I watched the episode “Vincent and The Doctor” from the fifth series of Doctor Who last night. It starred Tony Curran as Vincent Van Gogh, and Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor, with Karen Gillan as his companion Amy Pond.
Van Gogh has always been my favorite classical painter. I’ve related to the tortured artist archetype and no one did it better than Van Gogh . His art is so vibrant and expressive, every brush stroke saturated with feeling. I know what it’s like to be deeply troubled and find solace in my art. One of my favorite works by Van Gogh is Wheatfield with Crows, one of his final paintings. The crows in the darkening sky over turbulent wind tossed fields is a haunting image. Diverging paths twist off into the unknown like the roads to death or recovery. We know which road Van Gogh took and so walk into this episode half-knowing the ending. I didn’t expect this episode to surprise me, but it did.
Tony Curran’s Vincent Van Gogh is profound. Likeable in his humanity and vulnerability, and inspiring in his awe of the splendor of life despite his remarkable pain. He captures the violence of a mood swing without alienating his character, crying deeply in gut wrenching despair in one scene and recovering to embark on a painting adventure in the next. It’s a reminder that moods can change and clouds can part, but also, and you’ll get this if you’ve suffered depressive episodes, the dangerous urgency of a mood, in which one can make a fatal mistake so easily.
The Doctor feels for Vincent and attempts to assuage his pain by revealing to him the truth of his future acclaim. He takes him to the present day Van Gogh exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay, a moving scene in itself. This is Vincent seeing the value of his work, the value of himself, through the eyes of future art enthusiasts. It reminds me how painful it is to feel invisible and unworthy. It’s a kindness, but it’s relying on a societal claim that our value is dependent on our impact on others, our contribution to society, or our place in history. How could one convince Vincent that he was valuable just within himself, and if they had would that not have been more meaningful?
After they return Vincent to his time Amy and the Doctor come back to the museum. Amy is ecstatic with the prospect of a different history: one in which Vincent survives his mental torment and creates incredible paintings until his natural death. But when they come to his exhibit in the museum the tour guide (Bill Nighy) is repeating Van Gogh’s story in the same words as before. Only weeks after they met him Vincent still commits suicide. Amy says to the Doctor “We didn’t make a difference at all.”
The Doctor’s response:
“I wouldn’t say that. The way I see it every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…and we definitely added to his pile of good things.”
This is a tear jerker for me because I have had an overwhelming abundance of bad days and I’ve felt like that made the good meaningless, and cheap, and fleeting. But I’m seeing now that it didn’t mean the good days didn’t matter. They don’t cancel each other out like matter and dark matter. I have memories of smiling and laughing in between the crying and I can revel in them without adding the disclaimer “few and far between!”. I know people who have loved me have been discouraged that their love couldn’t save me, but I would hate for them to think that because I was suffering it meant their love hadn’t brought me joy or peace for a while or that those moments were then erased by my sadness.
I hold a chip of bright sunflower yellow paint in my heart for Vincent, and those like him, who fell victim to the demons of the mind. It’s tempting to try to imagine what could have saved someone lost to suicide. Maybe peaceful skies were just beyond a turn in that winding path through the wheatfields, but in the depths of depression there is no turn, there is no path, there is only pain and the primal need to end it. If you feel that pain and that primal need please hold out another night, there’s help if you need it, the storm may pass in the morning.
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