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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

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 fourth of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next four weeks.

Last time Vincent van Gogh — Encountering the Art (3/5) 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.’ (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.

Van Gogh in Tulips at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

Van Gogh in Tulips at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

Colour

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, tomorrow I will try to integrate some kind of understanding of van Gogh’s spiritual perspective alongside a consideration of his mental state.

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‘El poeta es un pescador …. de peces que puedan vivir después de pescados.’

[Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape  – page 185)

‘ The poet is a fisherman… of fish capable of staying alive after being hauled out.’

(Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems – Page 7)

The water is deep. Sometimes from far
down invisible messages arrive.
Often it seems it is far more than fish
that we seek; we wait for the
withheld answer to an insoluble
problem

(R. S. Thomas Collected Poems – page 327)

Scanned from Xon de Ros – The Poetry of Antonio Machado

In February last year I declared ‘I am currently going back and re-reading the poetry of Antonio Machado after being triggered by my encounter with The Forty Rules of Love.’ It has clearly taken me some time to get to the point where I feel able to put on record the result of my revisiting his poetry and related books.

Initially I wanted to write about Machado because aspects of his life and the themes he repeatedly returned to resonated for me. As I explored further, reading the views of others such as Xon de Ros, Alan S Trueblood and Don Paterson, I realized his poetry also related to issues of concern to me, but of a different kind. Perversely, it is those I will begin with in detail, after a helicopter biography, before then exploring the themes that attract me in the context of his life.

It might be worth mentioning now, before it gets forgotten, that, to my way of thinking, the UK poet closest to Machado in spirit if not in technique is the Welsh priest-poet R S Thomas, another of my favourites. For instance, they share a similar relationship with God. R S Thomas typically states (Collected Poems – page 361):

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.

Only to have been anticipated by Machado, who wrote (Trueblood – page 227) of ‘The God of distance and of absence.’

There are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotation is clear.

His Life

My sister’s dying four years before I was born triggered my parents’ consequent grief and clouded my childhood. Machado’s life was overshadowed by death in a similar way to mine, which accounts for part of my sense of affinity with him.

He married in 1909. His young wife died of consumption in August 1911. The moment she died is captured in a poem I quoted at the start of my sequence on Los Solitarios, where you’ll also find the original Spanish (the English is my literal translation):

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

He later wrote (Trueblood – page 3):

‘Five years in the Sofia country, now sacred to me – I married there and there I lost my wife, whom I adored – oriented my eyes and heart towards the quintessentially Castilian.’

Xon de Ros places this in context – Leonor was 15 when Machado married her (page 240):

The union, even by the standards of the time, was scandalous – he was heckled outside the church in what the poet would painfully recall years later as one of the worst days of his life.

She describes him as (page 242) ‘. . . one of the most haunted poets of modern Spain.’

Gerald Brennan conveys a vivid picture of the man in the eyes of his contemporaries (page 434):

. . .shabbily dressed, sunk in his own thoughts, almost always alone, the picture of a provincial school master run to seed till one looked at him attentively, both timid and proud at the same time – that is how it appeared to Rafael Alberti in the 1920s. His friends, other elderly provincials: his occupations, walking and reading: his severity, that of the inward-looking man who has had to suffer all the boredom of the classroom.…

Writing his biography, according to Xon de Ros, was an intimidating challenge (pages 240-41):

Gibson [his biographer] is at pains to record a life that looks formidably boring. . . So uneventful is it that the biographer finds himself grasping at [straws] . . . Machado’s life was the life of the mind, that of a contemplative poet.

Xon de Ros clarifies what this might mean in terms of his poetry (page 208): ‘[Wallace Stevens’s] meditative and philosophical poetry has much in common with Machado’s.’

Maybe, as she says (page 200), in his renderings of Machado called The Eyes, Paterson also got the point in his translation of La Noria (literally The Treadmill, in this case working a waterwheel):

In Paterson’s poem the poor old mule is transformed into ‘my wretched old pal’ in the second stanza, suggesting a kind of intimacy which is almost a self-recognition as the poet beholds himself in the mule.

The photograph at the top of the post, taken towards the end of his life, captures this sense of weariness.

His life ended tragically. His more famous much younger contemporary, Federico García Lorca, had been murdered by Fascists in Granada in August 1936: he was 38. In poor health already, Machado fled Franco’s Spain in 1938 trying to save himself, but died in France a few months later on 22 February 1939 at the age of 63.

Issues of Concern raised by his Art

Politics:

A problem that seems to vex a number of critics and literary historians is whether poetry should be political. While I would agree in terms of party politics, many themes that poets draw upon have political implications that are not sectarian and need not be experienced as divisive. As far as I can tell, though, as a result of his education, (Xon de Ros – page 3) ‘liberal principles became part and parcel of Machado’s lifelong ideological makeup, but his was (Trueblood – page 4) ‘. . . a profound conviction that poetry should remain apolitical and that the artist’s integrity required that he keep his distance from centres of power…’

Xon de Ros (page 210) claims that the words quoted from Gray’s Constructive Destruction describe qualities inherent in Machado’s approach: the ‘valorization of the unsystematic over the systematic and a concomitant suspicion of all systems.’ This echoes Sue Prideaux’s perception of Munch, whose true genius I only recently discovered, (her biography – page 326) as ‘an implacable opponent of all –isms . . .’

Early in his life, Machado’s views were mistakenly seen as allied to Franco’s. However, Xon de Ros clarifies that (page 182):

. . . the identification of his work with the Francoist ideology was soon questioned by critics whose vindication of the formalist qualities of his poetry implies his realignment with the poetics of political dissent. . Whereas Lorca’s status as a Republican martyr is based on his political sympathies, Machado’s exile, a trauma which contributed to his death, was the direct result of his political action in favour of the Republic. . .

Clarity

Accessibility is something that matters to me, as my sequence on what I call brick-wall poetry illustrates. Trueblood argues that he is reaching out to a wider audience than a poetic elite (page 5):

He seeks forms of reintegration through dialogue in communion with his fellow-man, his society, his age, and, more broadly, in speculations on a scheme of things from which God has withdrawn.

However, the degree of his accessibility may not be consistent. Xon de Ros flags up an interesting system for categorizing poems which I had not met before, probably because my ambivalence towards Ezra Pound kept me at a distance from his ideas (page 14):

The main strands of Machado’s poetics,… broadly correspond to the three ‘kinds of poetry’ . . . described by Ezra Pound in the late 1920s. . . While the first, ‘in which words are charged with some musical property’ can be associated with the symbolist emphasis of Soledades, Galerías, Otras Poemas, the second, involving ‘a casting of images upon the visual imagination,’ is more prevalent in Campos de Castilla. The third, characterised by Pound as ‘a dance of intellect among words,’ finds more extensive treatment in Nuevas Canciones.

My brick-wall problem may emerge when I’m dealing with Machado’s ‘dance of intellect among words’ – the label does not suggest an appetizing experience for me.

It is clear that obscurity creeps into some of Machado’s poetry. Trueblood pins down the source of the problem (page 32):

The enigmas and obscurities of all this poetry are neither obscurantist nor wilful. They result from the effort to confront fundamental and, often anguishing, perplexities, dilemmas of existence and of mortality.

I’ll be looking at further influences in this direction later. In the meantime this poem conveys both Machado’s sense of loss and his search for God. First is the original Spanish, and next Trueblood’s translation, both from his book. Last comes my rather melodramatic attempt to capture my sense of it in English.

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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)

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 third of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next three weeks.

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.

Anyway, I’ll take a deep breath and plunge into the paintings I’ve chosen to focus on which 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.

Harvest

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, at that point in human history before the large-scale mechanisation of farming, had 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 the 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, 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 a 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.

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I hadn’t bought a book on Shakespeare for about a year, so when my eyes fell upon Emma Smith’s lively approach to the Bard in This Is Shakespeare resistance was a lost cause.

Her take on most of the plays is interesting.

She resists stereotypical categorizations and tries instead to look at the play exactly as it is, and points out how Shakespeare in turn resists our attempts to pin down his exact intentions by such manoeuvres as omitting critical stage directions that would reveal to the actor how the character is supposed to feel as they speak, or even failing to provide any speech at all, leaving the audience to interpret the silence according to how the director/actor is signalling us to do.

My interest was particularly hooked by her approach to two plays which I had to teach in an earlier incarnation – Hamlet and King Lear. A bit more on that later.

Let’s start with Hamlet.

She looks at how changing tastes have impacted upon the play’s reputation (page 163):

We are so used to seeing a Hamlet that anticipates modernity, a play that is more popular and more appreciated four centuries after its composition than it ever was at the time, but it is hard for us to register the ways it is deeply retrospective in tone.

I won’t rehearse her detailed reasons for thinking the play is looking backwards rather than forwards: it’s partly to do with the cross-generational names of Hamlet and Fortinbras, both named after their fathers. It’s enough now perhaps to repeat here her reason for attributing some kind of nostalgia to the play (page 169):

Like Elizabethan culture more widely, the play prefers to look backwards rather than forwards: to dare to think forwards, to a time post-Elizabeth, was a crime.

She then looks forwards at how the play’s status has changed over time (page 224):

For the nineteenth century, Hamlet was identified as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, as clever, modishly alienated men saw themselves reflected in its cerebral and isolated protagonist. But as the 20th century unleashed it’s mad cruelties at Passchendaele, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, King Lear insinuated itself into the cultural imagination instead. The play registered as the ultimate modern tragedy of desolation in which, as the Duke of Albany recognizes, ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself,/Like monsters of the deep“ (4.2.49-50). . . .  A. D. Nuttall traced the shift from art as moral to art as provocation: ‘It is now virtually unimaginable that a reviewer of a new play should praise it by saying that it offers solace or comfort. Conversely the adjective uncomfortable is automatically read as praise’: the newly cruel King Lear whispers its siren song of nihilism into our willing postmodern ears.

Hamlet has always been a favourite play of Shakespeare’s for me. I’ve written at length about aspects of why this might be. At one point I explained:

Given my default position of doubt, it’s no wonder that Hamlet is the Shakespeare play I resonate to most strongly. ‘Now could I do it pat!’ except he can’t. Instinct gives way to the scanning of intellect. He stands ‘mammering,’ as Othello scathingly refers to this kind of hesitation.

It is intriguing to note at this point that if Othello had been in Hamlet’s shoes, Hamlet would have been much shorter and far less interesting, probably ending at Act I, Scene 2, shortly after Othello had left the battlements and cut his uncle’s throat before breakfast, whereas, if Hamlet had starred in OthelloDesdemona would probably still be alive, with Iago on a perilous mission somewhere in Africa, probably never to return. Neither play would have worked as a tragedy, or even as a comedy for that matter, as it would have lacked the necessary mismatch between character and situation.[1]

I still remember more lines from Hamlet than Lear, most of them from the soliloquies of its protagonist. Some of the most well-known quotes, and seemingly straightforward out of context, are as double-edged and difficult to definitively interpret as anything we are about to look at. Take the much quoted (Act I, Scene iii, line 78): ‘to thine own self be true.’ It seems straightforward enough until you remember it is said by a corrupt time-serving sycophant to his son. My marginal note to this whole speech, when teaching Hamlet was, ‘Ironically, if he had been able to heed such advice, he might have lived longer.’

Lear, perhaps because of its bleakness as well as Edgar’s interminable ramblings, has never stood as high in my estimation, though I never wished to go as far as mutilating it in order to make it more enjoyable, which is what happened late in the 17thcentury (page 226-27):

Nahun Tate . . . rewrote the play in 1681 as The History of King Lear.… This version notably reworks the ending of King Lear. Tate leaves a chastened but restored Lear and Gloucester alive at the end, men who have learnt from their experiences of doubting those who truly love them. The two faithful children of these parallel fathers, Cordelia and Edgar, are married. . . . His amelioration of that conclusion gained its critical stamp of approval when it was quoted by Samuel Johnson in the general introduction to his important 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

Eighteenth century taste was delighted. Good was rewarded and only evil punished, exactly as it should be. This situation did not last long (page 227):

Inevitably, Dr Johnson‘s discomfort at Shakespeare’s King Lear was on precisely the grounds that the next generation found so electrifying. Neoclassical preoccupations with regularity and probability and the moral obligation to reward virtue and punish vice was swept away by the romantic embrace of emotional extremity as a version of the sublime.

Nor should we complacently feel that the struggle to decide on exactly what the play is about, and how valuable its insights are into the human condition, has now been resolved in our more enlightened times.

We might be inclined to dismiss out of hand attempts to redemptively Christianise the play as A. C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight tried to do. We need, though, to be careful not to assume that we’ve nailed it with our latest take, when their attempts to soften the bleakness of the play give way to existentialist endorsements of it (page 230-31):

Kott takes an existentialist view of the tragedy as the absurdist machinations of a world drained of providential intent. If for Wilson Knight King Lear is a kind of bad-weather Pilgrim’s Progress, for Kott it is a blank verse Waiting for Godot.

As readers of this blog will know, I have struggled to accept that bleak despairing depictions of the human lot are basically more authentic than more positive ones (see the Los Solitarios sequence for more). I will keep it brief here.

Kenneth Tynan expressed the opinion (page 448) that ‘for the author of Godot’ passing the time in the dark ‘is not only what drama is about but also what life is about.’

Cronin, Beckett’s biographer, has no problem with where this takes us (pages 378-79:

. . . reduced as his characters are to the extreme simplicities of need and satisfaction, indeed by virtue of the fact that they are so reduced, Beckett does succeed in laying bare much of the reality of human situation as well as the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions.

He endorses Beckett’s vision as more authentic than most of the work that preceded him (page 383): ‘. . . one could argue that the Beckett man, in all his abysmal aspects, is ‘truer’ to humanity’s real lineaments than most of what has gone before.’ His conclusion is that (page 384):

For 3000 years the bias of literature had been tilted one way, towards the heroic and the lyrical-poetic. Now it has been tilted the other, a process which began with the appearance of the first modern anti-heroes and culminated in Beckett.

Toynbee resonated with me when he called for a more inclusive vision, saying that Malloy expressed ‘an attitude to life which cries out for at least some opposing one.’

What makes this hole issue even more interesting in terms of deciding about Shakespeare’s intentions are the changes he made to his sources (pages 233-34):

It’s often pointed out – Dr Johnson mentioned it in his disapproval of Cordelia’s fate – that Shakespeare’s historical and other sources do not end in the way his play does. As for most of Shakespeare’s works, there is already established a well-known story and part of what is well known about it is that it has a happy ending: reinstating Lear to his throne, to be succeeded by Cordelia.[2]

This strongly suggests that bleakness of this magnitude was the playwright’s intention. This is further confirmed by the evidence that Shakespeare made bleakening changes to the original version of his own play (page 234):

Shakespeare even revised his own text: So the ending of King Lear is a prominent act of rewriting, and is itself rewritten. King Lear exists in two early and distinct texts, printed in 1608 and in 1623. They are different in hundreds of small, and scores of larger, ways. [The first is The History of King Lear and the second is The Tragedy of King Lear].

A critical example is probably the easiest to consider here (page 235 – my emphasis):

One example of this might be the detail around Gloucester’s torture at the end of Act 3. Gloucester is blinded on stage in a horrific scene of brutality, leaving him describing his world as ‘all dark and comfortless’ as he is thrust out to “smell/his way to Dover“. The History has a short but telling sequence that is later cut. In this version, two servants prepare to care for the wounded Gloucester… and [end] praying ‘heaven help him!’. It’s a moment of tenderness: not everyone is indifferent to Gloucester’s suffering, and servants behave with more decency than their masters. Without this, the play has no corrective to its own cruelties.

Interestingly the Arden edition I used in teaching Lear in the early 70s has the more humane History version of the blinding episode, whereas the Jonathan Bate RSC Complete Works has only the bleak version, while the Stephen Greenblatt Norton Edition prints both versions in parallel. How this change might influence an audience’s reaction is illustrated by the notes I made in the margins of my Arden edition. You can see, in the illustration, that I had written in the left-hand margin of page 144: ‘Humane values beginning to reassert themselves. The turning point.’ This feeling persists even at the dark ending of the play where the Arden uses the later bleaker edition upon which to base its text. By the side of the newly introduced line (Act V, Scene 3, line 311) ‘Look there, look there!’ I wrote ‘Dies partly of joy.’

This raises the question again: what was his real intention? Having Lear respond possibly to the spirit of his dead daughter could be seen as intending to invoke a sense of a compensating afterlife. Does this cancel out the earlier deletion of the compassionate servants? The Arden edition retains both the deletion and the addition in their version of the play, without as far as I can establish acknowledging that it has done so.

Perhaps we can go no further in understanding Shakespeare’s intentions than Smith describes, admittedly from her perspective that he loves to tease our understanding in this way thus permitting many different and equally valid interpretations of his text (page 237):

So Shakespeare is the first of the long history of literal and figurative rewriters of King Lear. His saddest play has prompted extraordinary spiritual, philosophical and artistic efforts to ameliorate its desolation, and the history of those interventions is a cultural history of just what it is we want from our tragic art: comfort, exhilaration or dissection.

Where do I stand in terms of this ambiguity? Firmly on the side of its being evidence of his genius. If you are really going to be able to render experience convincingly maybe you have to make your rendering as ambivalent as life itself. None the less I prefer the more balanced take on reality offered by the inclusion of the compassionate servants, otherwise he may have tilted the scales too far to the darkness to be completely authentic in my view.

Footnotes:

[1]. I was shocked to discover (or perhaps to be reminded) that I wasn’t the first person to think of this possibility. In December 2015, six months after posting this, I read, on page 149 of Mark Edmundson’s brilliant Self & Soul, ‘A. C. Bradley has said that if you put Hamlet into Othello’s play, the prince will quickly make Iago [out] for what he is and just laugh him to scorn. In Hamlet’s place, Othello would draw his sword and slice Claudius nave to chops in the first act. In either case: no play.’ I definitely read Bradley 50 years ago. Was this then a case of cryptoamnesia? I think so. What does that suggest about the rest of what I write? I dread to think and feel obliged to apologise to anyone I have inadvertently plagiarised.

[2]. See also John Kerrigan Shakespeare’s Originality, pages 63-82, for a fuller discussion of the changes Shakespeare made to his sources in the writing of King Lear.

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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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