Van Gogh’s Turbulent Period

Eddies Within Eddies & the Flow of Madness

The Starry Night (1889)

If Don McLean were a chaos theorist, I’m sure his paean to Van Gogh would have a nonlinear-dynamical twist…

Starry Starry night,
Vortices swirl around each star,
Eddies within eddies from near and far
With flows that know the darkness in my soul..

Vincent Van Gogh had an uncanny ability to depict reality in an unreal way, raising once again the question: Do certain artists have an ability to capture physical processes and/or mathematical truths that can’t be mimicked by others? And is there a correlation between this ability and madness?

Where Jackson Pollock’s paintings are instantiations of splattered fractals, Van Gogh’s paintings have recently been compared to one of the main avatars of chaos theory: turbulence.

José Luis Aragón and colleagues of the National Autonomous University in Mexico and colleagues have mapped out the swirls in many of van Gogh’s most famous paintings and discovered that they pretty much were dead-on renditions of the Kolmogorov statistical model of turbulence. (In which eddies within eddies appear across many length scales.) Read about their fascinating research methods in Turbulent luminance in impassioned van Gogh paintings

Van Gogh’s whirling eddies are remarkably close to actual eddies seen in the waters off of Cuba, as can be seen in the following NASA image.

Ocean currents near Cuba (NASA)

Turbulence, the ultimate “hard problem” described so well by James Gleick in Chaos: Making a New Science, and of which I am reminded in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Strange Notion, seems a perfect way to view and understand van Gogh (at least to someone steeped in non-linear dynamics).

At a Van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum a while back I had the opportunity to stand close enough to the paintings to not just see the swirls, but to almost feel them. The 3-D nature of his thick brush stokes projected from the paintings in a way that was almost dangerous. The thick tubes of paint didn’t just protrude into my world; they beckoned me inward, into the painting, into Van Gogh’s fevered mind, into the maelstrom of turbulence that contains within itself all of itself, at every scale, with every stroke of the brush.

Road with Cypress and Star (1890)

So what of the connection with madness? Apparently, van Gogh’s earlier works, painted before his descent, do not display the turbulent signature of his later pieces, and especially Starry Night, Road with Cypress and Star and Wheat Field with Crows. Gerardo Naumis, one of Aragón’s colleagues, speculates that brain activity during periods of inner turmoil may have dynamical features similar to those of turbulence.

Wheat Field with Crows (1890)

I don’t know whether I buy this argument or not. One problem is that the physical turbulence depicted in van Gogh’s paintings are being compared to “dynamical features”, which are usually phase-plane undulations, i.e. Naumis is conflating real space with phase space.

And the other problem — the really big one- is that this explanation removes the creative human from the objet d’art. So I will always imagine that Van Gogh painted with flows that knew the darkness in his soul.

Self-portrait (1889)

And now, thanks to MrAdamBurns, here is a Don McClean soundtrack to Van Gogh’s turbulent madness…

Van Gogh paintings with a Don McClean soundtrack. By MrAdamBurns

Originally published Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at

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