The Sickness Unto Death Pt. I: At Eternity's Gate

7:00 AM

The Sickness Unto Death 
A Musically Guided Exploration of Artist's Struggle with Mortality
Curated by Aaron Dupuis

Vincent van Gogh, Worn Out: At Eternity's Gate, 1890

"Old man in your rocking chair
You wake up, you've been living alone

After all these years
Surrounded by these shards of mirrors
How'd it get so quiet here
You wonder where did everyone go?"
"The Sickness Unto Death," Typhoon


A couple weeks back, as I  was driving beneath the emerald canopy of Blue Ridge Boulevard and tossing project ideas about in my head, "The Sickness Unto Death" by the Portland0based indie group Typhoon began to spill from my speakers. It had been some time since I'd heard the song, but just as the cold makes the old cut on my finger ache, it brought back the ache of buried memories. Teenage heartbreaks. Long drives in the dead of night. Relatives that I'd lost. But most of all, as is always the case, it brought back the fear that lurks in the back of my head, of many heads around the world. The fear that reduced me to tears time and time again as a child. The fear of forever. Of experiencing forever, whether I continued to exist or not.

And it was from this well of fear - beautiful, terrible fear - that I drew the inspiration for my gallery. I present to you The Sickness Unto Death. Through a synthesis of contemporary lyrics, personal experience, and the paintings of the masters, I will explore the efforts of the Artist to reconcile himself with human mortality. In doing so, I hope to capture the beauty of life and expression, rather than the triumph of death. Though the lyrics themselves will not play a great part in the body of the text, I felt it necessary to include them, not only to give the gallery a proper narrative structure, but also to illustrate the timelessness of the Artist's struggle with death. That being said, I would encourage readers to give the song a listen. It's a favorite of mine.

And so it goes:

Van Gogh first took down the image of the old man in the chair in 1882, using an aged war veteran he encountered in an alehouse as his model. He wrote extensively about the drawing, which he called Worn Out, and its eventual transformation into a lithograph. The writings in question detailed his thoughts about the emotional power of the human form, and the greater implications that it seemed to hold. "It seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of 'something on high' in which Millet believed, namely in the existence of a God and an eternity," he wrote, "is the unutterably moving quality that there can be in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it." Fascinated and moved by his discovery, van Gogh began a long series of lithographs and drawings of the veteran, women, and hospital patients, all in the same pose.

Vincent van Gogh, Worn Out, 1882
For eight long years, van Gogh did not return to the drawings and lithographs he had made in that formative time of his career. And in those eight long years his life had drastically changed. He had found his artistic style, collaborated with artists like Gauguin, created what would be his most famous painting, Starry Night, begun frequenting brothels, cut off his left ear, and had started to lose touch with reality. By 1890, the hallucinations and periods of madness had grown so strong that van Gogh could no longer keep their effects from affecting his work. During this time there passed entire months of inactivity, months that took their toll on the artist's outlook and work. It was directly following a mental relapse that van Gogh finally revisited the old man in the chair. This time he forsook pencil and lithograph, and went straight for his paint.

Blues, greys, whites, orange. They play off one another, but they do not dance the way that the colors of van Gogh's landscapes do. Instead they seem to tremble. The man in the painting seems smaller, weaker, than his predecessor. And where the subject of Worn Out seems to be resting his eyes, the fists in Eternity's Gate look like weary guardians of tear-filled eyes. The men are not the same. At Eternity's Gate is more than a final play on an early artistic motif, it is a mirror of van Gogh's life. He has replaced the old war veteran. He is a veteran in his own right. A veteran of art. A veteran of life.

Two short months after painting At Eternity's Gate Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest while out on a walk in the wheat fields of Auvers. He lived a night and the better part of the next day, managing to make his way back to his room in the local inn, where his brother Theo comforted him and recorded his final words:

"The sadness will last forever."


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