What is the power of one piece of art? What is the power of Vincent’s Sunflowers? I talk about art and how it shows up in popular culture.
The power of Vincent’s Sunflowers
Content Warning: this post touches on some mental health issues. Take care of yourself and skip it if you need to.
I’ve seen all three versions of Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom paintings. I got to see them in 2016 in Chicago when they were gathered there for an exhibit. My favorite of the the three is a full-time resident at the Art Institute of Chicago. Seeing it alongside the ones from Paris and Amsterdam was truly special. It is my favorite painting in all the history of art. I feel extremely lucky to have gotten to see the three versions of it together.
So it’s not really a surprise to me that another Van Gogh painting is considered to be so iconic as to be featured in two popular tv shows. I’m always looking at how art is portrayed in media. How storytellers use art to set the stage or use a piece to move a story along. It’s tricky to try to set a mood with art that people aren’t familiar with. So often when you see art in tv and movies it is a piece that is so well known that feels as if it is woven into the fabric of culture itself. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is a key ingredient in a recent episode of Ted Lasso and in a 2010 episode of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who’s “Vincent and the Doctor”
Full disclosure: I am a Doctor Who nerd. If you aren’t into it, that’s ok we can probably still be friends. But it’s gonna be hard for us both since I respond to most texts with Doctor Who gifs.
This is one of my favorite episodes from one of my favorite series of Doctor Who. And it’s probably not all that surprising considering that The Doctor and Amy meet up with Vincent Van Gogh and help him fight an invisible monster. No, not just his inner demons but an actual invisible alien that only Van Gogh can see. It is chock full of gorgeous set design that are straight from his paintings. The Bedroom is there, the Café Terrace at Night is there and of course, the Sunflowers. It is fairly easily watched as a standalone episode. Doctor Who streams on HBO Max and this is Season 5, Episode 10.
In the show, Vincent struggles with depression but is lifted out of it for a bit with The Doctor and Amy there to bolster his spirits during his struggles with the monster and his daily life. Amy suggests he paint sunflowers. He says they were complex “always half-living and half-dying”. By the end of the episode Amy finds the painting of the sunflowers in the museum. It has “for Amy” painted below his signature as a sign that he listened to her and wanted to say thank you for her help. This is particularly lovely considering Van Gogh himself wrote that sunflowers signified gratitude for him. So the real life meaning of the painting being incorporated into this show hits right in the feels.
Vincent’s best line from this episode is:
“If you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamed of.”
Ted Lasso’s “Sunflowers”
Another disclosure: I’m also a huge Ted Lasso fan. I don’t use as many Ted Lasso gifs but the love is there all the same. We will fight if you say bad things about Roy or Trent. Or Rebecca and Keeley or well actually, any of them.
This is a very recent episode of this show (Season 3, Episode 6) as I am writing this. I’ve watched it three times already. It’s a complex episode with a ton of moving parts and storylines. It pivots around Ted viewing Sunflowers in a gallery late at night while maybe (or maybe not?) a little high. A docent wanders up next to Ted and says:
“…but it never stopped him from searching for beauty. Because when you find beauty, you find inspiration. If, that is, you stay as determined as Vincent. Never stop. No matter how many failures. When you know you are doing what you are meant to do, you have to try.”
And you can see the hope and wonder and gratitude on Ted’s face. Because of course this is Ted’s story as much as it is Vincent’s story.
We can’t talk about Vincent Van Gogh without talking about mental health. He’s sorta the poster child for “crazy artist” stereotypes. As I was researching this post, I came across this relatively recent article (Nov 2020) from the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders about Vincent Van Gogh’s illnesses. In it the authors did diagnostic interviews with three art historians to assess Vincent’s symptoms gathered from his writings. While armchair diagnosing someone posthumously is generally frowned on, the authors wanted to rule out previously suggested diagnoses based on his extensive catalog of letters to various family members describing his mental state in combination with the historical record of his doctor’s notes. This was a fascinating article to me and I read all of it from the edge of my seat. Here’s the very best part from the Discussion and Conclusion section:
Despite all these problems which contributed to his illnesses, we however also would like to stress that Van Gogh was not only a great and very influential painter but also an intelligent man with an enormous willpower, resilience and perseverance. He must have had a strong constitution. He was able to arouse compassion, himself having compassion with the less fortunate. And he was a passionate man with a strong temperament. Over the years he kept on painting, also during most difficult periods in his life.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve wondered if Van Gogh would have painted as much or more if he had been healthy. Or if his creativity was tied to his illnesses. I think most artists spend time wondering that for him and/or for themselves. It’s nearly impossible not to. Do I wish he had been well? Yes, of course. No one deserves that much suffering in their life, not even for great art.
This paper and these two shows are so good at illustrating is that his beautiful work endures and continues to bring pleasure and hope to countless people. Having both shows explore mental illness in a compassionate way is such good modeling for all of us. Modeling we desperately need in these times of senseless violence.
I am struck by the reverence both of these shows hold for this work. I am struck by how the characters’ encounter with the beauty of this piece and the struggles of the artist impact their trajectories. What a testament to the life and work of this artist.
We are heavily invested in disposability as a culture. Our society throws so much away. We treat so many things (and people) as disposable that the idea that this art is so cared for seems nearly unreal to me. If art is the exploration of the human condition then holding people’s work in high esteem for the sake of honoring their humanity feels really good. My thought is that despite Van Gogh’s illnesses, his brother, Theo, cared for him deeply while he was alive and likely made it possible for Van Gogh to produce as much work as he did and also live as long as he did. May we all, artists and non-artists, be cared for as deeply in our lifetimes.
Those are some of my thoughts about the power of Vincent’s Sunflowers. Have you seen these tv shows? Have you seen Sunflowers? Is there another piece of art that has impacted you as strongly? You know you can always reach me via email or on socials. Tell me your stories.
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