The similarities between these two artists are overwhelming to me. I am an og Kanye West fan. I am talking producer Kanye. Rock-a-fella Kanye. GRADUATION Kanye. I mean this guy has made some bomb music. One of the first things he did was produce Jay-Z's The Blueprint album, one of his best I might add. Though what fascinates me the most about Kanye West and how he relates back to Van Gogh, is the clear mental health conditions he lives with and how over time it has transformed his ideals and bodies of work. Making the connection between mental illness and art has always been a hot topic for me, mainly because I find it so relatable. I have always experienced extreme bursts of creativity, making what I have considered my best works when I have been at my lowest points.
I first discovered this theme when studying Vincent Van Gogh. It is not confirmed which mental illness Van Gogh had suffered from but at a two day conference hosted by Amsterdam's Vincent Van Gogh Museum hundreds of medical professionals and art historians gathered to discuss his possible diagnosis. With the help of many letters Van Gogh had written to his brother throughout his lifetime, they discussed the periods of depression and bipolar tendencies he experienced. He suffered from short psychotic episodes lasting anywhere from a few weeks to months, followed by periods of high energy and euphoria.
One of the many examples of his mental conditions being evident in his work are the Starry Night paintings from 1888 and 1889. In his original Starry Night Over the River Rhône from September 1888 he painted the view from his apartment window, a happier time in his life. A little over a year later Van Gogh was hospitalized in the mental asylum in Arles. His mental illness had evolved and he had become psychotic. Here he painted what he saw from his window of the asylum creating the well known 1889 version of Starry Night. This kind of thing blows my mind.
Do you see where I am going with all this? In recent years Kanye West has demonstrated some questionable acts which many have deemed crazy, (a term I could write a whole blog about.) Kanye West is no Van Gogh, but I do see a connection between the two. He is a modern day artist living with a mental condition and if you look closely you can see it within his body of work.
After nearly dying in a car crash in October of 2002, he wrote, "Through The Wire" then rapped it while his jaw was wired shut and that shit was fire. Career Defining. He used pain as a motivator for that one. Then he got big. In 2004 released College Drop Out, was producing for other huge artists, and was killing it. In September 2007 he dropped Graduation, my favorite.
Then on November 10, 2007 his mother Donda died due to surgery complications and this trauma changed Kanye. His mother was everything to him and her death had blindsided him. At this time he was 30 years old. Some say it feels as if he never came back from this loss. He pain was evident by his 2008 album , 808 & Heartbreak. Look at this track list;
As years went on his behavior became increasingly unpredictable and unstable. Many questioned whether it was publicity stunts or mental illness. He had been releasing albums but was now evolving his style and persona between them, leaving fans confused and missing “the old Kanye.” In 2016 Kanye released The Life of Pablo. This album had mental health themes sprinkled through out. One of the most telling lyrics being, “This ni**a when he off his Lexapro, Remember that last time in Mexico, Remember that last time, the episode..” referencing an anti depressant and anxiety medication. Later that year West was committed to a psychiatric unit after suffering a mental breakdown on stage in November following weeks of erratic behavior while on his Saint Pablo Tour. This was right around the anniversary of his mother’s death. The episode was first described as "temporary psychosis" caused by dehydration and sleep deprivation. His mental state was affected enough to cancelled the remaining show dates and then disappear for a while.
His latest album inspired this post. In 2018 West came back with Ye, or I Hate Being Bi-Polar, It's Awesome. It’s like watching one of those movies where you have to get to the end for it all to make sense. In this album Kanye rapped about suicidal thoughts, his Opioid addiction and the most interesting to me, “ That's my bipolar shit, ni**a what? That's my superpower, ni**a, ain't no disability.” As someone who struggles with mental illness, I do not consider it a superpower. But for someone who also considers themselves an artist, I interpret it as being his best artistically, in his opinion, due to his mental condition. It's interesting watching someone in the public eye deal with mental health issues. In West's case we have seen it develop through his creative expressions and personal life.
I am drawn to artists that put on display their mental journey throughout their creative one. I think it’s powerful how over time, in different mediums there have been famous artists with mental illness documenting it through their artistic expression, whether they mean to or unknowingly. Unfortunately in Vincent Van Gogh’s case he succumbed to his mental illness, committing suicide by the age 37. Kanye West has just started speaking on being diagnosed with his mental condition at the age of 39. Though his behavior remains irrational at times, I hope he is on a path of receiving the help he needs, and one day will give his fans back some of that “old Kanye” and maybe the new Kanye can help shed some light on mental illness and its stigma once he understands it himself.