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Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
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Author: Klaus Podoll 31. May 2004
Edited by: Klaus Podoll

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889. (see here)

An aura is like staring at a Van Gogh

"One of those days, all right. Got a migraine you can take a picture of. This is because my brain produces waaaay too much serotonin. This has been clinically proven. The doc thinks I'm a classic case. He wants to study my DNA. I said I'll think about it. Migraines -- for the luckily uninitiated -- are not like regular headaches. When the seasons change the migraines start and you see the world through this weird psychedelic haze. An aura, is what it's technically called. Everything becomes surreal and yet so real. Like staring at a Cezanne or a Van Gogh. At four in the morning walking to the store you see art in the neighbor's garbage. Your mind races and freeze-frames at the same time. Your eyes dazzle as if someone had popped a flashbulb in your face. Migraine comes from the Greek word for 'half a head,' I'm told. You get a throbbing pain on one side of your head, in my case just below the right ear. I'm writing this in a serotonin migraine aura. Maybe it makes no sense to you. It's just like that. Live with it."

(William Burrill, WELCOME TO THE FUN HOUSE, eye weekly, May 16, 1996)

"I get 'em, always before the actual attack. Have you ever seen a Van Gogh painting with streetlights or sunshine, where it's all swirly? That's what it looks like to me. If I'm inside, I get 'just jumped into hyperspace' stars (like in Star Wars) -- lines that just zig right past me that no one else can see.

It's not scary after you've had a few, but it's kind of a like 'whoah, slow down there' feeling."

(mnda, Livejournal for Support Group for Migraine Sufferers, Subject: migraine aura, July 20, 2005)

"You Are In Good Company! Celebrities and historical figures with Migraine disease include, among many... the great painters Vincent Van Gogh ..."

(M.A.G.N.U.M., May 30, 2004)

"Vincent Van Gogh, the awe-inspiring Dutch impressionist, suffered from violent Migraines, or 'sick headaches,' as they were then called. Migraines at that time were perceived as mild insanity. Therefore, treatment of his Migraines was both ineffective and debilitating, and, in fact, worsened his condition. Van Gogh's famous painting, 'Starry Night,' was painted at the St. Remy Asylum in France in 1889, where he was being treated for his 'Migraine personality.'"

(M.A.G.N.U.M. Awareness Art Gallery, May 30, 2004)

These claims from the M.A.G.N.U.M. website became the source for many other similar statements distributed via internet, e.g.:

"Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh is reputed to have suffered from severe migraines. Some speculate that his strokes of pure color were inspired by visual disturbances from migraine auras. Van Gogh's works include some of the most acclaimed paintings ever created - Sunflowers, Irises and The Night Café."

(World Headache Alliance, May 30, 2004)

"VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853 - 1890) Avant de souffrir d'hallucinations, le peintre eût à lutter contre des maux de tête qui le désignèrent aux yeux de ses contemporains comme un homme tourmenté mais aussi profondément mystique."

(LA LIGUE BELGE CONTRE LES CEPHALEES, Ch. Girard, Migraineux celebres, Winter 2000/2001)

"It has been suggested by opthalmologists that Vincent must have suffered from severe migraine headaches and simply painted 'what he saw' in pictures like Starry Night, with halation around each star."

(THE BLOCKHEAD TRAVEL ITINERARY, Televisionaries 1997)

Night Café - A short novel by Martin P. Foster

"Van Gogh must have had migraines! I did a lot of research on van Gogh and have had offers to publish the book but declined. It is my take on the artist and I was afraid I would be in Dutch with the Dutch. The short novel about his illusion infers he suffered migraines, and I deeply suspect he did. I believe the migraines were quadrupled with self imposed instability during his life."

(Martin P. Foster, Email to Klaus Podoll, July 9, 2005)

"It was 'The Night Cafe' painting that interested me in perusing more about van Gogh, and I knew a lot of people that suffered from migraines. The novel might also be called Why van Gogh cut off his ear? The answer in my book is that the devil made him do it, but another attributable reason may be migraines."

(Martin P. Foster, Email to Klaus Podoll, July 9, 2005)

Unfortunately for the "migraine hypothesis" of van Gogh's painting, despite the fact that there exists a vast amount of medical literature about the artist's mysterious illness(es), not a single from the published studies seems to advocate the claim that Vincent van Gogh was a migraineur, the diagnoses suggested by the different authors including schizophrenia, episodic psychoses, bipolar affective disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, Meniere's disease, saturnine encephalopathy, digitalis-induced xanthopsia and many others. Hence, for the time being, the said claim that van Gogh was a migraine sufferer who used his migraine aura experiences as a source of his artistic inspiration has to be considered as lacking sufficient evidence.

Celebrities and migraines

"Similarly, the sharp patterns and colors of Vincent van Gogh's paintings are often compared to migraine auras. (Some researchers, including Podoll, stress that van Gogh was not officially diagnosed.) 'Ironically, maybe much of the beauty van Gogh created for all of us was partially driven by the way he saw the world,' says Coleman. 'As with all people, migraine is going to affect different famous people differently.'"

(Ian Hodder, Celebrities and Migraines, MSN Website, June 30, 2005)

References

Arenberg IK, Countryman LF, Bernstein LH. Van Gogh had Meniere's disease and not epilepsy. JAMA 1990; 264: 491-493.
Blumer D. The illness of Vincent van Gogh. Am J Psychiatry 2002; 159: 519-526.
Gastaut H. La maladie de Vincent van Gogh, envisagée à la lumière des conceptions nouvelles sur l'epilepsie psychomotrice. Ann Med Psychol Paris 1956; 114 (2): 1-43.
Gonzalez Luque FJ, Montejo Gonzalez AL. [Implication of lead poisoning in psychopathology of Vincent van Gogh.] Actas Luso-Espanolas de Neurologia, Psiquiatria y Ciencias Afines 1997; 25: 309-326.
Monroe R. The episodic psychoses of Vincent van Gogh. J Nerv Ment Dis 1978; 166: 480-488.
Morrant JCA. The wing of madness: the illness of Vincent van Gogh. Can J Psychiatry 1993; 38: 480-484.
Pennanen MF. Vincent van Gogh: what do his letters suggest about his diagnosis? Journal of Medical Biography 1995; 3: 43-49.
Strik WK. [The psychiatric illness of Vincent van Gogh.] Nervenarzt 1997; 68: 401-409.
Voskuil PHA. Vincent van Gogh's malady: a test case for the relationship between temporal lobe dysfunction and epilepsy? J Hist Neurosci 1992; 1: 155-162.

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