Van Gogh, Absinthe and Hemp


It’s no surprise that VanGogh is listed as a famous person who smoked pot.

Van Gogh Celebrity Weed Smoker

This isn’t about that, actually. While he could fall into the category of “a celebrity who should have just stuck to pot,” the fact that he didn’t, gave us some pretty fascinating art.

First, let me give you some background about my interest in Van Gogh. Back in 1997 I got to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  I was blown away seeing his work up close. I remember wishing my daughter, who was 7 at the time and already showing an interest in art, could see it. Shortly thereafter, that exact same exhibit came to L.A. I went to see it on the very last day with my daughter. Of course, I had no tickets, but I’m pretty lucky and I just had a gut feeling I’d get us in. Well, let me tell you. Everyone and their mother were there! There was no way, no how I was getting in! I stood out in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for about 2 hours looking for 2 tickets for my poor daughter and me when I finally decided to throw in the towel. I must have been walking with my tail between my legs back to my car when the parking attendant asked how it went. I sadly told him we didn’t get in. He asked me to wait. He called someone on the phone and before you knew it, we were “some security guard’s cousins” and we were whisked off on a free private tour! Don’t you just love gut feelings?

Most people remember Van Gogh as the crazy artist who cut off his ear. After visiting Holland, I became pretty fascinated with Van Gogh’s art and biography and was really excited to hear that one of the top professor’s at the Keck School of Medicine at USC gave a lecture on Van Gogh. I made sure to sit in on this famous professor’s lecture and I’m sure glad I did. It truly was a fascinating experience.

As I was getting ready to write this blog, I wanted to make sure I was spelling this professor’s name correctly so I called the curriculum office to verify.  It just so happened that on the very day that I called, this same professor would be giving the very last lecture of his teaching career. Dr. David Berman is now 92 years old and has been teaching since 1952. I happened to call in on the very last day he taught. How weird is that?

Dr. David B

Dr. Berman is a distinguished emeritus professor of Cell and Neurobiology and has actually won over 45 best teaching awards. Let me tell you, he never gets bored of winning them either. I got to witness him win quite a few and it is a very heart warming thing to watch. This man truly does put his heart and soul into teaching and the students at USC were truly blessed to have had such an increble teacher for so long.

Absinthe was an intriguing topic at the time  I attended Dr. Berman’s lecture especially since it had been banned until not too long ago because it was deemed too dangerous. While it is a very potent alcoholic spirit, it was more likely banned because it was heavily associated with the bohemian culture back in the 1800’s.  This green drink that they sometimes referred to as the green fairy because it was said to make people hallucinate if they overindulged, was believed to have exacerbated Van Gogh’s mental illness, but didn’t actually cause it.

What I learned from Dr. Berman that has stuck in my head to this day, however, is that absinthe may have directly contributed to Van Gogh’s “Yellow Period.” The toxicity from the wormwood in the absinthe may have turned his vision to a yellowish hue causing him to paint things in yellow. So if he had not been addicted to absinthe, perhaps he would not have had the vision to paint this:

Or this:

Or this:

So what does this have to do with hemp? Well, it’s the hemp canvasses that these paintings are on that I think are relevant. Did you know the word canvas is a derivative of the word cannabis?

Hemp paints were all the rage back then, as well.  This probably explains why they remain in such archival condition.

I’ve always looked at Van Gogh’s art differently since attending Dr. Berman’s lecture. Thank you Dr. Berman for all your years of service and for being such an incredible educator. I truly hope you enjoy your retirement!

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