Starry, Starry Night: The Madness of Genius

This past weekend we went to the Van Gogh Immersive experience in Boston. The exhibit is a multi-media exploration of the artist’s extensive work and a bit of history about his immensely creative yet brief and troubled life.

As soon as you enter the main exhibit, one not only viewed the paintings, sketches, and images of Van Gogh’s life but become almost a part of the work itself as the giant displays move and flash on the walls and floor, surrounding you with the artist’s work and backed by a selection of magnificent music.

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh

The very first image we saw was Starry Night, which, if pressed for my knowledge of art and Van Gogh in particular, would be the only one I could name. And I would know this more because of the Don McLean song, Starry Starry Night, than any genuine appreciation of art.

But as soon as I saw the painting, the song began playing in my head and the lyrics now took on an even more poignant illustration of Van Gogh’s brilliance and descent into madness.

Here was a man who struggled to survive—financially, physically, and psychologically—selling very few of his paintings during his lifetime. At one point, he tried to pay a debt by delivering a wheelbarrow full of his paintings to his creditor. The man refused to accept them and the man’s wife chastised him for not keeping the wheelbarrow, at least.

Starry Night is worth about One Hundred Million Dollars and now is on display at Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In McLean’s song, he tells the sad tale of the mental illness that plagued Van Gogh all his life.

…Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will…

Don McLean

The border between genius and madness is often porous and murky. Van Gogh’s struggles, ending in his eventual death by gunshot on July 29, 1890, would put an end to his genius. History records this as a suicide, but some believe it to be an accidental shooting. Whatever it was, that such genius can walk among us—unrecognized, unappreciated, and uncared for—reflects poorly on us as a society.

Perhaps McLean is right. We’re not listening, still.

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now