‘The only possible explanation for her loss of sight was functional blindness, caused by stress.’ Photographs: Liz McBurney

‘The only possible explanation for her loss of sight was functional blindness, caused by stress.’ Photograph: Liz McBurney

There was a recent fascinating piece by Suzanne O’Sullivan in the Guardian about a mental health problem that is surprisingly prevalent but seems to have fallen beneath the radar for most of us. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

Yvonne went blind overnight, Matthew couldn’t walk, Shahina lost the use of her hand – but doctors found nothing wrong. Were they faking it, or was the mind playing tricks? A neurologist on her most intriguing cases

I was a junior doctor when I encountered Yvonne. She was 40 and worked in a supermarket. One Tuesday she was reorganising produce in a refrigerated unit while a colleague cleaned the glass. Yvonne turned to talk to her just as she released a small spray of window cleaner. Yvonne felt the liquid splatter on her face and a burning in both eyes. Another colleague led her to the bathroom and washed her eyes with water. Yvonne was taken by ambulance to hospital, where she was examined and had her eyes bathed. Her husband was called, and by the time he arrived she was feeling better. Her eyes were red and full of tears, but she could see normally and the pain had lessened. Her husband took her home.

He told her not to go in to work the next day, and during the morning Yvonne noticed her vision blurring. By lunchtime, she was struggling to read the digital clock. Her husband and children came home that evening and encouraged her to have an early night. When Yvonne woke up and opened her eyes, everything was black. She cried out for help and heard the noise of people entering the room, but could not see them. She was completely blind.

When I met her, six months had passed and, despite several hospital visits and tests, doctors had told Yvonne they could find nothing wrong. As a last resort she was referred to a neurologist.

At the time, I was a trainee. Since then, I have been a consultant for more than 10 years, first at the Royal London Hospital, now at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

I knew from an early stage that I wanted to be a neurologist. I enjoyed the detective drama of the job, unravelling the mysteries of how the nervous system communicates its messages. But I did not predict how far I would be drawn into the care of people whose illness originated not in the body but in the mind. Some examples of how the mind affects the body are commonplace: we are familiar with the shake in our hand as we pick up the pen to sign the marriage register, or the bead of sweat on our brow as we stand up to give a presentation. These are the body’s physiological responses to stress. But we are less familiar with the frequency with which people can unconsciously think themselves ill. Up to one third of people seen in an average general neurology clinic have symptoms that cannot be explained by medical tests or examinations. In those people, an emotional cause is often suspected.


I know I only recently republished this poem but van Gogh’s use of the butterfly as a symbol of our capacity for transformation tempted me to use it again.

Metamorphosis v2

For source of image see link

VG R composite

Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

Gauguin to van Gogh in 1890, quoted in the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 494

Last time I attempted to do some kind of justice to my encounter with van Gogh’s paintings in the museum in Amsterdam. Now comes my attempt to see whether I was wide of the mark or close to home.

Making Sense of It All

Now that I am home again and have read almost to the end the Penguin Letters, I have picked up some helpful insights from what van Gogh wrote to his brother from Arles. They have moved my understanding forward from where it was when I stood before the pictures I have just described.

These insights can be divided into four groups: those to do with the purpose and nature of art, those relating to use of colour, those dealing with the impact of physical and mental health problems, and a thread underpinning all these to some degree is his feeling about religion. He had after all in 1879 (Letters – page 75) ‘turned his back on preaching . . . to make his living as an artist.’ The first two elements I’ll try and deal with today: the other two next Monday.

The Developing Artist

First though it makes sense to consider the light the letters shed on his process of maturation as an artist. In 1880 he wrote to his brother, Theo, that he was extremely (page 80) ‘happy’ to ‘have taken up drawing again.’ He seemed to feel there is though a connection between art and sorrow (page 81):

Meryon puts into his etchings something of the human soul, moved by I know not what inner sorrow.

He does not know at this point quite what his own path will be (page 82):

Though I cannot predict what I shall be able to do, I hope to make a few sketches with perhaps something human in them…

Just over a year later, in December 1881, we can begin to see the direction he is heading when he speaks about writers saying that he only reads them (page 116) ‘because they look at things more broadly and generously and with more love than I do and are acquainted better with reality, and because I can learn from them.’ He said later of Victor Hugo (page 217) that he helped him to ‘keep some feelings and moods alive. Especially love of mankind and belief in, and awareness of something higher . . .’ Speaking, in 1882, of his artist cousin, Mauve, he takes issue with his cousin’s idea of an artist saying (page 150): ‘As far as I am concerned, the word means, “I am looking, I am hunting for it, I am deeply involved.”’

IMG_2305As we know from his later description of himself as a ‘cab horse,’ a career as an artist is not an easy option. Even as early as this he was well aware of that (page 178):

Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation. By dogged, I mean in the first place incessant labour, but also not abandoning one’s views upon the say-so of this person or that.

In the same letter he throws in almost casually a key pointer to the future when he says, ‘It isn’t the language of painters so much as the language of nature that one should heed.’ The editor quotes, further to this (page 183):

Sooner or later, feeling and love for nature always finds a response in people interested in art. The painter’s duty is to immerse himself wholly in nature and to use his intelligence for putting his feelings into his work, so that it becomes intelligible to others.

When he describes his working methods we can feel exactly what he means (page 195):

I just sit down with a white board in front of the spot that appeals to me, I look at what is in front of my eyes, and I say to myself: that white board has got to turn into something – I come back, dissatisfied, . . . . because I have that splendid scenery too much in mind to be satisfied. Yet I can see in my work an echo of what appealed to me, I can see that the scenery has told me something, has spoken to me and that I have taken it down in shorthand.

As his practice of his art strengthened his understanding of what he was about, his confidence in the rightness of it grew in proportion. At the time he was working on his first great piece The Potato Eaters in 1885 (page 292) he asserted forcefully, against what he felt was the demand for ‘conventional polish,’ that ‘a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.’ His position was clear (page 299): ‘The portrayal of working people was to his mind one of the most important thematic innovations of contemporary art, the “essential modern” aspect.’

Not that he was claiming that this was easy or that he was skilled at it (page 304-06):

Nothing seems simpler than painting peasants or rag pickers and other workers, but – there are no subjects in painting as difficult as those everyday figures! . . . . Tell Serret that I should be in despair of my figures were good, tell him that I don’t want them to be academically correct, tell him that what I’m trying to say is that if one were to photograph the digger, he would certainly not be digging then.

The underlining as always indicates his strength of feeling on the matter.

Where we see how his art relates to his feelings about religion is in such comments as (page 312):

Still, I would sooner paint people’s eyes than cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is lacking in the cathedral – however solemn and impressive it may be. To my mind a man’s soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting.

A letter from 1888 makes clear that van Gogh would have regarded my having omitted to consider his portraits, in the last post that looked directly at my response to his art, as a bit of an insult, as well as meaning that I was rather missing the whole point of a key aspect of his work (page 389):

Taking it all in all, that is the only thing in painting that moves me to the depths, and it makes me feel closer to infinity than anything else.

All I can say is, ‘I’ll try and make amends when I look at Rembrandt.’

It would not be possible for me in this brief space to do justice to the influence of Japanese art, religion and philosophy on van Gogh’s work. However, a short quote will indicate how nature, spirituality and art are seen by him to be fused and integrated in Japanese paintings (page 410):

So come, isn’t what we are taught by the simple Japanese, who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion?

He explains more exactly what this means in the same letter (page 408):

. . . .in order to do a picture which is really of the south, a little skill is not enough. It is observing things for a long time that gives you greater maturity and a deeper understanding. . . . .

My feeling is that I must work at a leisurely pace. Indeed, what about practising the old saying, One should study for ten years or so, and then produce a few figures?

This is the same letter, interestingly, which expands at some length on his ideas about religion in general derived from reading an article about a book by Tolstoy. I’ll be coming back to that later in the next post.

Van Gogh in Tulips at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

Van Gogh in Tulips at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens


This consideration of his art in general leads naturally into the examination of what his letters have to say about one of the distinguishing characteristics of his art: his use of colour.

It’s a truism to point out that his later paintings under the influence of Impressionism are brighter than his earlier homages to Millet. His colouring and brushwork become dramatically different. What can we learn from his letters about his use of colour?

A good place to start is with a quote I used in the second part of this sequence. Ronald de Leeuw, the editor of the Letters, to compensate for the absence of letters in the period when the brothers were together in Paris, summarises aspects of van Gogh’s radical new departure in style (pages 326):

Van Gogh’s highly original interpretation of Seurat’s pointillism, the use of separate dots of mixed colour, gradually paved the way for a strikingly individual and expressive method of applying colour in streaks and dashes, which would henceforth typify van Gogh’s brushstroke no less than his drawing style.

Van Gogh was also carried away by what he saw around him in his first encounters with the South (page 387):

I find it tremendously beautiful here in the summer, the green is very deep and rich, the air thin and amazingly clear. . . . . I particularly enjoy the colourful clothes, the women and girls dress in cheap, simple material, green, red, pink, yellow, havana brown, purple, blue, polka-dots, stripes. White scarves, red, green and yellow parasols. A strong sulphurous sun which shines down on it all, the great blue sky – it is all as tremendously cheerful as Holland is gloomy.

A key letter concerning colour was written in the August of 1888. He begins to define where he plans to move from the simply realistic (page 390):

. . . instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of colour to express myself more forcefully.

He goes on to give an example, speaking of a portrait he would like to do if possible (page 391):

Behind the head – instead of painting the ordinary wall of the shabby apartment, I shall paint infinity, I shall do a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination, the shining fair head against this rich blue background, I shall obtain a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep blue sky.

VG Boch 1888

Boch 1888 (scanned from the Taschen Edition)

The portrait that finally resulted might be that Eugène Boch (September 1888 – Taschen page 421).

The next letter in the Penguin Letters explains more (page 394):

. . . in my pictures I want to say something consoling, as music does. I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal, whose symbol was once the Halo, which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our colouring.

He also wants to convey relationships between people by the use of colour (page 395):

[Concerning] the study of colour. I keep hoping that I’ll come up with something. To express the love of two lovers by the marriage of two complementary colours, their blending and their contrast, the mysterious vibrations of related tones. To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light tone against a dark background.

Happily, he gives us a run down of his intentions in painting one of his most famous scenes – the Night Café. He writes (page 399):

I have tried, by contrasting soft pink with blood-red and wine-red, soft Louis XV-green and Veronese green with yellow-greens and harsh blue-greens, all this in an atmosphere of an infernal furnace in pale sulphur, to express the powers of darkness in a common tavern. And yet under an outward show of Japanese gaiety and Tartarin’s good nature.

He also describes his intentions in the painting of his bedroom (page 416):

. . . . here everything depends on the colour, and by simplifying it I am lending it more style, creating an overall impression of rest or sleep. In fact, a look at the picture ought to rest the mind, or rather the imagination.

It’s helpful to see the phrase he coins for this kind of attempt to use colour to convey meaning (page 404) – ‘suggestive colour.’

It isn’t just colour he uses but shape to suggest his meaning. Still speaking of the bedroom he writes (page 418) that ‘the sturdy lines of the furniture should also express undisturbed rest.’ It is easy to see how the vibrant whorls and swirls of the cypresses we discussed last time convey anything but restful ease and this is clearly intentional.

Reading his own words here gives me the feeling that, although what I read into the four paintings I was looking at last time was very much my own interpretation, what I was attempting was very much what van Gogh would have wanted me to do.

Next and last, on Monday I will try to integrate some kind of understanding of van Gogh’s spiritual perspective alongside a consideration of his mental state.

Kim Jones and former partner Deen Taiwo, victims of hate crime, a 'horror story' now being made into a film. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

Kim Jones and former partner Deen Taiwo, victims of hate crime, a ‘horror story’ now being made into a film. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

Last Sunday a powerful piece by  appeared in the Observer. It removes any sense of superiority we might feel when we compare ourselves to the institutional racism of the American system. The whole post is deeply moving and deeply disturbing. It demonstrates beyond doubt that we have an Everest to climb before we can claim to have got anywhere near resolving this deep-seated prejudice, which routinely humiliates and denigrates a whole population of hardworking and honest citizens of this self-styled tolerant and liberal society. Hopefully the planned documentary will help. Below is a brief extract: see link for the whole article, which I strongly urge everyone to read, especially as we might so easily be tempted to protect possibly unacknowledged self-serving biases by closing this page

Deen Taiwo’s ordeal at the hands of racists is being made into a documentary in an innovative attempt to improve police responses to hate crimes.

One August evening, in Brue Close, a housing estate in Weston-super-Mare, police and emergency services were called to No 39. Two police cars, a police van, a dog and several officers arrived. They saw a crowd of hostile white adults, “an angry mob” and a middle-aged black man standing in his front garden bleeding profusely from a head wound. His five-year-old daughter was distraught. The emergency services were responding to two separate reports. The first came from Kim Jones, the tenant at No 39, requesting urgent help for her partner, Tajudeen “Deen” Taiwo. She said he had been the victim of a racial assault. His head had been banged against a wall, cracking it open. The second call said a black man had a knife.

What subsequently unfolded is to become part of an innovatory attempt by Avon and Somerset police to challenge police behaviour and attitudes that consciously or otherwise sanction hate crime. Following his arrest, a publicly humiliated Taiwo was taken to hospital in handcuffs to have his head wound treated. He needed 14 stitches. He was kept in custody for 35 hours in total and charged with a number of offences, including possession of an offensive weapon and threats to kill while his family, which includes two boys from an earlier relationship of Jones’s, were left without support on an estate with hostile neighbours.

It took three years of struggle, a flawed internal police inquiry that revealed officers’ complete ignorance of the force’s own hate policy and inept disciplinary procedures before Avon and Somerset police finally accepted culpability for its discriminatory behaviour and made a public apology, paid compensation and made a commitment to involve the family in an overhaul of its training procedure. Part of that overhaul includes the making of a documentary of Taiwo and Jones’s experience so that it can be used as a tool to tackle racism and prejudice in police ranks (this is the first time in Britain that the police have used this approach). Filming begins on Thursday. The impact of this new training approach will be monitored by the force for 12 months. . . .

Taiwo, 53, a gentle, softly spoken man, came to Britain from Nigeria in his 20s. He is a long-distance lorry driver. He and Jones now have a second daughter, aged 18 months. The strain of the last three years ended their relationship but they remain friends. Jones is an office manager, articulate, passionate and full of vim. They first met in Weston-super-Mare in 1999. The couple initially lived in London and were subjected to the kind of casual racism that depletes the spirit and damages self-respect, especially if the victim believes that reporting it to the police will result in little action. “Deen would tell me about racist incidents and I’d say, ‘That can’t be true.’ Once we became a mixed race couple, it was aimed at me too. People made comments in the street, especially women. Deen would say, ‘Ignore it. Don’t react. Walk away.’ We would end up in an argument because I didn’t think that was right,” Jones says.

Taiwo’s job meant he had a company car. He reports that he was constantly stopped by the police, on one day, five times. “I got used to going to the station to produce his documents,” Jones says. On another occasion, they were pulled over in a garage. “Deen was approached by the police. They said he was an illegal immigrant and a wanted man. It was so scary. He’s a British citizen. The police had two riot vans and the name Dean. Eventually, they said, ‘Sorry, we’ve made a spelling error on your name.’”

In 2006, the couple moved back to Weston. Three years later, in 2009, Taiwo suffered a racist attack by two men. They broke his nose. A friend witnessed the assault. He was an off-duty community support officer. Taiwo says that this friend later told him that he had been told by colleagues that if he gave evidence, his job would suffer. The police took no statements, CCTV was lost and the case was not pursued. “They didn’t care. That hurt,” Taiwo says quietly.


I am republishing this mainly because the reference to van Gogh makes it seem appropriate, though the painting I use is his more dramatic one, whose name is, depending on whom you believe, the Death’s Head or Great Peacock Moth (May 1889). Van Gogh apparently saw it as a symbol of transformation hence the poem I’ll be republishing on Friday.

Image Source: whatsthatbug.com

Edna Clarke Hall

I wanted to create a feeling of a calling, the kind that whispers to us when we least expect it. The kind of calling that moves us past what we know to places where the unknown provokes us to wonder…and discover new knowledge about ourselves and the world.

(Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox reflecting on one of her paintings)

Given the current focus of my blog posts on art, this one from January 2012 seemed worth another look. The sequence of posts on Edward Thomas that I refer to was also republished in November last year.

Coincidences stick like burrs to the intricately-woven cloth of the mind. At the same time as I got the heads up about Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox’s website of delicate yet powerful artwork interwoven with thoughtful reflections, I also stumbled on another accomplished artist of another generation of whom I had never heard – Edna Clarke Hall. I spotted a haunting photograph of her in Hollis’ moving account of Edward Thomas‘ last years (more of that in later posts for sure) and tracked down some websites with samples of her swiftly executed images that capture in expressive lines and mood-saturated colours the essence of the passing moment. Though their occasional absence of faces is somewhat disconcerting, they have hooked my imagination, rather as Kathryn’s reflective artwork has, and I keep going back to them. I felt they were worth mentioning in case others were similarly ignorant of Clarke Hall’s existence until now.

Sketch for Catherine & Heathcliff

I could not find on the web the portrait in Matthew Hollis’s book that captures her sadness but the one at the top of this post conveys the beauty that seems to have drawn Thomas towards her in the months before he left England for the front in the First World War never to come back. Her constant return to images of Heathcliff and Catherine from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights was presumably driven by this sadness which predated but was intensified by his loss. Hollis describes her situation with great sympathy (op. cit.: page 254):

Edna Clarke Hall had exhibited her watercolours annually with Vanessa Bell’s Friday Club since 1910; in April 1914 a successful solo exhibition at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea showed fifty-six works and grossed £147 in sales. Shortly after, she temporarily set aside her paints to spend the next two years on verse. Her life in Essex was lonely. William Clarke Hall was a barrister and campaigner for children’s rights who spent lengthy weeks in his chambers at Gray’s Inn, leaving his wife feeling isolated in their country house. The couple had two boys of their own, but Edna could not forgive her husband’s decision to apply his energies to the children of his charitv work, some of whom were foundlings, abandoned by prostitutes. William would return at the weekends with an orphan in tow, sometimes leaving Edna to care for the child when he returned to London the next week. For Edna, the longing and the hurt was intense. ‘Why does a man engrose [sic] his mind in this cause of prostitutes leaving his wife sick to the heart in loneliness,’ she wrote in her journal.

Clearly there was more than a touch of Mrs Jellyby in her husband, William.  Not surprisingly she was as drawn to Thomas as he to her (op.cit. page 257):

Thomas’s gentle understanding of Edna’s domestic plight, and their rangy, artistic conversations and shared interests, were a lifeline to Edna that winter of 1915.

It was hard though to define exactly what she represented to him and Hollis struggles to pin it down (pages 277-278):

The relative absence of Edna’s name in Thomas’s correspondence is no surprise, especially when he was writing letters from camp that might very well have been prone to gossip or censorship. For Thomas a private allure would have been enough: a companion, a muse, a subject of desire. He once wrote that the goal of love was not the possession of another person but the stimulation of desire for things both known and unknown: ‘It is a desire of impossible things which the poet alternately assuages and rouses again by poetry.’

He claimed to be incapable of love. His leaving affected her badly (page 294):

Thomas’s departure would be a hard blow for Edna, who would sink into a terrible depression in the years to come. In Edward she had found a relationship of a kind that she believed she could never have with her husband: one that was careful, artistic and loving.

Her son, Dennis, in the kitchen

When I come to explore Edward Thomas’ life and poetry I will inevitably be coming back to the question of whether depression and creativity are in any way related. What has to be said here is that Edna Clarke Hall is one of the few women whose creativity was not completely stifled by the sexual inequality of her times and for whom the consequent depression did not extinguish her gift completely but rather fed it perhaps. That there are other such significant exceptions such as Jane Austen, the Brontes and Christina Rossetti should not blind us to the prevalent pattern. Until it changes universally humanity will not rise to its full potential:

. . . . the principle of religion has been revealed by Bahá’u’lláh that woman must be given the privilege of equal education with man and full right to his prerogatives. That is to say, there must be no difference in the education of male and female in order that womankind may develop equal capacity and importance with man in the social and economic equation. Then the world will attain unity and harmony. In past ages humanity has been defective and inefficient because it has been incomplete. War and its ravages have blighted the world; the education of woman will be a mighty step toward its abolition and ending, for she will use her whole influence against war.

(The Promulgation of Universal Peace:Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the US and Canada in 1912, page 108).

The life of Aung San Suu Kyi provides a good example of how that can work.

Tree roots

Tree Roots & Trunks

Though I cannot predict what I shall be able to do, I hope to make a few sketches with perhaps something human in them…

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – 4 September 1880 (page 82)

Having tried to tune into van Gogh’s thinking about his art and attempting to dispose of the suicide myth, it’s time to share my immediate responses to some of the paintings.

The Paintings At Last

This now brings me to what these posts have to deal with at some point: the art itself and its impact on the mind.

What is my response to his paintings?

I’ll need to fess up to other influences than his letters before tackling my own raw responses on that day in the museum when I stood before the unmediated art – not photographs in a book, not a commentary by a critic, not a documentary however well-informed.

There’s Schama for a start. His book, Power of Art, was a retirement gift. It’s been on my shelves since 2008. I don’t read books like this cover-to-cover. I dip into them when the mood overtakes me. Van Gogh, Caravaggio and Rembrandt were early reads. This is his take on Tree Roots & Trunks (1890, and probably Van Gogh’s last painting, taken to be unfinished – the picture is scanned, as are all the other paintings throughout, from the Taschen book, page 693, and the quote is from Schama, page 346):

[This] may well be another view from inside Vincent’s hectic brain: all knots and strangling thickets, knobbly growths, bolting ganglia, claw-like forms, and pincers the look more skeletal than botanical . . . . . But this amazing painting – one of the very greatest (and least noticed) masterpieces from the founding moment of modernism – is yet another experiment in the independent vitality of painted line and colour, as well as the uncontainable force of nature.

You get the drift.

VG posterInterestingly, when an art therapy friend of mine and I compared notes after seeing the documentary Vincent van Gogh: a new way of seeing, we both felt this painting, which featured strongly in the film, carried a sense that he was trying to go back to his roots in order to refresh his vision of what he was doing. There is though something both menacing and incoherent about it when seen in its original that is somehow lost in reproduction. This is partly because of its size, which is almost exactly the same as the huge canvas of Wheatfield with Crows. You feel as though you are about to get lost in the tangle of it all, painted as it is on a canvas that would do justice to a jungle.

The Taschen Edition, which I really like as well, is equally confident of its position. At the start of their book they choose to discuss his paintings of two chairs – his own and Gauguin’s while he stayed with him (pages 7-8):

The two paintings are his statement of the friendship of two artists. His own chair, simple and none too comfortable, with his dearly-loved pipe lying on it, stands for the artist himself. It is meant just as metaphorically as the more elegant, comfortable armchair where Gauguin liked to settle. Everyday things, purely functional objects, acquire a symbolic power. The eye of love sees the mere thing as representing the man who uses it quite matter-of-factly. We may well be tempted to recall the pictorial tradition that provided van Gogh with his earliest artistic impressions. . . . . . Van Gogh’s unoccupied chairs pay respect to a tendency to avoid representation of the human figure. Gauguin is there, sitting in his armchair, even if we cannot see him – according to this formula.

This is a more knowing art-scholar take on the paintings, though they certainly agree with Schama’s sense of van Gogh as a founder of modernism, though their reasons are very much their own (page 698):

[H]e wanted to pave the way for . . . . that societal power which he was convinced lay with the common people.

It is this that makes van Gogh the forerunner par excellence of Modernism, or at any rate of the Modernist avant-garde.

We will be coming back to his ideas about the role of art in society. They seem to me to include but go beyond simply being a positive social influence.

I can’t compete with either Schama’s panache or Walther and Metzger’s confident expertise. I have to find a way of stepping back from his breathless and their measured perspectives.

There’s no way either I can attempt to capture and record here my responses to the approximately 200 images housed in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, so I have decided to focus on four paintings only. I realise from what van Gogh wrote in his letters that he saw his paintings as best experienced in groups – sunflowers, rooms and furniture, portraits, blossoms, cornfields and so on. However, that would further complicate a task I think is a bit too ambitious as it is. I am now dreading even more the task I have set myself later of attempting to deal with Rembrandt’s even more complex and challenging depths.

Anyway, I’ll take a deep breath and plunge into van Gogh. The paintings I’ve chosen to focus on are:

  1. Harvest at La Crau (1888 – page 347);
  2. Blossoming Almond Tree (February 1890 – page 615).
  3. Cypresses and Two Women (February 1890 – page 619);
  4. Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background (May 1890 – page 622).

I realise that there are no portraits in this list, even though this was an important art form for van Gogh. However, of his three great loves – literature, nature and those who worked the land – I decided to focus on paintings of nature. Portraits would have needed to be dealt with separately, and in any case I’ll be focusing on that form when I come to deal with Rembrandt, and it seems likely that some of my thoughts on van Gogh’s portraits will also creep in then.


First we come to Harvest at La Crau (June 1888 – page 347).

One of the most striking things about this painting are the tiny figures. He saw those who worked the land as infused by nature but also scarred by the hardships they endured as a result. Many of his paintings focused on the demands of such labour and the toll it took.

This painting makes a similar point by dwarfing the figures in the landscape.

The painting was created before 23 December 1888, when the rift with Gauguin, and all the attendant razor wielding and ear-shredding traumas, irreversibly clouded the landscape of his mind and began to fuel our 125-year-old Van Gogh legend.

The colours are bright and the feel is positive. There is a sense of activity within a sustaining environment. There is also clearly present what came to be the characteristic vibration of the van Gogh brushwork.

Standing in front of the painting I could not escape a sense of the seasons with all the reminders of Keats, whose death cut short the promise of his genius even earlier and of whose existence van Gogh was also clearly aware given his use of two of Keats’s poems in his flirtation with the married Caroline Haanebeek (Van Gogh: The Life – page 89).

Yes, this is summer – blissful, light, warm – bringing with it glowing rewards for all that has been endured in winter. There is the promise of a rich harvest, which none the less will entail back-breaking labour to bring in. The huge difference between the tiny figures and the vast landscape serves to reinforce the magnitude of that cost, something which has to be paid, year on year.

The brooding of the hills in the background, and an awareness of the work that is to come, cannot mar the joy of this golden moment. Although death is a distant prospect, it is not undetectable in this painting

Those were my immediate reactions to this particular painting.

After commenting on all these four paintings I’ll use the final sections of this sequence of posts to test out some more general conclusions in the light of the Letters as a whole once I have read them to the end. They may confirm my immediate intuitions or undermine them completely. I’m not sure yet which way that will go.

Blossoming Almond Tree VG 1890

Then we have Blossoming Almond Tree (February 1890 – page 615). Though the emotional pain of the break up with Gauguin, and the death of his dream of creating a commune of artists, cast a long shadow over van Gogh for the remainder of his life, and triggered his psychiatric hospitalisations, this gift to his newly-born nephew was a rare but splendid moment of relief. The beauty of nature seems to have broken through to be captured in this picture.

The painting, for all its deceptive simplicity, is powerful.

One part of its effect is in the angle of view. I was looking straight at the picture in the gallery, my head level. What I saw was a vision of the sky through blossom. That’s a very suggestive dislocation, as though the heavens are within reach from ground level if we just direct our gaze appropriately. The effect was so strong that I felt a faint sense of the crick in my neck that would’ve ensued at my age, were I to gaze at the sky for any length of time. The blending of the green of plants into the ethereal blue of the sky adds to this sense of their ultimate interconnectedness, for me at least.

Again I couldn’t escape a sense of the seasons, winter’s grip easing as the days lengthen and the skies brighten.

And the Japanese influence is strongly present. Van Gogh resonated strongly to their style as his letters testify. He had even (Letters – page 356) ‘sent Gauguin a portrait of himself as a “bonze” (a Japanese priest).’

The delicate blossom and the gnarled branches also provide a thought-provoking contrast. It suggests, amongst other things, that beauty has a price. It is paid for by the endurance of hardship. I cannot resist quoting at this point, rather than at the end, where perhaps it belongs, what van Gogh wrote to his brother just two years before this was painted (Letters – page 381):

The more wasted and sick I become, a broken pitcher, the more I may also become a creative artist in this great renaissance of art of which we speak.

All this is certainly so, but eternally continuing art, and this renaissance – this green shoot sprung from the roots of the old sawn-off trunk, these are matters so spiritual that we can’t help but feel rather melancholy when we reflect that we could have created life for less than the cost of creating art.

The whole experience of these galleries created in me a strong sense that van Gogh is a poet in paint, and that his paintings repay the same kind of close detailed attention as poems have always done for me. And this does not mean I have to understand as fully as I would like all the technical aspects of his craft. Not that I’m convinced that van Gogh himself would’ve been delighted with poet of paint idea. In a letter of 1888, in which coincidentally, he mentions cypresses, he goes on to protest (page 402):

It always seems to me that poetry is more terrible than painting, although painting is dirtier and ultimately more tedious. And the painter on the whole says nothing, he holds his tongue, and I prefer that too.

Rembrandt, interestingly, for reasons that I will hopefully return to in another sequence of posts, is more a dramatist in paint for me, which is one of the reasons I see him as the Shakespeare of pictorial art.

Cypresses and Two Women VG 1890Now it’s the turn of Cypresses and Two Women (February 1890 – page 619). Almost the first association I had with this picture as I stood before it was a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act II Scene 4). The first lines are:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.

The notes (page 667) to Jonathan Bates’s William Shakespeare: complete works explains the reference to cypress as to either a cypress wood coffin or sprigs of cypress: either way the tree is associated with mourning. This association inevitably influences my experience of the painting.

I know van Gogh admired Shakespeare greatly and was familiar with a number of his plays, but not this one as far as I can tell from the books I have at hand. So, would he be aware of the link between cypress and mourning? I don’t know but I don’t think it matters. Darkness has returned.

The women are clearly dwarfed by the tall and swirling trees. They also appear to be faceless. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the picture surprised me by how small it was (43.5 x 27 cm) – not much bigger than a sheet of foolscap. I had expected a much larger canvas. This means that the trees feel about the size that people should be, and the women seem disproportionately tiny by comparison. That the taller tree is cropped at the top gives the impression of even greater height.

Given the colour of what seems to be corn, I found it hard to resist the idea of flames. This in turn led me to see the swirls of the cypresses also as flame-like, as well, possibly, as the clouds. I am aware that van Gogh sought to capture the effects of the wind in this way, and when the mistral blew its impact was dramatic. The women appear about to be engulfed by flame. That their feet and lower legs are either cropped or their dresses are blending with the vegetation, gives the impression perhaps that the consuming process has begun.

That just about captures my immediate responses on the day, barely registered before I swept onto the next picture.

My abstracting mind can now have a field day at my desk speculating about what that all might mean. It produces more questions than answers. For example, why two women and not a woman and a man? (I think it’s a cop out to say they were the ones who happened to be there at the time. His letters indicate that he was overwhelmed by the number of possible subjects he could paint and often produced variation after variation on a theme before opting finally for two or three related versions.) Is it nature that is overwhelming human beings, or is it some other force, such as the fire of death that turns all to ash or the vibrations of the infinite sustaining consciousness for ever, that is affecting both?

Vase with Irises VG 1890

And finally we have Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background (May 1890 – page 622). This painting produced even more complex responses in me.

Brightness and the dark compete, or, perhaps more appropriately, are held in an uneasy balance. We have muted yellow in the background sinking almost to brown as it crystallises into the pot and the ledge supporting it.

The irises are dying, or at least close to the end of their lives, but still retain something of their original beauty. (A note to this painting in the gallery I think suggested that the colour of the paint had itself faded from its original blue, which would be an ironic reinforcement of my reading of the painting but may not have been part of van Gogh’s original intention, though I think the wilting stem on the right suggests otherwise.)

An association that may not have been in van Gogh’s consciousness at all is the idea of the iris as part of the eye. It controls light levels inside the eye similar to the aperture on a camera. What, if anything, are we meant to be seeing through the irises that van Gogh has provided? Are all his paintings irises in this sense?

It is also hard to escape the probability, given that he was painting this during his enforced stay in the asylum at St Rémy, that he somehow identified with the flowers, uprooted and displaced, trapped even, withering in their confinement, as he might have felt himself to be also at times.

A strong association for me is with the irises we have in our own garden, resonating with what might be a similar blue. They triggered a sombre poem of mine once (2012):

Darkening into the Night
The walls of consciousness wear thin. Yellow
roses on the window ledge are drying
to a brittle gold. The jasmine’s dying.
My eyes light on the irises outside
the colour of a late sky streaked with cloud
and pricked with stars flickering across vast
distances which stretch faster than the reach of light.
Soon I will be darkening into the night
that collapses all points into one past
which not even poetry can follow.

That the poem also contains the gold motif is uncanny. I probably retained an unconscious memory of the painting which then crept into the verse. I could substitute ‘artistry’ for ‘poetry’ in the last line and the fit would be perfect.

After reflecting in this way on these four paintings I am left with sense that, in painting the real, van Gogh is also at the same time seeking to capture the subliminal, to fix infinity in colour and shape.

I think I will save any further thoughts until the last sections of this sequence of posts, which draw on the insights from van Gogh’s letters in an attempt to find my own way to some answers, both about his art and about the states of mind that must have helped shape them. I will defer revisiting any of my various books to see what those authors have to say until that time as well. The next post comes out this Thursday: the last one next Monday.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 863 other followers