The bizarre behavior and frenetic painting of Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch Impressionist who cut off his ear, probably resulted from an abnormality of the brain that has only recently been recognized, a doctor says.
Van Gogh churned out hundreds of paintings in his last years of life, sometimes finishing two masterpieces a day. He died after shooting himself in the chest in 1890.
Dr. Shahram Khoshbin of Harvard Medical School says Van Gogh’s relentless painting, aggression and several other unusual habits all are symptoms of a disturbance of the brain’s temporal lobe, which plays a role in memory, hearing and other functions.
Van Gogh’s peculiarities have long fascinated physicians. Over the years, he’s been diagnosed as having schizophrenia, depression and digitalis poisoning.
However, Khoshbin notes that Van Gogh was an epileptic and probably suffered from a condition known as interictal personality disorder of temporal lobe epilepsy. Interictal means between seizures. The syndrome was first described about a decade ago by Dr. Norman Geschwind, a Harvard neurologist.
“I don’t think he was a genius because of his epilepsy, but it affected his art,” Khoshbin said in a recent interview.
Roughly half of all epileptics have temporal lobe epilepsy. However, only about 10% of those with temporal lobe epilepsy have the personality disorder, Khoshbin said.
This form of epilepsy is just one symptom of the disorder, and some of those with the disorder show no signs of epilepsy. Other hallmarks of the condition are:
--Hypergraphia, a tendency to produce voluminous and compulsive writing, musical composition, painting or other graphic material.
--Hyper-religiosity, a consuming interest in religion that’s out of keeping with the victim’s upbringing.
--A shift in sexual behavior, such as loss of sex drive or a change in sexual preferences.
--Viscosity or stickiness, a reluctance to let a conversation or argument come to an end.
Van Gogh’s most productive time was in Arles, France, in 1888 and 1889, when in 444 days he painted about 200 oils, made more than 100 drawings and watercolors and wrote 200 letters. Among these were his most famous paintings--his vibrantly colored sunflowers, fishing boats and country scenes.
It was, Khoshbin said, an outburst of hypergraphia. “When you look at those paintings and realize that each one was done in a day, you realize that it takes tremendous compulsion for someone to do that.”
Late in life, Van Gogh developed tremendous religious convictions and created many religious paintings.
The famous ear incident demonstrates both Van Gogh’s extreme religiousness and his aggression. After he mutilated himself, he said the Bible had instructed him to cut off the “offending organ.”
Khoshbin said Van Gogh’s sexual changes were demonstrated by his homosexual affair with the French painter Paul Gauguin. His viscosity was evident in his endless arguments with Gauguin.
Khoshbin, a neurologist, is head of the electroencephalograph lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a fine arts tutor at Harvard College. He has combined his interests in 15 years of studying Van Gogh.