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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

As I have brought Shelley back into the frame with yesterday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! There are examples of trauma in his life at the point I take it up, that I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning. This phase in the sequence also looks at some general principles that may be relevant to creativity in general as well as Shelley in particular.

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!

subliminal

Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

For insights shed on this from the trauma literature see my earlier see the three immediately preceding posts accessible from the links at the start of this post..

The really difficult bit starts with the next post tomorrow – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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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)

The recent revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear (about 20 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), as well as the recent Guardian long-read article by  on the latest exhibition of his work in Amsterdam, made it inevitable I would decide to republish my blog sequence of last year, which attempted to capture my complex and powerful responses to his work. This is the third of five posts scheduled to come out each day this week.

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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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!

subliminal

Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

The really difficult bit starts on Thursday – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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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)

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

The Paintings At Last

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

What is my response to his paintings?

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

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

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

You get the drift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 has to be paid, year on year.

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

Those were my immediate reactions to this particular painting.

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

Blossoming Almond Tree VG 1890

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vase with Irises VG 1890

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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