The exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain and the film, At Eternity’s Gate

Post by Sue Lewis

Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853, seven years after the discovery of Neptune, and the anniversary of his birthday was celebrated this year by the opening of a new exhibition at Tate Britain and the launch in Britain of a new film about his life starring Willem Dafoe. Van Gogh was a Dutchman, born at 11am in Groot Zundert, whose artistic oeuvre is most associated with Arles in the south of France—Starry Night over the Rhone (1888) is one of the masterpieces transported from Paris for the exhibition—so where is the British connection?

He came to work here as an art dealer, in 1873. In London he learnt about poverty and social reform, read the novels of Charles Dickens, and longed to do something useful for humanity. He also discovered Dulwich Art Gallery and John Constable’s rural landscapes. So, the British were an inspiration to Van Gogh, although he would subsequently seek the bright light of Provence with its Sunflowers to fulfil his vocation as an artist. The British were also amongst the first to hail his genius, and the final rooms of this comprehensive exhibition contain examples of works by twentieth-century British artists inspired by him. This large and carefully-structured display of art works and significant books focuses on continuity in our turbulent world as depicted by a troubled artist, whose vision—ahead of his time—continues to attract and inspire the British in the twenty-first century.

Among the final exhibits showcased is an article by Antonin Artaud—best known for the Theatre of Cruelty—entitled ‘Van Gogh: the Man Suicided by Society’. This jolts us out of our comfort zone and builds a bridge between the exhibition and the film. At Eternity’s Gate takes its title from the text on the back of an oil painting of a pensioner and war veteran with his head in his hands, copied from an earlier study by Van Gogh and executed during his final months before his death on 29 July 1890.

b. 30.03.1853, 11:00, Groot Zundert, Netherlands.

The film, directed by Julian Schnabel, focuses on states of mind, as Van Gogh lives on the edge during the last two years of his life, unable to communicate with those he would help. Astrologers will note the absence of thinking air signs in the natal chart of an artist dominated by powerful emotions, whose urge to share what his active imagination sees is palpably manic. Mercury in Aries would transmit the heartfelt creativity and idealism of Moon conjunct Jupiter in Sagittarius in the fifth house—the only planets in the unconscious hemisphere of his chart—but is constrained by the interception of its sign Aries and distorted by a tenuous one-way conjunction across the cusp to transpersonal and obsessive Pluto in Taurus. Venus and Mars, close to the Midheaven in Pisces are full of compassion but conflicted by the challenging Nodal axis—North Node in Gemini opposition Moon and Jupiter conjunct South Node in Sagittarius, squaring Venus and Mars in Pisces.

So, this artist—whose letters to his brother Theo testify to his literacy—failed to find a wavelength with his contemporaries. Dafoe is an expressive actor and key characters surrounding him assume archetypal proportions in his mind. Particularly memorable is his dialogue in the asylum with a priest, played by Mads Mikkelsen, ostensibly to determine whether the artist is of sound mind. The priest is a recognizable face of evil from the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, while Van Gogh is already in a higher place, metaphorically conversing with angels—a fitting image of his tenth house Sun intercepted in Aries, making only one-way semi-sextiles to the transpersonal planets Uranus in Taurus and Neptune in Pisces. His brother knew he was a genius and his time would come shortly after he left earthly life.

The cyclical returns of Neptune to Pisces and Uranus to Taurus give poignant relevance to the timing of the exhibition and film.

An earlier article on the cosmos of Van Gogh can be found in Conjunction 48, March 2010, pp. 10-14.