The Myth of Normal - The Creative genius of Vincent, Yves and Michael
Posted on 24 February 2014
I love museums, and I've been to a lot of them. But one particular summer day a few years ago, while mindlessly strolling through the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I stopped to look at a self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. I wasn't really thinking, just staring at the tiny brush strokes., probably wondering what I would have for lunch that day. Suddenly, and without warning, tears flooded my eyes and I was overcome with emotion.
"Stop it," I said to myself, "What is wrong with you?"
I knew about Vincent of course, the ear, the erratic behavior, the poverty, the letters to Theo,... I had seen his paintings at the Met and had even visited the beautiful Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. But on that day, I had a response to seeing his art that went beyond anything I had ever learned in art history. I was understanding for the first time, on a visceral level, that I was not seeing, but experiencing, the manifestation of creative genius.
"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day." Vincent Van Gogh
How crazy might that have sounded to people at the time? I often think about what we say these days that would have been considered pretty crazy a long time ago. People have always been fascinated by the thin smart but kind of crazy line and by the exact point at which an imaginative mind becomes a psychotic one.
Vincent van Gogh has been diagnosed posthumously by hundreds of physicians. He had a quirky personality, unstable moods, suffered from recurrent psychotic episodes during the last 2 years of his life, and committed suicide at the age of 37. Some have identified van Gogh’s major illness as a type of epilepsy caused by the use of absinthe. Other physicians have come to the conclusion that he suffered from bipolar disorder.
Does that mean that there must be something wrong with me since I was affected by his art in such a powerful way? Was I perhaps somehow relating to his psychosis? Oh no - do crazy people identify with other crazy people? It makes me feel a crazy just thinking about it! But is anyone really 100% normal? And would you want to know them if they were?
From what I have read about Van Gogh, he was an incredibly sensitive human being who saw the world through a very different lens. Was he insane or was he driven insane by a world that didn't understand his perspective? I don't know, but I prefer to agree with the singer Don McClean - who wrote the song Starry Starry Night;
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you.
On the day Michael Jackson died, I stayed up late into the night re-visiting some of his dance videos on YouTube. I made my way through some of my favorites; his phenomenal performance moon-walking to Billie Jean on the Motown anniversary special, his Smooth Criminal film noir inspired video, and even some of the early Jackson 5 appearances on television specials.
But at the end of the night, well into the depths of my fan grief, I decided to watch the Black or White video. It was at the very end, during the panther dance that I recognized the National Gallery mini emotional breakdown feeling emerging once again. I was seeing something I couldn't explain in dance terms, film making or music industry jargon - it was that thing again, a sort of creative genius that defied some unwritten law of something I didn't quite know how to articulate. But whatever it was, I knew that Michael definitely had it.
"What is/was wrong with Michael Jackson?" -that is a question that has always surrounded him. The accusations of abuse, addictions to pain killers, bizarre changes in appearance, odd behaviors, and eccentric lifestyle. No one will ever really know if he suffered from a diagnosed mental illness, or if his behavior was the result of growing up in the spotlight, the lack of a childhood, the nature of fame itself or the sad repercussions of human parasites feeding on his success that led to so much pain in Michael's life.
I know that controversy will always surround his life and his death, but his legacy of inspirational talent is not disputable. From a young age to adulthood, even through the diminishing nose and cartoon like changes to his beautiful face, it is impossible to deny his musical genius.
Michael once said that when he went to bed at night, his body would be completely exhausted, but his mind would be racing with so many ideas that it would keep him awake. Could it have been during those sleepless nights that he envisioned a jeweled glove, high water pants, wind blowing through his shirts, date night zombies and stylish choreographed gang members in a subway?
"Let us dream of tomorrow where we can truly love from the soul, and know love as the ultimate truth at the heart of all creation." Michael Jackson
Being a vintage clothing professional, of course I know about Yves Saint Laurent. He took over Christian Dior at age 21 , Andy Warhol painted him, Richard Avedon photographed him, he was soft spoken and wore glasses. I know about his famous muses; Loulou de la Falaise, Betty Catroux, Laetitia Casta, Marisa Berenson, Paloma Picasso, and Catherine Deneuve. I know his collections; the famous 1965 Mondrian collection inspired by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, The Le Smoking collection, The Safari collection, The Russian Collection, etc.. I know the important role he played in ready to wear fashion. I have owned and sold many of his pieces throughout the years. So, of course I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was definitely a very talented, ground breaking fashion designer.
But, what I didn't "know" about Yves, was something I learned one day while photographing this dress, probably listening to Fleetwood Mac or Hit Radio on Spotify or Pandora. I felt something I hadn't before that hit me on a deep level. I somehow understood that this dress was part of a revolution. It might have been while I was tying the sash or adjusting the sleeves on the mannequin, but at some point, I felt its importance, and the complicated nature of its simplicity. It wasn't the famous Mondrian dress that did it to me, it was a peasant style 1970s blue cotton Rive Gauche dress that somehow opened my senses to the creative genius of Yves Saint Laurent. I still don't really know why.
Yves Saint Laurent suffered from manic depression and had battled both alcohol and drug addiction during his life. Those who knew him said he was a loner, wrapped up in his work and prone to isolation. Vogue writer Susan Train once said,
“It’s as though he has a layer of skin missing. He’s very sensitive to whatever is going on and feels things very, very deeply,”
(Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography by Alice Rawsthorn. London: HarperCollins, 1996)
Yves Saint Laurent's partner, Pierre Bergé described him as having been “born with a nervous breakdown.” He is also quoted as saying that he only saw Yves happy 4 times a year - on the days he presented his fashion collections.
Could it really be that he was born with melancholy, or did being thrust into the ruthless fashion world magnify his own insecurities so dramatically that he became depressed and then self medicated with drugs and alcohol? Another chicken egg question we won't ever really be able to answer.
The interesting connection found between creative genius and mental illness is that many highly creative people have a close relative who suffered from a mental illness. It has been speculated that those dealing with people close to them who have mental illnesses are more "in tune" with cues and more open to information because they have to be. The most recent studies say that creativity happens cognitively when there are open "flood gates" that allow more sensory information into the brain. So I guess the term "sensitive artist" might have a scientific basis. We owe all of the creative geniuses who have left their mark on our world a great deal - most of them gave their lives for their art, after all. Call me crazy, but as for the three that have inspired me, I dream that things might have been different for them.
“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence– whether much that is glorious– whether all that is profound– does not spring from disease of thought– from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”
― Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Tales and Poems
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