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Archive for September, 2019

 

VG R composite

[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.

Walther and Metzger in Van Gogh: the complete paintings – page 698

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the 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, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the second of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next four weeks.

The previous post, after attempting to extricate itself from the myth, paused in the midst of a consideration of the reasons that motivated his art. Here we pick up that thread first before attempting to kill the suicide myth.

‘Nature Viewed through a Temperament’

Exactly how, then, does he see the artist infusing his soul into his painting, if gross and unhelpful distortions are to be avoided?

One attempt at explanation might be in his discussion of a painter he calls Richard Wallace Rousseau[1] (page 219):

The dramatic effect in those paintings is something that, more than anything else in art, makes one understand ‘un coin de la nature vu à travers d’un temperament’ and ‘l’homme ajouté a la nature’ [‘a corner or nature viewed through a temperament’ and ‘man added to nature’]. One finds the same thing in say, portraits by Rembrandt. It is more than nature, something of a revelation.

He clearly finds it hard to pin down more precisely what he is attempting to get at here. He finds it in literature as well and has another equally unsuccessful go at exact definition there (page 272 again):

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

He uses George Eliot, one of my favourite writers, as an example:

What I am driving at, among other things, is that while Eliot is masterly in her execution, above and beyond that she also has a genius all of her own, about which I would say, perhaps one improves through reading these books, or perhaps these books have the power to make one sit up and take notice.

He has shifted of course from striving to pin down what’s in the painting or the narrative to the impact it has on the person experiencing the work of art. And perhaps that is the best that can be done. A work of art imbued with this quality will change those who encounter it fully for the better – a position not too far removed from the view of the purpose of art (‘Abdu’l-Bahá quoted in The Chosen Highway – page 167):

All art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.

Not, though, a perspective upon which an art critic could build a lucrative career I expect.

Van Gogh seems to have had a profound suspicion of technique, seeing it as more of an obstacle to the true purpose of art if it was at all obvious (page 274):

Let us try to grasp the secrets of technique so well that people will be taken in and swear by all that is holy that we have no technique. Let our work be so [skilful] that it seems naïve and does not reek of our cleverness.

All of this was written before his encounter with Impressionism. The impact on him of that movement can only really be traced through his work. He was living with Theo in Paris at the time so there are very few letters to help us see inside his mind.

Very frustrating for me as a psychologist!

I am therefore relying largely upon the bridge passage written by the editor of the letters, Ronald de Leeuw, who 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.

De Leeuw adds (page 327):

In Paris he seems for the first time to have broken free of the hold of Millet and the painters of rural life, flinging himself into the portrayal of urban scenes, of the cafes and boulevards, and of life in the new suburbs of Paris such as Asnière.

What constitutes one of the many ironies, when his letters are read with knowledge of his future, is that his antagonism to obvious technique was so dramatically overturned in his later paintings where his change of technique, not just of subject matter, is so radical it cannot be overlooked. Maybe, though, this is what he meant by seeming naïve.

A letter written in June 1888 seems to confirm this view, when he speaks of a painting he’s recently done (page 361):

There are many touches of yellow in the soil, neutral tones produced by mixing purple with yellow, but I couldn’t care less what the colours are in reality. I’d sooner do those naïve pictures out of old almanacs, old farmers almanacs where hail, snow, rain or fine weather are depicted in a wholly primitive manner …

The problem of course then is that being so skilfully naïve does not even look naïve any more. Still, it is this contrived and adroit naïvety that makes his paintings so striking and powerful when they succeed.

VG book stackMurder, Accident or Suicide

Sometimes though what he writes seems oddly prescient. I touched on one example almost at the start of this sequence of posts – his concern that he might die early and only have a few more years to live.

This has become a vexed question for biographers and art lovers alike.

I have four books on my desk right now. Three of them subscribe to the conventional view: he shot himself. I have the Taschen Van Gogh: the complete paintings (bought, incidentally, from a delightful second-hand bookshop in Glastonbury for the incredible price of £10), Simon Schama’s Power of Art, and the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Schama sees him as on the brink of success and reacting to its implied responsibilities (page 350):

It’s clear from his last letters that it was the thought of abandonment by Theo and Johannah, a terror of having to make his own way now that he was a recognised success – but still vulnerable, as indeed he would have been, to epileptic seizures and manic-depressive attacks – that made him pick up the gun rather than his brushes on 27 July. It was probably difficult to shoot himself with a shotgun [Naif and White Smith conclude from the available evidence that he was shot with a small calibre pistol – see below], and if he aimed for the heart, he didn’t hit the target.

Walther and Metzger, the authors of the Taschen volume, even go so far as to claim (page 694): ‘In the course of time, Vincent’s plan to increase the value of his paintings by killing himself was to prove a success.’ The Letters simply state in the biographical outline (page xxxi): ‘he shoots himself in the chest on 27 July and dies on 29 July in Theo’s presence.’

Alongside these books is Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It is in the minority, holding the view that he was accidentally shot by René Secrétan, a member of a gang of youth who used to tease and bully van Gogh remorsely.

The murder or shooting by persons unknown has been a theory lurking in the background since the time of his death and I have been aware of it since I first took an interest in van Gogh. Till I read this book I tended to dismiss it as just another conspiracy theory.

However, they marshall a plausible pile of evidence to call the suicide verdict seriously into question. I don’t propose to rehearse it all here. The details are spelt out at length in their appendix: A Note on Vincent’s Fatal Wounding (pages 869–880). As well as the telling fact that no gun was ever found, they include his preoccupation in his letters with drowning as a method for suicide; his knowledge of effective poisons; his dislike of guns; his ‘hesitant, half-hearted and oddly hedged’ confessions of suicide as reported at the time; his failure to finish himself off with a second shot; and perhaps most crucially:

the oddities of Vincent’s wound as reported by the doctors who examined it: that the shot was to the body not to the head: that the bullet entered from an unusual, oblique angle – not straight on as one would expect in a suicide; and that the shot appeared to have been fired from ‘too far out’ for Vincent to have pulled the trigger.

'Daubigny's Garden' (image scanned from the Taschen 'Complete Paintings')

‘Daubigny’s Garden’ (image scanned from the Taschen ‘Complete Paintings’)

Their summary of what they conclude on the basis of this evidence, which they feel resolves these and other anomalies in the widely accepted account, is this (page 873-74):

The shot that killed Vincent van Gogh was probably fired not in a wheat field, but in or near a farmyard on the road to Chaponval like the one described by Madame Liberge [daughter of the owner of what used to be the painter Daubigny’s house, a favourite painting spot] and Madame Baize [an Auvers resident]. Moreover, the gun that delivered the fatal blow was probably not brought into that farmyard by Vincent van Gogh, who knew nothing about guns and had no need of one, but by René Secrétan, who rarely went anywhere without his .380-calibre peashooter. The two may have encountered each other by accident on the Chaponval road, or they may have been returning from their favourite watering hole together. Gaston [René’s brother] was almost certainly with them, as Vincent would have avoided René, whether alone or in the hostile company of his followers.

René had a history of teasing Vincent in a way intended to provoke him to anger. Vincent had a history of violent outbursts, especially when under the influence of alcohol. Once the gun in René’s rucksack was produced, anything could have happened – intentional or accidental – between a reckless teenager with fantasies of the Wild West, an inebriated artist who knew nothing about guns, and an antiquated pistol with a tendency to malfunction.

Wounded, Vincent must have stumbled into the street as soon as he was able and headed towards the Ravoux Inn, leaving behind whatever painting gear he’d brought. At first, he may have had no idea how seriously he was hurt. The wound did not bleed profusely. But once the initial shock wore off, the pain in his abdominal injury had to be excruciating. The Secrétan brothers would have been terrified. Whether they tried to give Vincent assistance cannot be known. But they apparently had the time and presence of mind to collect the pistol and all of Vincent’s belongings before heading off into the gathering dusk – so that when Madame Baize’s grandfather showed up soon afterwards to investigate (if he did), he found only an empty farmyard and a dungheap.

While I accept that the forensic skills required to come to a firm conclusion about a crime, especially one so long ago, are not necessarily part of every scholar’s armoury, I have to say that reading their meticulously researched body of evidence I have now changed my mind and am persuaded that they have a strong case. I do not now accept as a fact the idea of van Gogh’s suicide. Everyone will obviously have to come to his or her own conclusion on the basis of the evidence different authors with different ideas quote as compelling. For my part, another myth has just bitten the dust and my relationship to the paintings is all the richer for it.

Before moving on, I probably need to record a caveat here about taking this new perspective too simplistically. While I do not think now that van Gogh shot himself, I am very aware that throughout his life he did put himself at risk in a way that suggests there was a self-destructive element in his nature. The next post focus on my encounters with four paintings, before the final two posts attempt to deal with a more objective sense of what his art might be about, his mental state and the nature of his spirituality.

Not a lot more to say then really!

Footnote

[1] The only Rousseau I can find with a painting of the title van Gogh refers to as Á Lisière du Bois is Theodore Rousseau. It is not unusual for van Gogh in his letters to refer to people by the wrong name or give the wrong titles to books etc.

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Glass table with book & VG

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the 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, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the first of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next five weeks.

Getting a Feel for van Gogh

I am sitting in the sunlight at the dimpled glass garden table as I type. Its dappling effect seems to be clumsily mimicking the style of the man I am reflecting on right now. The white screen and shining metal of the laptop seem at odds with him and all he represented, all he most passionately believed in, and yet pounding on its keys is the closest I can get to an adequate response. Scribbling in my private diary didn’t seem enough.

IMG_2110I am almost twice the age at which he died, and have only fairly recently been conscious of my own death as something relatively close. As I sat on the flight to Amsterdam, I continued to read as much as I could of the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I was quite glad of the plane’s computer malfunction before take off as it gave me another 45 minutes’ reading time.

In August 1883 he wrote to his younger brother, Theo (page 228):

For no particular reason, I cannot help adding a thought that occurs to me. Not only did I start drawing relatively late in life, but it may well be that I shall not be able to count on many more years of life either.

Given the shorter life spans of the 19th Century it is perhaps not surprising that a man who had just turned 30 should already be thinking about his death. Given what we know now, what he goes on to say is perhaps more uniquely poignant (page 228-29):

So, as to the time I still have ahead of me for work, I think I may safely presume that my body will hold up for a certain number of years quand bien même [in spite of everything] – a certain number between 6 and 10, say. (I can assume this the more safely as there is for the time being no immediate quand bien même.)

He is setting the context of his painting within these sobering constraints, which proved all too close to the mark. In just under seven short years’ time he was dead of a gun shot wound. (We’ll be coming back to that event later.) Theo died six months later, aged 33.

At the time of writing the letter, he feels that (ibid.) ‘within a few years I must have done a certain amount of work – I don’t need to rush, for there is no point in that but I must carry on working in complete calm and serenity, as regularly and with as much concentration as possible, as much to the point as possible.’

The intensity with which he feels what he writes is indicated by the underlining, which is his. He explains why this is so important to him: ‘The world concerns me only in as far as I owe it a certain debt and duty, so to speak, because I have walked this earth for 30 years, and out of gratitude would like to leave some memento in the form of drawings and paintings – not made to please this school or that, but to express a genuine human feeling.’

I was reading these words to get a feeling for the man even before I stood in front of his paintings in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. And yet that is precisely what he seems to have wanted people to get from his paintings. He never meant to have his letters published. These were for the eyes of his brother, not the world.

The Myth, the Man and the Artist

My eventual experience in the museum, after queuing for two hours outside in an icy wind, illustrated allIMG_2113 too well how the myth gets in the way of the both the man and his art.

In the final room of the exhibition we caught up with a tour guide. She asked her group loudly, in front of his painting of the cornfield and the crows, ‘’How did van Gogh die?’

The predictable answer came back: ‘He shot himself.’

This same response I’d seen on the screen as we waited in the queue to come in. The same question – ‘How did van Gogh die? – flashed up with three answers to choose from (the wording may be slightly off as I didn’t write it down at the time):

  1. consumption;
  2. heart attack; or
  3. he shot himself in a cornfield.

After a few seconds the third answer darkened to indicate it was the correct one.

‘That’s right,’ the tour guide confidently responded: ‘He shot himself.’

‘No, he didn’t,’ my mind screamed back. ‘He was accidentally shot by a local lad.’ I’m not sure whether it was cowardice or consideration for her obviously pregnant and already stressed state that caused me to swallow my words.

‘This,’ she went on,’ pointing to the cornfield painting, ‘was his last picture.’

‘No, it wasn’t,’ shouted my head. ‘The last painting was of the tree roots.’ The passionate pedant in me was seething by this stage.

‘Why was he so poor, d’you think?’ she asked her enraptured audience.

Dissatisfied with the answers on offer she provided her solution. ‘He was the first artist ever to work outside the box, be completely original.’ The pedant in my head was reduced to the unprintable by this stage, though words such as Turner and Rembrandt amongst many others can be safely reproduced here. If the mould-breaking Impressionists had not made such an impression on him we’d have none of the late van Goghs.

As I moved away in mental melt down, hoping that no one would notice the steam coming out of my ears, I heard her say, ‘He only sold one painting in his entire life,’ and ‘No, he didn’t,’ exploded inside my brain.

VG book stackAs we explored the gift shop downstairs I saw on sale the very same book in which Naifeh and White Smith explain in detail their carefully researched evidence that calls into question the suicide myth (more detail in the next post). Doesn’t the museum read the books it sells?

My mind was also ringing with memories of a statement in the Letters, which I’d read in bed the previous evening indicating that he did make a few sales in his lifetime (page 168):

Van Gogh, about whom the myth persists that he sold just one work in his lifetime, received 20 guilders from his uncle C. M. in Prisenhage for a batch of drawings.

I had to admit though, when I had calmed down, that selling drawings to your uncle isn’t exactly making a breakthrough into the art market, no matter what de Leeuw, the editor of the letters, seems to think it is.

The simple blacks and whites of the myth are far more profitable of course than the muddled and muddied colours of his reality.

However, as I read my way through the account in his letters of his years of struggle with his art, I came to understand far more clearly what he felt he was about as an artist, and I believe that gave me a greater ability to experience the paintings as he meant me to than I would otherwise have had. It also kept the simplistic myths firmly at bay.

Inside his Mind

Let me unpack that a bit.

At one level my grasp of his intentions is pretty superficial. I was delighted to read (pages 311-12):

Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

I got a buzz out of seeing van Gogh use the same image as I have borrowed ever since from my reading of McGilchrist to convey basically the same idea: when we submit simply to left-brain machine mode without reference to the holistic and organic richness of the right-brain process we have sold our souls.

Van Gogh is also indicating that he is close to Myers’s territory as explored by the Kellys in Irreducible Mind. There is a transcendent dimension to consciousness, which we must take care not to betray. Rather we should use conscious control to help us access it. He refers to this kind of approach in various places (page 272):

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

His shift from religion to art as a vocation is perhaps partly explained by the strained relationships he had with his parents and their generation This split was forming even before his unwelcome passion for his cousin, which alienated his uncle, and his even more testing liaison in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, which torpedoed his links with his father, at least for the time being. In about 1879 his father had threatened to have him incarcerated in a mental institution in Gheel, and it was probably at this time that van Gogh changed from practising preacher to aspiring painter. He was seeking to break free of his cage (page 74):

I am caged, I am caged, and you say I need nothing, you idiots! I have everything I need, indeed! Oh, please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds.

His final religious disconnect was clearly with the church rather than with spirituality, and art for him would always seem to be a spiritual practice. Dogmatism, simplification and hypocrisy remained anathema to him.

This did not mean that his paintings would be abstract and ethereal. He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.

What maps his thinking even more closely onto the Myers perspective is his sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it, needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

Van Gogh also speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.

He did though see a value in suffering (page 285):

I can tell you that this year is bound to be very grim. But I keep thinking of what Millet said, ‘Je ne veux point supprimer la souffrance, car souvent c’est elle, qui fait s’exprimer le plus énergiquement les artistes.’ [‘I would never do away with suffering, for it is often what makes artists express themselves most forcefully.’

He also felt burdened at times by his work as an artist (page 355):

One knows one is a cab horse, and that one is going to be hitched up to the same old cab again – and that one would rather not, and would prefer to live in a meadow, with sunshine, a river, other horses for company free as oneself, and the act of procreation.

He trusted at the same time that the sacrifices would be worth it (ibid.):

There is an art of the future, and it will be so lovely and so young that even if we do give up our youth for it, we can only gain in serenity by it.

Thursday’s post will begin to examine in more detail both what van Gogh thought painting should be about, and also the issue of whether he died by his own hand or someone else’s.

IMG_2305

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Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

(Geoffrey Nash in Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Touching the Universal

Picking up the threads of Prideaux’s engaging exploration of Munch’s life, she feels his interest in the spiritual spanned his entire life.

Prideaux defines the Fatal Destiny photographs (page 255) as reaching ‘right back to his long-standing interest in the religious idea of a parallel world of spirits… the ideas can be traced back to his own speculations about what unseen world might lie beyond the borders of the perceptible… a world that we intuit through our unconscious…’ She feels his background (page 215):

. . . gave him [an] interest in ‘the magical area at the borders of creative life and thought, where psychology, art, science and religion overlap.’

She makes the link between creativity and spirit quite explicit (page 82):

The only reality that mattered was the creative life of the spirit through which individuals could achieve a sense of identity with the Absolute, the eternal ‘essence’ of the universe . . .

This universality is something we can all connect with (page 141-45):

His quest was to touch the universal nerve in art; the perception common to all. . . . A symbol must be an expression with manifold meanings, a resonance in the universal echo chamber of the mind. . . . his paintings did, on occasions, clarify humanity’s one-ness-in-being with the cosmos and cosmic forces.

It enabled him to build on the insights of the new Romantics (page 123):

To acknowledge that there was chaos did not mean that there would be no form in art.… A positive form that accommodated post-Christian chaos; that was the task.

This is issue is one I have wrestled with in terms of poetry, but it is also central to pictorial art as well. In discussing whether Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is a poem in a sense that I can relate to, I concluded:

In the end, with a skeleton poem, rather than enjoying the shared creative enterprise offered by an achieved poem, the reader has to perform instead the miracle of raising the dead. We have to exert tremendous effort to put life back into a collection of words that I sometimes suspect might have been more stones than bones to start with. The poet’s desire to pare it all back, even at the risk of creating a brick-wall puzzle, has killed any hope of our finding a poem: even in this case, where the puzzle is not too great, we have a fossil poem at best – bone turned to stone and quite dead – where it would take too much specialist expertise to recreate a sense of the living original.

Maybe that’s what the poet wanted to achieve as an expression of his take on the mechanistic modern world, but it’s not the kind of poem I want to read: it seems to me to capitulate to, rather than effectively protest against the left-brain desiccation of the life world that poetry should, in my view, resist at all costs. The distillation process here has not enhanced the potency of the poem, as the poet perhaps expected, but made it a quisling instead.

The spiritual significance of life was a thread that ran through his major work –The Frieze – composed of a changing sequence of paintings, something he lived with and worked on for decades (page 211):

The Frieze lived with him constantly in his head; it was part of his interior life.

Its circularity, though something never successfully reinforced in any exhibition, was an aspect of his essentially spiritual insight into the meaning for him of the recurring patterns of material existence (page 214):

To hang The Frieze in a circular chamber would have been the ideal format . . . in such a chamber, the last painting of the cycle would flow seamlessly into the first.

The Sun (for source of image see link)

The Impact of his Breakdown

Munch could not contain his demons till after his breakdown, but initially after his recovery (page 269-71):

. . . he found he had lost his ability to paint. Panic set in. He had sacrificed his genius on the altar of sanity. [Galloping Horse reassured him.] [W]hatever it is in terms of symbol, it must have restored Munch’s faith that he was still capable of the highest painting.

After recovering from his breakdown and recovering his ability to paint, he wrote (page 250):

‘I have stayed faithful to the guardian spirits of art and that is why they have not deserted me now.’

Prideaux describes his painting The Sun (page 277) as ‘a milestone, demonstrating that he had not lost the capacity to invent an image of enduring significance for himself.’ This was of critical importance to him, given that (page 48): ‘He was to say again and again, that art had given him a reason for living.’

Coda

Prideaux’s book, at least for me, manages to capture and convey a sense of how a man, so damaged by early experience that it seemed he would never rise beyond an exploration of the clash between death and sexuality, nonetheless eventually managed in his art, and perhaps to a lesser extent in his life, to transcend that limiting dynamic and explore the very edges of experience and possibly beyond.

I have shared this, not just because the book is brilliant and well worth reading, but also because I suspect I am not the only one to have done Munch’s genius less than justice. Bringing him to your attention in this way seemed a good idea. I can’t resist ending the post with another image inspired by the death of his sister, Sophie.

Death in the Sickroom (scanned from the Taschen edition)

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

Moving on from a focus on his life to Munch’s art, we can see it was rooted in sensory experience. The surroundings that triggered The Scream, which are described in Sue Prideaux’s excellent biography, illustrate this powerfully (page 151]:

The main slaughterhouse for the city was up there, and so was the hospital, in which Laura [his sister] had been incarcerated. He had probably gone up there to visit her; there was no other discernible reason. The screams of the animals being slaughtered in combination with the screams of the insane were reported to be a terrible thing to hear.

However, the end result was meant to transcend even the most powerful transitory material details that were its origin. The term ‘soul painting,’ used frequently by Munch, captures this intention.

What did he mean by that exactly?

Soul painting

Perhaps it is no real surprise to find in a letter from one of his currently most admired precursors an overlap in the language both Munch and van Gogh use. Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272):

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

This is not just a one-off from van Gogh. He refers to this kind of approach in various places (page 272):

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

In a way though, Munch seems to have taken this to another level. As Prideaux puts it, when she describes the nature of Munch’s influence once his fame was established (page 238):

‘Soul paintings’ galore were created in the wake of ‘the powerful dreamer’ . . .

How can we explain what ‘soul’ painting is? Not very easily as it turns out, but this is my best shot.

It’s about truth (page viii) ‘I have always thought and felt that my art might be able to help others to clarify their own search for truth,’ and meaning (page 35) ‘In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.’ It entails penetrating beneath the surface of things (page 169): Réja, an art critic referred to Munch’s ‘ability to pierce the exterior.’ Some of his potential subjects feared this ability, one in particular refusing to be painted, saying (page 268): ‘He sees right through us and turns us inside out.’

This does not mean he ignores the exterior (page 257): ‘his own constant struggle as an artist [lies] in the depiction of the inner by means of the outer . . .’ This was as true at the end of 1904 before his breakdown, as it was after it (page 237):

Even as he felt most estranged from the world and most conscious that the black bird of insanity was making its dangerous escape from the cage of his soul, the white bird of outward appearance was stretching its wings to fly into an annus mirabilis.

The Night in Saint-Cloud (scanned from the Taschen edition)

He turned aspects of the physical environment into a trope that is repeated when needed (page 133):

[He] set The Kiss in the same corner as the blue-hazed room in Saint-Cloud where he had set the figure of himself/his father in The Night in Saint-Cloud. The room had now become spiritualised into a universal chamber of his brain, a location he could revisit for the rest of his life.

And memory plays an important role in this process (page 305):

‘I paint not what I see but what I saw’ was an oft-repeated maxim that he used to indicate the vital role that the depths of memory played in transforming transitory insights into timeless themes.

When he succeeds the word ‘soul’ keeps appearing. Even a painting has one, which suggests we shouldn’t always take his use of the term too literally (page 231): ‘Each physical painting aspires towards its idea, its eternal prototype, which may be called its soul.’

Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (page 201):

‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

Not surprisingly his influence lived on after his death.

For instance, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, Alice Neel termed herself a ‘collector of souls,’ perhaps indirectly acknowledging Munch, whom she admired even though she explicitly denied he had influenced her early work (Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life– edited by Jeremy Lewison – page 31:

‘But Munch I never saw in the beginning. I did a painting, and you’ll swear that I was influenced by Munch, but I hadn’t even heard of him yet.’

It is also true to say that the word ‘soul’ in this context has not lost all its spiritual significance. More on Munch and his spiritual take on things next time.

Ginny by Alice Neel (from Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life)

Munch’s Inger in Black and Violet (from the Taschen edition)

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. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine– page 88)

Even as he felt most estranged from the world and most conscious that the black bird of insanity was making its dangerous escape from the cage of his soul, the white bird of outward appearance was stretching its wings to fly into an annus mirabilis.

(Prideaux – page 237)

More about the Man

In the previous post I referred to key early losses that impacted heavily on Munch throughout his life, and left their mark on his art as well. There is more needs to be said about his personality, scarred as it was by these tragedies, and the ways he tried to manage his post-traumatic reactions.

His relationships with others were fraught, especially perhaps with women, as Prideaux explains in her biography (page 191): ‘. . . he fled if [women] got too close . . . but if they did not, then he felt alone.’

He felt that his art had benefited from his troubled state of mind (page 229):

‘I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.’

He makes the link quite explicit (page 251):

‘My art is grounded in reflections over being different to others. My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.’

A key and traumatic early relationship coloured his attitude to women for the rest of his life and culminated in a shooting which damaged the finger of his left hand (page 227):

For the rest of his life he hid his finger. . . . The feeling that his life had been marked by a heavy doom from birth had been greatly increased by this visible sign.

This was not the end of the impact of a gun on his life. Drink contributed to poor impulse control so that, after a drunken spat with an artist he was painting, he later fired at him with a shotgun from the window of his house. He missed (page 237): ’Trembling, he withdrew [the gun], realising how close he had come to murder.’

Alcohol, as well as frequenting prostitutes and heavy smoking, were taking their toll. In the end he broke down completely (page 248): ‘[Jacobsen, his psychiatrist,] correctly diagnosed Munch as suffering from dementia paralytica as a result of alcohol poisoning.’

As a result of his, for that time, enlightened treatment (page 251):

He accepted the idea that from now on he would have to confine himself to ‘tobacco-free cigars alcohol-free drinks and poison-free women.’

He was afraid that his sanity had been bought at the price of his art: more of that later. He used novel ways of activating his creativity (page 294):

The dissection of [a] cadaver was not the only time Munch had felt the need to shock himself during the later part of his life… Aware of the danger of lapsing into the emotional bluntness of middle age… he requested a butcher if he might be present while a bull was slaughtered.

When his end approached, his characteristic stubborn curiosity determined his behaviour (page 323):

He was very adamant that he did not want to die in his sleep; he wanted consciously to experience the last struggle.

Hopefully that has conveyed some sense of how powerfully Prideaux confronts us with Munch, the man.

Now for the treatment of how Munch felt this all related to his art, before we focus in the final post on his art and the explicit ideas behind it.

Anxiety from The Frieze of Life (scanned from Prideaux’s biography)

His Life in his Art

Prideaux’s introduction flags up where this is likely to take us now (page vii):

Munch was twenty-eight when he embarked on the lifelong effort to paint his soul’s diary . . [something which] Munch described [as] ‘the terrible struggle inside the cage of the soul.’

She also highlights his high regard for a Russian writer in this respect (page 49):

‘No one in art,’ he told a friend, ‘has yet penetrated as far as Dostoevsky into the mystical realms of the soul…’ [T]hroughout Edvard’s life, Dostoevsky was the writer of greatest importance to him. . . [He] succeeded in conveying in parallel the outer and the inner life. This was exactly what Edvard wanted to achieve with paint. ‘Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses, so I was trying to dissect souls.’

The Frieze of Life, a key body of work (page 64) is ‘a sequence of paintings showing the progress of a soul through life,’ fulfilling his ambition (page 81) ‘to paint soul art.’

She goes into more detail than is possible here into two key experiences in about 1890 (pages 118-120):

Two intensely private and ecstatic visions came to him in two separate moments of mystical transport . .

He first came as he ascended the sun-warmed hill of Saint-Cloud. . . . He perceived [a cock’s crow, smoked dissolving into nothing and green shoots appearing] ‘as metamorphoses. How foolish to deny the existence of the soul.’

The second vision came in altogether darker circumstances [involving a Spanish dancer. He concluded as a result] he would paint themes that were timeless, personal, and in some manner sacred; pictures in which could be read the psychological reality of man’s connection to the world-soul that he had glimpsed from the sunlit hillside and in this fusion of music and colour.

It helped shape what turned out to be a long-term project, perhaps lasting the whole of his life in some respects (page 132):

He had been thinking for a long time about the concept of a series of paintings depicting the secret life of the soul.

Self=portrait with wine bottle (scanned from the Taschen edition)

Discussions of the self-portrait he painted with a bottle of wine nearby have interpreted the two waiters springing out of his shoulders as symbolising his state of mind. He was deeply divided as a human being (page 228): ‘My soul is like two wild birds, each flying in its own direction.’ I’m no stranger to a divided mind as my sequence about my Parliament of Selves testifies, which obviously served to increase my interest in Munch.

It is not surprising, given this inner split, that conflict should be a key element in his work when it was so rooted in his deepest experience of self (page 254):

‘I am making a study of the soul, as I can observe myself closely and use myself as an anatomical testing ground for this soul study. The main thing is to make an art work and a soul study…

Munch’s later reading perhaps gives some sense of that this might have been like for him (page 292):

Ludvig Ravensberg noted that Munch was reading Plato’s Phaedrus at the time. A central image of the text is that of the soul as two horses harnessed together. One is light and seeks to rise upward, while the other is a dark and pulls downwards. [The driver] seeks to control the balance between two conflicting impulses in the soul.

A sense of divisions within is not rare and not restricted to creative artists, as my own experience testifies. However, it is perhaps worth flagging up two other examples of this phenomenon in highly creative people. I’ve explored Pessoa’s experience of this at some length elsewhere on this blog. Briefly for present purposes, in a post of 2016, I wrote:

For the first time since I read him in the late 90s, this September I was triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

Pessoa himself clarifies exactly what he meant by heteronym (A Centenary Pessoa – page 133):

A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; the heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be.

What I had not remembered until yesterday, when I re-read the introduction Xon de Ros placed at the start of her book on Antonio Machado, that he also experienced a similar thing (pages 1-2):

 . . . His most memorable dramatis personae were not written for the theatre but for the press. These were his apocryphal creations, mainly Juan de Mairena and Abel Martín. . . . one of Mairena’s fragments [reads] ‘¿pensáis . . . que un hombre no puede llevar dentro de sí más de un poeta? Lo difícil sería lo contrario, que no llevase más que uno.’ [do you think . . . that a man cannot carry more than one poet inside? The opposite would be what is difficult, that he doesn’t carry more than one.]

Machado specifically refers to the ‘essential heterogeneity of being.’ From a spiritual point of view this raises interesting questions which I have explored elsewhere and need not be investigated here. What is intriguing is why this heterogeneity has only relatively recently been reflected so explicitly by creative artists and writers.

Perhaps we are now ready to look more closely at the art, rather than the life. This could be shaping up to be the most time I’ve spent blogging about a painter since the Van Gogh sequence.

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