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Posts Tagged ‘Vincent van Gogh’

VG R composite

Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

Gauguin to van Gogh in 1890, quoted in the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 494

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the fourth of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next four weeks.

Last time Vincent van Gogh — Encountering the Art (3/5) I attempted to do some kind of justice to my encounter with van Gogh’s paintings in the museum in Amsterdam. Now comes my attempt to see whether I was wide of the mark or close to home.

Making Sense of It All

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

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

The Developing Artist

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2305As we know from his later description of himself as a ‘cab horse,’ a career as an artist is not an easy option. Even as early as this he was well aware of that (page 178):

Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation. By dogged, I mean in the first place incessant labour, but also not abandoning one’s views upon the say-so of this person or that.

In the same letter he throws in almost casually a key pointer to the future when he says, ‘It isn’t the language of painters so much as the language of nature that one should heed.’ The editor quotes, further to this (page 183):

Sooner or later, feeling and love for nature always finds a response in people interested in art. The painter’s duty is to immerse himself wholly in nature and to use his intelligence for putting his feelings into his work, so that it becomes intelligible to others.

When he describes his working methods we can feel exactly what he means (page 195):

I just sit down with a white board in front of the spot that appeals to me, I look at what is in front of my eyes, and I say to myself: that white board has got to turn into something – I come back, dissatisfied, . . . . because I have that splendid scenery too much in mind to be satisfied. Yet I can see in my work an echo of what appealed to me, I can see that the scenery has told me something, has spoken to me and that I have taken it down in shorthand.

As his practice of his art strengthened his understanding of what he was about, his confidence in the rightness of it grew in proportion. At the time he was working on his first great piece The Potato Eaters in 1885 (page 292) he asserted forcefully, against what he felt was the demand for ‘conventional polish,’ that ‘a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.’ His position was clear (page 299): ‘The portrayal of working people was to his mind one of the most important thematic innovations of contemporary art, the “essential modern” aspect.’

Not that he was claiming that this was easy or that he was skilled at it (page 304-06):

Nothing seems simpler than painting peasants or rag pickers and other workers, but – there are no subjects in painting as difficult as those everyday figures! . . . . Tell Serret that I should be in despair of my figures were good, tell him that I don’t want them to be academically correct, tell him that what I’m trying to say is that if one were to photograph the digger, he would certainly not be digging then.

The underlining as always indicates his strength of feeling on the matter.

Where we see how his art relates to his feelings about religion is in such comments as (page 312):

Still, I would sooner paint people’s eyes than cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is lacking in the cathedral – however solemn and impressive it may be. To my mind a man’s soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting.

A letter from 1888 makes clear that van Gogh would have regarded my having omitted to consider his portraits, in the last post that looked directly at my response to his art, as a bit of an insult, as well as meaning that I was rather missing the whole point of a key aspect of his work (page 389):

Taking it all in all, that is the only thing in painting that moves me to the depths, and it makes me feel closer to infinity than anything else.

All I can say is, ‘I’ll try and make amends when I look at Rembrandt.’ (I didn’t have the stamina to do this at the time and now the intensity of my impressions of Rembrandt have faded too much.)

It would not be possible for me in this brief space to do justice to the influence of Japanese art, religion and philosophy on van Gogh’s work. However, a short quote will indicate how nature, spirituality and art are seen by him to be fused and integrated in Japanese paintings (page 410):

So come, isn’t what we are taught by the simple Japanese, who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion?

He explains more exactly what this means in the same letter (page 408):

. . . .in order to do a picture which is really of the south, a little skill is not enough. It is observing things for a long time that gives you greater maturity and a deeper understanding. . . . .

My feeling is that I must work at a leisurely pace. Indeed, what about practising the old saying, One should study for ten years or so, and then produce a few figures?

This is the same letter, interestingly, which expands at some length on his ideas about religion in general derived from reading an article about a book by Tolstoy. I’ll be coming back to that later in the next post.

Van Gogh in Tulips at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

Van Gogh in Tulips at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

Colour

This consideration of his art in general leads naturally into the examination of what his letters have to say about one of the distinguishing characteristics of his art: his use of colour.

It’s a truism to point out that his later paintings under the influence of Impressionism are brighter than his earlier homages to Millet. His colouring and brushwork become dramatically different. What can we learn from his letters about his use of colour?

A good place to start is with a quote I used in the second part of this sequence. Ronald de Leeuw, the editor of the Letters, to compensate for the absence of letters in the period when the brothers were together in Paris, summarises aspects of van Gogh’s radical new departure in style (pages 326):

Van Gogh’s highly original interpretation of Seurat’s pointillism, the use of separate dots of mixed colour, gradually paved the way for a strikingly individual and expressive method of applying colour in streaks and dashes, which would henceforth typify van Gogh’s brushstroke no less than his drawing style.

Van Gogh was also carried away by what he saw around him in his first encounters with the South (page 387):

I find it tremendously beautiful here in the summer, the green is very deep and rich, the air thin and amazingly clear. . . . . I particularly enjoy the colourful clothes, the women and girls dress in cheap, simple material, green, red, pink, yellow, havana brown, purple, blue, polka-dots, stripes. White scarves, red, green and yellow parasols. A strong sulphurous sun which shines down on it all, the great blue sky – it is all as tremendously cheerful as Holland is gloomy.

A key letter concerning colour was written in the August of 1888. He begins to define where he plans to move from the simply realistic (page 390):

. . . instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of colour to express myself more forcefully.

He goes on to give an example, speaking of a portrait he would like to do if possible (page 391):

Behind the head – instead of painting the ordinary wall of the shabby apartment, I shall paint infinity, I shall do a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination, the shining fair head against this rich blue background, I shall obtain a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep blue sky.

VG Boch 1888

Boch 1888 (scanned from the Taschen Edition)

The portrait that finally resulted might be that Eugène Boch (September 1888 – Taschen page 421).

The next letter in the Penguin Letters explains more (page 394):

. . . in my pictures I want to say something consoling, as music does. I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal, whose symbol was once the Halo, which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our colouring.

He also wants to convey relationships between people by the use of colour (page 395):

[Concerning] the study of colour. I keep hoping that I’ll come up with something. To express the love of two lovers by the marriage of two complementary colours, their blending and their contrast, the mysterious vibrations of related tones. To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light tone against a dark background.

Happily, he gives us a run down of his intentions in painting one of his most famous scenes – the Night Café. He writes (page 399):

I have tried, by contrasting soft pink with blood-red and wine-red, soft Louis XV-green and Veronese green with yellow-greens and harsh blue-greens, all this in an atmosphere of an infernal furnace in pale sulphur, to express the powers of darkness in a common tavern. And yet under an outward show of Japanese gaiety and Tartarin’s good nature.

He also describes his intentions in the painting of his bedroom (page 416):

. . . . here everything depends on the colour, and by simplifying it I am lending it more style, creating an overall impression of rest or sleep. In fact, a look at the picture ought to rest the mind, or rather the imagination.

It’s helpful to see the phrase he coins for this kind of attempt to use colour to convey meaning (page 404) – ‘suggestive colour.’

It isn’t just colour he uses but shape to suggest his meaning. Still speaking of the bedroom he writes (page 418) that ‘the sturdy lines of the furniture should also express undisturbed rest.’ It is easy to see how the vibrant whorls and swirls of the cypresses we discussed last time convey anything but restful ease and this is clearly intentional.

Reading his own words here gives me the feeling that, although what I read into the four paintings I was looking at last time was very much my own interpretation, what I was attempting was very much what van Gogh would have wanted me to do.

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

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Tree roots

Tree Roots & Trunks

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

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – 4 September 1880 (page 82)

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the third of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next three weeks.

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

The Paintings At Last

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

What is my response to his paintings?

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

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

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

You get the drift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I realise that there are no portraits in this list, even though this was an important art form for van Gogh. However, of his three great loves – literature, nature and those who worked the land – I decided to focus on paintings of nature. Portraits would have needed to be dealt with separately.

Harvest

First we come to Harvest at La Crau (June 1888 – page 347).

One of the most striking things about this painting are the tiny figures. He saw those who worked the land as infused by nature but also scarred by the hardships they endured as a result. Many of his paintings focused on the demands of such labour and the toll it took.

This painting makes a similar point by dwarfing the figures in the landscape.

The painting was created before 23 December 1888, when the rift with Gauguin, and all the attendant razor wielding and ear-shredding traumas, irreversibly clouded the landscape of his mind and began to fuel our 125-year-old Van Gogh legend.

The colours are bright and the feel is positive. There is a sense of activity within a sustaining environment. There is also clearly present what came to be the characteristic vibration of the van Gogh brushwork.

Standing in front of the painting I could not escape a sense of the seasons with all the reminders of Keats, whose death cut short the promise of his genius even earlier and of whose existence van Gogh was also clearly aware given his use of two of Keats’s poems in his flirtation with the married Caroline Haanebeek (Van Gogh: The Life – page 89).

Yes, this is summer – blissful, light, warm – bringing with it glowing rewards for all that has been endured in winter. There is the promise of a rich harvest, which none the less will entail back-breaking labour to bring in. The huge difference between the tiny figures and the vast landscape serves to reinforce the magnitude of that cost, something which, at that point in human history before the large-scale mechanisation of farming, had to be paid, year on year.

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

Those were my immediate reactions to this particular painting.

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

Blossoming Almond Tree VG 1890

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rembrandt, interestingly, is more a dramatist in paint for me, which is one of the reasons I see him as the Shakespeare of pictorial art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vase with Irises VG 1890

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VG R composite

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

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

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

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the second of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next four weeks.

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

‘Nature Viewed through a Temperament’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very frustrating for me as a psychologist!

I am therefore relying largely upon the bridge passage written by the editor of the letters, Ronald de Leeuw, who summarises aspects of van Gogh’s radical new departure in style (pages 326):

Van Gogh’s highly original interpretation of Seurat’s pointillism, the use of separate dots of mixed colour, gradually paved the way for a strikingly individual and expressive method of applying colour in streaks and dashes, which would henceforth typify van Gogh’s brushstroke no less than his drawing style.

De Leeuw adds (page 327):

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

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

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

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

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

VG book stackMurder, Accident or Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a lot more to say then really!

Footnote

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

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Glass table with book & VG

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

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

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the first of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next five weeks.

Getting a Feel for van Gogh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth, the Man and the Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside his Mind

Let me unpack that a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2305

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

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

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

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

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

What did he mean by that exactly?

Soul painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not surprisingly his influence lived on after his death.

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Having inched my way to this point through art to illustrate what I was talking about, Woolf’s depression and possible transliminality, and whether she intended to convey our inscape or not, I can finally come to the crunch question.

Did Woolf succeed in capturing consciousness?

At this stage I can only base a carefully considered answer to that question on a complete reading of To the Lighthouse. I’m only halfway through The Waves.

This is where my own diary entries might come in useful, at least to explain the initial impact of To the Lighthouse.

Within the first 30 pages I was writing ‘there are already intriguing hints about Virginia Woolf‘s experience of consciousness, eg (page 28) ‘to follow her thought was like following your voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil… all of this danced up and down like a company of gnats… in Lilly’s mind.’

When I was halfway through, though I felt it was uneven, there were ‘many places where she achieves the almost impossible. She transitions from inscape to inscape.’ I think I need a fairly long example to illustrate this. Pages 97-98 provide a good one.

We begin in Mrs Ramsay‘s head, pitying Mr William Bankes:

. . . she concluded, addressing herself by bending silently in his direction to William Bankes—poor man! who had no wife, and no children and dined alone in lodgings except for tonight; and in pity for him, life being now strong enough to bear her on again, she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again and thinks how, had the ship sunk, he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea.

“Did you find your letters? I told them to put them in the hall for you,” she said to William Bankes.

And suddenly we are in Lilly Briscoe’s mind which has a very different take on things:

Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.

How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again, and Lily thought with some amusement because she was relieved, Why does she pity him? For that was the impression she gave, when she told him that his letters were in the hall. Poor William Bankes, she seemed to be saying, as if her own weariness had been partly pitying people, and the life in her, her resolve to live again, had been stirred by pity. And it was not true, Lily thought; it was one of those misjudgments of hers that seemed to be instinctive and to arise from some need of her own rather than of other people’s. He is not in the least pitiable. He has his work, Lily said to herself.

This leads Lily to recall her own true focus: painting.

She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the tablecloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

I found that last moment an astute observation on Woolf’s part.

It seems to me that Woolf picks up skilfully on how one character sees another in a different way from that in which the person sees themselves. Where the truth lies is for the reader to decide.

I was getting completely carried away by this stage and wrote: ‘She is so astonishingly good at creating a convincing simulation of consciousness in To the Lighthouse. It’s as though I can experience some of her characters more clearly and completely then I experience aspects of myself.’

Conveying Consciousness

Reading Woolf was making me realise that having my primary focus on the nature of consciousness and the means to enhance it does not entail my turning my back, as I have over the last few years, on the novel. It simply provides me with the criterion by which to judge whether a novel really interests me. If it sheds no light on consciousness and is only concerned with plot and personality, then it is of no interest to me. Character and consciousness are key for me.

It raised a wider question. Is what I am after in a novel, poem or any written art form, the conveying of a state of mind? My reaction to Woolf suggests it is. At first I had thought that I shifted from studying literature to studying psychology because I was more interested in people in general than I was in the words that describe them. And that was true up to a point. Now I realise that I am not just interested in understanding people in ‘objective’ terms: I am also interested as much, if not more than anything else, in inner experience – something that psychological science and brain imaging cannot directly access, even if they can shed some light on how brain activity relates to inner experience and external action.

This goes beyond simply capturing routine streams of consciousness. I also believe there are aspects of reality that lie along a spectrum beyond our usual sensory settings. These can break through from the brain and its workings below ordinary consciousness, or break through from beyond the brain, from what I term a transcendent reality, whose exact nature tends to be defined in primarily metaphorical terms.

This raises a further question. Should the novel, drama and poetry be concerned with those, and to what extent? It even includes the question ‘Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, a sense of our global interconnectedness at some level beyond the purely material?

How far does Woolf take it?

For now I will examine just how far Woolf goes with this in To the Lighthouse and to a lesser extent in The Waves.

At various points in the novel Woolf offers glimpses into how a character experiences their mind. I think it’s worth sharing some of these to indicate how broad her understanding is of these patterns.

Even the same character at different points has different experiences. Take Lilly, for example. At one time (page 168) ‘… a question like Nancy’s— opened doors in one’s mind that went banging and swinging to and fro and made one keep asking, in a stupefied gape, What does one send? What does one do?’

At another (page 184):

Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

And shortly after is something about as close as she comes to the mystical most of the time (page 186):

And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularise itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come.

And there is one moment captured that must reflect Woolf’s own struggles as a writer (page 206):

Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind.

James, Mr Ramsay’s son, has another kind of experience (page 195):

He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain…

And his combing of memory continues (page 214):

Turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one’s eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape.

Whether one of Lilly’s later thoughts is meant to capture a more final view is hard to say (page 224):

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.

Maybe, maybe not, but there is something heroic about Woolf’s battle with herself and her material.

In any case, the clear balance in To the Lighthouse is tilted heavily in favour of the inner life as against external events, of which latter there are very few.

Even though I have still some way to go with The Waves, I can share one impression that is beginning to take shape in my mind.

This novel seems to be exploring in part at least the nature of the self. Whether there even is a self perhaps: Rhoda clearly doesn’t think so (page 47). ‘Identity failed me. We are nothing,’ she declares. Bernard is at something of an opposite extreme (pages 49-50): ‘I do not believe in separation. We are not single. . . . . we are one.’ He even sees his own self as multiple (page 56): ‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many.’ Neville feels connected but doesn’t like it (page 61): ‘How useful an office one’s friends perform when they recall us. Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another.’

Bernard, of course, sees it differently (page 66): ‘For I am more selves than Neville thinks, We are not simple as our friends would have us to meet their needs. Yet love is simple.’

Louis is more of an outsider but people still bug him (page 69): ‘ People go on passing; they go on passing against the spires of the church and the plates of ham sandwiches. The streamers of my consciousness waver out and are perpetually torn and distressed by their disorder.’ Susan on the other hand can feel more connected with nature (page 73): ‘I think sometimes . . . I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn.’ Jinny, which incidentally was Woolf’s pet name, has a different take again. After dancing at a party her fancy takes off (pages 78): ‘I fill my glass again. I drink. The veils drop between us. I am admitted to the warmth and privacy of another soul. We are together on some high Alpine pass . . . There! That is my moment of ecstasy. Now it is over.’

I’m not sure yet where all this is going to lead in The Waves. What I see so far is an exploration of the poles of interconnectedness, an almost mystical concept, and isolation. This is a key aspect of consciousness for me and I am intrigued to see where she will take this theme. What I am still delighted by is her fusion of the poetic with the person, how she lifts language to a level where it almost becomes capable of doing justice to inner experience in a stable and consistent way. She can’t quite sustain it though and not all passages are equally convincing. Even so it is a rare and fine achievement.[1]

Where now?

There is another set of questions that I plan to explore next time: is success in the capturing of consciousness a valid standard by which to evaluate a work of art? Would it even be possible in such a diverse and global village as we live in now for a novelist to bring all shades and styles of consciousness together between the pages of one book? And when they failed how could that be seen as a defect? We are clearly only able to capture a small part of the spectrum. How much would we have to capture to be seen as a success?

I think there are ways of resolving the possibly specious problem raised by those questions.

More of that next time.

Footnote:

[1] I have now almost finished The Waves. Sadly I have to say that I do not find it as satisfying as To the Lighthouse. The forward to the Penguin Modern Classics edition expresses the problem with it clearly (page xxxiii): ‘Of all Woolf’s novels, The Waves is the one which most readily lays itself open to the charge of esoteric remoteness from the ordinary world.’ Even so it is a brave attempt to dramatise (page xi) ‘how identities themselves do not stand, ultimately, clear and distinct, but flow and merge into each other.’ Though her theme of ‘interconnectedness’ (page xii) strongly appeals to me I have to admit she does not satisfactorily achieve her aim in conveying it here for reasons which I hope to address in more detail in the last post of this sequence.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (the link for source of image no longer works)

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. . . 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 next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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