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
The recent revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear (about 20 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), as well as the recent Guardian long-read article by Jonathan Jones on the latest exhibition of his work in Amsterdam, made it inevitable I would decide to republish my blog sequence of last year, which attempted to capture my complex and powerful responses to his work. This is the fourth of five posts scheduled to come out each day this week.
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.”’
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.’ (I didn’t have the stamina to do this at the time and now the intensity of my impressions of Rembrandt have faded too much.)
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.
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.
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, tomorrow I will try to integrate some kind of understanding of van Gogh’s spiritual perspective alongside a consideration of his mental state.