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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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Glass table with book & VG

. . . 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.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

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 last of five posts which came out each day of the past week.

Art and Illness

I have blogged at length elsewhere in these pages about the possible links between art and mental health so I relished the opportunity, at the end of this sequence of posts, to see if what van Gogh wrote from his own experience sheds any further light on the matter, over and above what I have touched on in the earlier ones.

I think I need to take this in three steps.

First I need to look at what the letters say about the actual experiences. From there I can move to looking at any conclusions he and his brother may have drawn about the nature of van Gogh’s problem and the relation it has to his art. Lastly, I will add some further information tentatively into the mix to try and make my own sense of the matter. To do so I will draw, amongst other things, on a very interesting account of the possible epilepsy of van Gogh’s American near contemporary Emily Dickinson.

  1. His Experience

It is in the later letters, after his rift with Gauguin, that we get the clearest account of what the breakdowns feel like from the inside. The first thing he mentions (page 444) when speaking ‘of my own condition – I am so grateful for yet another thing. I’ve noticed that others, too, hear sounds and strange voices during their attacks, as I did, and that things seem to change before their very eyes.’ The reason he has been given for these hallucinations follows shortly after (page 445): his problem was in both sight and hearing at the same time ‘which is usual at the outset of epilepsy.’

In Arles, after an attack in July 1889, he describes what happened (page 449): ‘I apparently pick up dirt from the ground and eat it.’ De Leeuw expands on this: ‘A swollen throat made taking food difficult. Because he had also put paint in his mouth and had drunk turpentine, he was ordered not to do any painting until further notice…’ There were mentions of the parallels with Dostoyevsky. Referring to Delacroix (page 452), he wonders whether he will be the same ‘in the sense that my sad illness makes me work in pent-up fury – very slowly – but without leaving off from morning till night – and – that is probably the secret – to work long and slowly.’ Interestingly, he dates the beginning of his problems to Paris (page 454) ‘when all this was coming on.’

He worries (page 459) whether ‘a more violent attack could destroy my ability to paint for good.’ Grimly he next observes ‘I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.’ He refers also (page 460) to the attacks taking ‘a religious turn.’ In late 1889 he had another violent attack in which (page 475) ‘he had again tried to poison himself by swallowing paint,’ as a result his doctor ‘decided once more that until further notice he must confine himself to drawing.’

Dr Gachet

Dr Gachet

On his move to Auvers-sur-Oise, he made a sardonic observation about Dr Gachet, the homeopath and psychiatrist who will play such a key role in his last few months of life (page 489):

Gachet, however, was not only an eccentric but seemed to be at least as neurotic as the afflicted artist, which caused van Gogh to observe, “Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don’t they both end up in the ditch?”

During this most vexed period, the art he produced was receiving high praise and greater recognition, including from Gauguin who wrote (page 494):

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, . . . .

His brother’s sudden problems, mainly about his work, money issues and his child’s health, came as a stressful shock to van Gogh, not least because his brother was turning to him for advice and perhaps even eventual financial support, not things that Vincent felt well-equipped to provide.

  1. His Perspective

He is very explicit that art at least in part depends upon a high degree of control, something not associated in his mind with neurosis or mental disturbance (page 206):

What is drawing? How does one come to it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How is one to get through that wall – since pounding at it is of no use? In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it steadily and patiently. . . . . As it is with art so it is with other things. And great things are not something accidental, they must be distinctly willed.

He is of the same view as Myers was, that inspiration needs to be controlled if it is to be effective (page 209):

He . . . mentioned the fact that as soon as the landscape painter and Martinus Boks was admitted to a lunatic asylum, his colleagues’ appreciation of his work began to increase. Van Gogh observed this phenomenon with not a little irony. That his own work would be linked to his mental illness by later generations renders these comments particularly poignant. In general, however, his reactions to his colleagues’ afflictions were very down-to-earth. Thus he had nothing positive to say about the effects of [another artist’s] condition on his work.

A related point comes when, in powerful terms, he compares his own situation to his brother’s (page 380-81):

Consider . . . . the new painters still isolated, poor, treated as madmen, and because of this treatment actually going insane, at least as far as their social life is concerned – then remember that you are doing exactly the same job as these primitive painters, since you provide them with money and sell their canvases, which enables them to produce others.

If a painter ruins himself emotionally by working hard at his painting, and renders himself unfit for so much else, family life, &c., &c., if, consequently, he paints not only with colour but with self-sacrifice and self-denial and a broken heart, then your own work is not only no better paid, but costs you, in exactly the same way as a painter, this half-deliberate, half-accidental eclipse of your personality.

In his period of incarceration there is a revealing exchange of letters between the brothers (page 447): Theo praises van Gogh for the intensity of the colour in his recent pictures and for having conveyed ‘the quintessence of your thoughts about nature and living beings,’ while expressing anxiety about how much ‘that brain of yours must have laboured, and how you have risked everything in venturing to the very brink, where vertigo is inevitable.’

Vincent does seem to feel at one point, after the break with Gauguin, that (page 428) ‘I must start afresh, but I shall never again be able to reach the heights to which the illness to some extent led me.’ The caveat – ‘to some extent’ – is probably significant.

Overall he does not see a close positive relationship between art and mental breakdown. He does see some kind of relationship though. This is not conforming to the conventional 19th Century myth of believing that being mad is an essential prerequisite of genius, but rather in terms of how the pressures society places on the artist can precipitate a breakdown. When you take into account his acknowledgement, in another letter already quoted, that their shared heredity may be making a contribution to their instability he is not undermining this main point. Van Gogh had 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.

  1. My Perspective
FWH Myers

FWH Myers

The ideas that the Kellys explore in depth in their comprehensive survey Irreducible Mind is of great relevance here. I will shortly be republishing them. For present purposes I’ll simply use one quotation from that sequence. Myers had little patience with those in the 19th Century who conflated genius and madness and subscribed to a ‘degeneracy’ theory. However, he did manage to sift some flecks of truth from its silt (page 471):

… [G]enius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service of supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.

On the issue of epilepsy, which is the diagnosis favoured by the authors of Van Gogh: The Life though not by Wilfred Niels Arnold who backs the porphyria hypothesis (see below), I was reminded of the possibility, explored by Lyndall Gordon in her book Lives Like Loaded Guns, that Emily Dickinson might well have suffered from epilepsy. Regardless of whether this theory should prove true, her treatment of the problem in a 19th Century context gives us a sense of what van Gogh might have also experienced within himself, during his treatment and from his friends and family.

Gordon quotes from Dickinson, suggesting she was covertly conveying what the experience of a fit was like – covertly because of the social stigma attached to the illness (page 116):

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit –

After the fit, Gordon explains (page 118), the brain sinks into a ‘Fog’ – something that Dickinson describes as ‘the Hour of Lead.’

The reaction of society was harsh, fuelled by the strong stigma which Gordon feels is the explanation for Dickinson’s lifelong seclusion, imposed on by her family for her protection and willingly accepted by Emily as it fostered her creativity (page 119):

In the 19th century, epileptics were sometimes incarcerated in asylums, and the more advanced asylums segregated them: too disturbing for the mentally ill.… Families therefore colluded to keep the conditions a lifelong secret.

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

Even Dickinson’s need for medication was kept secret. The reason has never been clear. Gordon feels that (page 122) ‘[t]he undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time with “hysteria,” masturbation, syphilis and impairment of the intellect leading to “epileptic insanity.”’

Gordon plays with interesting possible associations between Dickinson’s epilepsy and her creativity. She quotes Dickinson as saying (page 124):

‘I like a look of Agony,’ she said, because Agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for the poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ of her early thirties had lain their Missiles by –,’ though the Thunder that once brought ‘the bolt’ did rumble still.

I am not really competent at this point, not having explored in any detail the nature of epileptic experience, to conclude either that Gordon is correct about Dickinson’s epilepsy, let alone whether such a perspective could lend any support to the idea that something about Vincent’s experience of epilepsy enriched his art. I am also aware that he undoubtedly experienced depression and intense anxiety at times, and that various other factors have been adduced to explain this combination of difficulties. Amongst these are: porphyria [1], which has been strongly argued for but not widely accepted; bipolar disorder, which many feel explains ‘Van Gogh’s extreme enthusiasm and dedication to first religion and then art’ as well as his subsequent exhaustion and depression; absinthe, whose toxic component, thujone, is claimed to have worked against Van Gogh, aggravating his epilepsy, suspected porphyria or possible manic depression, as well as, in high doses causing him to see objects in yellow; and lead poisoning, one of whose symptoms is swelling of the retinas, which can cause one to see light in circles like halos around objects, as in paintings like The Starry Night [2]. Blumer summarised what seems to be the general consensus when he wrote in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002 [3]:

Henri Gastaut, in a study of the artist’s life and medical history published in 1956, identified van Gogh’s major illness during the last two years of his life as temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion. In essence, Gastaut confirmed the diagnosis originally made by the French physicians who had treated van Gogh. However, van Gogh had earlier suffered two distinct episodes of reactive depression, and there are clearly bipolar aspects to his history.

The best I can say, as a diagnostic sceptic who distrusts simplistic one-dimensional explanations of phenomena as multi-faceted as a human being, is that when I stood in front of Cypresses and Two Women, I felt it might be recording some kind of altered state of consciousness, or possibly a strong perceptual distortion of uncertain cause. I am aware that van Gogh cultivated the expression of intensity in his art, not just in terms of ‘an intensity of colour . . . not achieved before’ as Theo pointed out (page 447) but also involving what his brother termed ‘a frenzy’ which made them seem ‘a little further removed from nature.’ Whether this was a quality of perception borrowed from his memory of his ‘attacks,’ perceptual distortions caused by toxins, or whether it was simply part of his search for that (page 448) ‘momentary revelation of superhuman infinitude,’ which he found both in Rembrandt and in Shakespeare, is impossible for me to determine at this point. Whatever the influences upon them, partly material and possibly also sublime, these paintings are works of inspired creativity, which will inevitably have a powerful impact on any careful observer.

A particularly telling perspective, which suggests that something rather uncanny was going which can’t reduce his depiction of a starry night simply to lead poisoning, is explained in the TED talk at the bottom of this post. A friend kindly alerted me to this after I had started posting about van Gogh.

Spirituality

Which brings us on to the matter of spirituality, which is never far away where van Gogh is concerned. How does his spirituality relate to his art?

First and foremost, it must be remembered that he shifted in vocation from preacher to painter.

He later, in 1881, expressed regret for his earlier intense sense of mission (page 123):

If there is anything I regret then it is that period when I allowed mystical and theological profundities to mislead me into withdrawing too much into myself. I have gradually come to change my mind.

Later he looks back and describes that period as (page 216) ‘a few years which I can scarcely comprehend myself, when I was confused by religious ideas, by some kind of mysticism.’

His shift is initially related to his emotional attachment, at this point, to his cousin, Kee Vos. In the 1881 letter he explains to Theo (page 124):

It is my belief that the Jesuitisms of clergyman and devout ladies often make a greater impression on her then on me, Jesuitisms which, precisely because I have acquired some dessous de cartes [inside information], no longer have any hold on me now. But she is devoted to them and would be unable to bear it if the system of resignation and sin and God and I know not one else, proved to be vain.

Later still, in the light of his relationship in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, he is even more emphatic (page 279):

Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its founder was sublime – I have seen through present-day Christianity only too well. That icy coldness mesmerised even me in my youth – but I have taken my revenge since then . . . . by worshipping the love which they, the theologians, call sin, by respecting a whore, etc.

He still retained a belief in some form of transcendence though (page 124-25):

You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead as a door nail. But does that make me an atheist?… [I]f we are alive there is something wondrous about it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God.

Whatever he did believe seems to have some implications for an afterlife (page 153):

The world of takes no account at all of what happens beyond the grave. That is why the world goes no further than its feet will take it.

Tolstoy (for source of image see link)

Tolstoy (for source of image see link)

There is a key letter on religion written in September 1888. This is particularly intriguing for me as a Bahá’í because of the terms in which he describes what he believes, and because he is linking that to his reading of Tolstoy at the time, though it was of course much later that Tolstoy was interested enough to find out more about the Bábí and Bahá’í Faiths [4] (pages 406-09):

. . . it appears that Tolstoy is enormously interested in the religion of his people.… I believe there is a book on religion by Tolstoy… In it he goes in search, or so I gather from the article, of what remains eternally true in the Christian religion and what all religions have in common.

He admits to not having read the book yet himself but adds (ibid.):

I don’t imagine that his religion is a cruel one which increases our suffering, but must be, on the contrary, a very comforting one, inspiring one with peace of mind and energy, and the courage to live…

He goes onto write:

Tolstoy implies that whatever happens in a violent revolution, there will also be an inner revolution in the people, after which a new religion will be born, or rather, something completely new which will be nameless, but which will have the same effect of consoling, of making life possible, as the Christian religion used to.

This all relates to his idea of what art should be about (page 362):

I am still enchanted by snatches of the past, have a hankering after the eternal, of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols. But when shall I ever get around to doing the starry sky, that picture which is always in my mind?

Rembrandt was often his inspiration and model (page 377-78):

Anything complete and perfect renders infinity tangible . . . . . This is how Rembrandt painted angels. He does a self-portrait, old, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap, a picture from life, in a mirror. . . . . . So Rembrandt paints a supernatural angel with a da Vinci smile behind that old man who resembles himself.

So?

In the end his calling as a painter, with all its hardships and its blessings, both hurt and healed him and left him doubtful about or feeling severed from God (page 394):

Ah, my dear brother, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can well do without God in both my life and also my painting, but, suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life – the power to create.

Patrick Brontë around 1860 (for source of image see link)

Patrick Brontë around 1860 (for source of image see link)

At the end of this prolonged encounter with Vincent van Gogh I was reminded of another family who had been similarly torn to pieces by a sequence of tragedies: the Brontës.

Six months after Vincent died, Theo was dead. Lies, his sister, had borne a child in secret, which she abandoned to a peasant family. His brother, Cor, shot himself in 1900, during a bout of fever in the Transvaal. Two years later, his sister Wil was committed to an asylum where she died forty years later. His mother saw most of this unfold until her death in 1907 (details from Van Gogh: The Life – page 867). Patrick Brontë, parish priest, had seen, by the age of 78, his wife, his son and all his five daughters die tragically young: three of those daughters are now famous novelists.

What is exceptional of course about these families is the genius of at least one member. Their tragedies, sadly, were more or less the norm for those days. That death was common meant that the need to decide what to do with your short life was vividly present. Only a favoured few had much choice in the matter.

In our prosperous Western civilisation, we all in the end have to make a decision about what our lives are for, and where the power to accomplish that comes from, and fortunately many more of us now than then have the power to enact that choice.

That’s why van Gogh’s life resonates so strongly still, both through his paintings and his letters. His struggle is our struggle, his defeats and triumphs ours as well. His inspiration, in spite of all his flaws and weaknesses, can hopefully raise us all to follow our calling and enhance our world in whatever way we can.

I hope this sequence of posts has done some kind of justice to the genius and compassion of this flawed but brilliant man and that I really was right not to confine the intensity of my thoughts to my diary, but rather tap away on my internet machine in the sunlight in celebration of his supremely creative life.

The Unexpected Maths behind van Gogh’s Starry Night

Footnotes:

[1] A brief account of this view can be found in an article by Natalie Angier, published in the 12 December 1991 edition of the NY Times. There is also a detailed article by Wilfred Niels Arnold in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 2004, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 22–43 which can be downloaded in full from the website.

[2] This information is drawn from the Van Gogh gallery website.

[3] The link accesses the abstract only.

[4] See the link for more detail in the article from which the following quote is taken. ‘Tolstoi had encountered the Bábí movement as early as 1894 and maintained sporadic contact with Bahá’ís from 1901 until his death in 1910. Ghadirian has recounted Tolstoi’s vision of ideal religion, and his encounters with Bahá’ís, beginning with Isabel Grinevskaya and later ‘Aziz’ulláh Jazzah Khorasani, who was apparently despatched from `Akká by `Abdu’l-Bahá to speak to Tolstoi during a period of house arrest that followed his excommunication from the Orthodox church. Collins and Jasion, having recently reviewed 80 published sources on Tolstoi and the Bábí and Bahá’í religions, have cautioned that the novelist’s attitude to both religions was ambivalent, moving between the sympathies he expressed to Isabel Grinevskaya, and even to “Caucasian Mohammedans”, and others more negative. They suggest it is more appropriate to view the positive statements Tolstoi made on the Bahá’í Faith as testimony to some moments of perspicacity about the future of a religion which was at that time only beginning to make inroads in the West and undeveloped countries. `Abdu’l-Bahá notes that Tolstoi was a well-wisher of humanity but that he was still caught up in politics and opinion.’

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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

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 fourth of five posts scheduled to come out each day this week.

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

Making Sense of It All

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

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

The Developing Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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

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 second of five posts scheduled to come out each day this week.

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)

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 first of five posts which will come at each day this week.

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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Tree Roots by Vincent van GoghIn the light of my ruminations on van Gogh after my trip to Amsterdam and the recent revelations about the rediscovered gun and his ear (only 24 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), the recent Guardian longer article by  came as a brilliant pulling of threads together into a coherent and compelling pattern. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

When Vincent van Gogh got out of hospital in January 1889, with a white bandage covering the place where his left ear had been, he immediately went back to work in his house next to a cafe in the southern French town of Arles. A still life he painted that month looks like a determined attempt to hold on to the things of this world, to quell his inner turbulence by concentrating on the solid facts of his life. Around a sturdy wooden table he has laid out a symbolic array of the simple pillars of his existence. Four onions. A medical self-help book. A candle. The pipe and tobacco he found steadying. A letter from his brother Theo. A teapot. And one more thing: a large, emptied bottle of absinthe.

Has he drunk the absinthe since leaving hospital? Does its emptiness represent a promise to swear off the stuff from now on?

The first thing to be said about this painting is that it is revolutionary. It is a new kind of art. The very idea that a collection of objects, painted with fiery brushstrokes in heightened luminous colours, with ridges of thick impasto in some places and bare canvas in others, can reveal the state of someone’s soul was utterly new. Van Gogh was its originator. In the months after this mostly self-taught Dutch artist in his mid 30s arrived in Arles in February 1888 he invented a new kind of art that would come to be called expressionism.

In the process he drove himself mad.

That probably sounds like a dangerously Romantic way of putting it to curators of On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This sensational show – how strange to see the rusty gun, found in a field at Auvers-sur-Oise, that the museum is “80% sure” Van Gogh shot himself with, in 1890, at the age of just 37 – is full of fascinating documents that tell a sad story of a man struggling with his declining mental health until finally, in despair of ever getting well or living independently, he chose suicide. It presents a lucid narrative of the final phase of Van Gogh’s life. Yet it is ultimately a pedantic and misleading exhibition whose pursuit of clinical accuracy misses the mystery of Van Gogh’s life and art.

The straw man the curators want to tear down is the myth that Van Gogh’s genius lay in his “madness”, that he painted in the fever of hallucinations and took inspiration from illness.

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