asylum.
We will probably never know who had the more severe mental illness. Certainly Munch’s most likely stemmed from the fearful upbringing of his parents. His father instilled in him and his siblings the fear of eternal Hell and living in fear, especially as a child, creates deep-seated damage to the mind and soul. Van Gogh is for many the embodiment of the tortured artist. He cut off the earlobe of his left ear, an act of self-mutilation, after an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. A year later he shot himself.
Vincent Van Gogh : Self Portrait with a Bandage – 1889
It is difficult to compare mental illness, each person and their experiences are so radically different. However, it is obvious that mental illness and insanity are not enough to stop geniuses from creating masterpieces that will be with us for eternity. In a way, both Munch’s and Van Gogh’s sadness and the torture they endured will be with us for eternity as well.