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Van Gogh - Beyond the brush strokes

A couple of weeks ago, on a short weekend retreat to central London, we took the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Alive exhibition in Kensington Gardens. It showcases Van Gogh's art on a series of large screens, as well as some of the floor space, bringing movement to some of the paintings, all on a backdrop of classical music. It effectively brings you into the paintings in an immersive fashion, following the different stages of Van Gogh's life. It is a simple, yet very effective concept, and makes the art accessible to all, including young children running on the floor, becoming a part of the paintings.

Despite the visual appeal of the exhibition, what really caught my attention, and that I took away, were some of the quotes projected alongside the paintings, which came out of Van Gogh's letters. His life is a troubled one, marked by significant mental health challenges. This shows in his art, however the accompanying quotes also reflected his state in these different times. More than this, I found most of them incredibly relatable for others in very different personal circumstances. And I would like to offer my own take on a few of them.

One can easily imagine this first quote relating to the start of a painting, the blank canvas, and the fear of making this first brush stroke which may well define everything that will follow.

All beginnings come with the same sense of anticipation, be it first day in a new job, starting a project from scratch, or maybe even the beginning of a relationship.

Of course, there is excitement that comes with new beginnings, for the opportunities they may bring. But this excitement also risks bringing pressure to live up to one's own expectations.

"Keep heart" is a powerful way to think about how to approach these difficult beginnings, to me it also refers to staying in tune with what you feel inside, and keeping true to yourself, rather than letting external influences take over your thoughts, expectations and self-belief. By focusing on your own path, it will indeed turn out all right, whether you end up drawing the masterpiece that will define your life, or a small sketch before picking up a new blank canvas.

This quote is one I view from a very positive standpoint, one that is engaging and to an extent empowering. In fact, it is a good simple advice to give in terms of personal development, for those interested in broadening their knowledge, skills and experience. It covers the effectiveness of learning on the job, of taking risk in trying new things, and the flipside of it, the need to give opportunities even to those who do not fit 100% of the brief. It means being curious, and adventurous.

Of course, it should still come with a warning, in the sense that stepping outside one's comfort zone takes up a lot of extra resources, and it is therefore necessary to do this in a supportive environment, which provides the opportunity to replenish these resources, and not turn this positive venture into an insurmountable challenge.

With this quote, we get into the more troubled times for Van Gogh. In his context, it is easy to imagine the mix of physical effort and energy leading to this state, but also the time spent immersed in his art and own universe, as well as the clash between this universe, and the reality.

Taken out of context, this can probably ring true to many of us, especially those who have gone through an experience of burnout. It very often starts from a position of motivation and enthusiasm, a desire to "go above and beyond"; a degree of motivation which puts personal health to one side, prioritising the achievement of personal objectives above all else. This reminds me particularly of my own approach in the first part of my career, where succeeding and making a mark was clearly coming before any consideration for health, physical or mental. Burning out then becomes an opportunity to reset these priorities, and get a new perspective on life and personal objective, effectively reaching rock bottom to give yourself a big push back towards the surface. This allows those who have had this experience to try and help others earlier in their career, although a single piece of advice and actual lived experience don't often have the same impact. When asked "what advice would you give your 20 year old self?", I often think "my 20 year-old self wouldn't be interested in what I have to tell him!".

To conclude, this is probably the quote that made the most impact on me. First, because I have found myself recently using this analogy of having little fires ignited inside of me. This was mostly in the context of my studies, and how my eyes are being open to new ways of thinking and seeing the world around me. For me, and how I interpret Van Gogh's intention here too as he was hoping for people to warm themselves at it, this fire is something positive, a fire that gives a great amount of energy, rather than consumes.

The next part of the quote however is the really poignant one, the feeling that other people do not see, appreciate, or share this passion within you. For a lot of us, especially those with extraverted personality traits, the act of sharing, being listened to and triggering a positive reaction from others is what gives us positive energy and joy. When others show no interest, or just see "a wisp of smoke", meaning that they cannot relate or do not see much interest of value in what makes us passionate, this can trigger significant feelings of loneliness, sometimes frustration, and lead to self-doubt. And the risk becomes that this great fire no longer just creates energy, but does indeed start consuming us inside, or that we feel the need to put out this fire, until what is left really is just a wisp of smoke.

As I am finishing writing this short piece, today is world suicide prevention day, and I think this content is particularly relevant on this day. This isn't just because of the suspected way in which Van Gogh's life ended, even if it is still the subject of debates, but more about the messages that can be read through these few quotes. Apprehension of new beginnings, fear of the unknown, being overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations, feeling unheard, misunderstood or not appreciated, and simply feeling lonely, a few of the many things which can affect people's mental health, and burn their coping resources until there are none left. So picking up on this last quote, I think it is up to all of us to look out for the fires burning within everyone else, be they source of energy or consuming, be curious, inquisitive, and show empathy and compassion. We often underestimate the impact small acts of sympathy can have, and indeed how much warmth we can all get from them.


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