• Reading Level 3
Science | Design & Technology | Art & Design

The brilliant artist who cut off his ear

Is genius always flawed? A stunning exhibition of van Gogh portraits is being hailed by critics. ‘Electrifyingly intimate’ said one. But they also tell a story of illness and pain. Vincent Van Gogh was ignored by critics during his lifetime. Few cared to buy his paintings. His neighbours called him “the redheaded madman” and drove him out of town. How things have changed. Van Gogh is now one of the most celebrated painters of all time. A new exhibition of his self-portraits, which opened yesterday at London’s Courtauld Gallery, has left critics stunned. “A landmark”, chimed the Financial Times. “Magical, mysterious and electrifying intimate”, said the Guardian.   Van Gogh suffered from severe depression, which was seen at the time as madness. He spent his final years in and out of asylums. In 1888, after a fight with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, he cut off his own left ear. A year and a half later, he died by suicide.  Many great artists have been stalked by demons. Leonardo da Vinci thought he was a failure. Ludwig van Beethoven composed masterpieces while deaf. Edward Munch painted The Scream after experiencing anxiety. Some see this as proof that genius comes with a price. Seneca wrote: "There is no great genius without some touch of madness.” Great art has to come from sacrifice or struggle. People who have not known pain can only make superficial art.  Others point out that many geniuses lived happy lives. William Shakespeare stopped writing plays to pursue a prosperous retirement. Johann Sebastian Bach was a humble family man, but brought some of the greatest music of all time into existence. Scientists find no evidence of a link between genius and unhappiness. But perhaps we want to believe in a connection. As psychologist Professor Keith Sawyer says, it: “can be helpful in therapy to tell your patient that their mental illness has a silver lining”. Is genius always flawed? No pain, no gain Yes: Great painters, writers and musicians have talents that the average person can never truly understand. It is little wonder that they find it difficult to live in the boring world of other people. No: The people who produce works of genius are as flawed as anyone else. But genius gets past flaws. Van Gogh was an imperfect man, but his works are perfect.  Or…?: The World Health Organisation estimates that 350 million people suffer from depression. Many of us deal with unhappiness, struggle and mental illness. Geniuses just have more publicity.   KeywordsCourtauld Gallery - An art museum in London’s Somerset House. It houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art and contains around 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings. 

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