Monday, June 2, 2014

Vincent & His Penpal Theo

“I need not overhurry myself, there is no good in that-- but I must work on in full calmness and  serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as concisely and economically as possible. The world only concerns me in so far as I feel a certain debt and duty towards it because I have walked that earth for thirty years, and, out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures-- not made to please a certain cult in art, but to express a sincere human feeling.”

--Vincent Van Gogh

Self portrait with bandaged ear

No one did the starving artist bit more famously than Vincent Van Gogh. After various career stints in a picture gallery and bookshop, later as a schoolteacher and a lay preacher, failing or being forced out of every position he ever endeavored, the troubled Dutchman becomes a full time painter around the age of 27. This same time he becomes completely dependent on his younger brother, Theo, for all his living expenses. Never marrying and alienating nearly everyone whom he comes into contact with, Van Gogh lives a destitute, itinerant existence, unable to settle anywhere very long. He is nearly always malnourished, often lonely, and occasionally suffers debilitating spells of depression that late in life take the form of nervous breakdowns (as in the infamous offering of his ear to a prostitute). The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (edited by Mark Roskill) is a curated epistolary collection of his miseries, epiphanies, and banalities, alternately dull and inspiring, an invaluable record of perhaps the most famous painter of all time, who penniless and institutionalized at the age of 37, commits suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest.

Vincent's correspondence reflects his concerns, worries, and interests, which evolved with his art and descent into madness. Early on, in his preacher days, he examines theological ideas piecemeal until later disillusionment turns him into a full-blown apostate (“I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life-- the power to create.”). In his late twenties, early thirties, he struggles in dead-end relationships, falling for women who either fail to return his affections (his cousin Kee Vos) or women of ill repute from the demimonde (the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik), confessing his amorous confusion to Theo with, “What a mystery life is, and love is a mystery within a mystery.” He adores certain writers, particularly Charles Dickens, with whom he shares his concerns for social justice. (“But one must learn to read, exactly as one must learn to see, and learn to live.”) And later in life, aware of a movement called Impressionism, he ruminates on what painting means in terms of art, truth, beauty: “Tell him that my great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes of reality, so that they become, yes, untruth if you like-- but more truth than the literal truth.”

For someone better known for his pictures than his prose Van Gogh's writing is very articulate, often extremely precise in its descriptions. That might have been due to his bibliophilia (not just Dickens, but most of the great writers of the 19th century were favorites, especially Balzac, Zola, and George Eliot) but also to his visual background and sensitive nature. In his correspondence it is all peaks and troughs, but his aesthetic appreciation for beauty is vivid and inevitably colorful: “Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.” There is a focus to the letters and comparatively little banter. The most banal matters are often due to money. Theo's welfare checks are never enough, as Vincent spends the largess on models, paints, and canvases. Literally, he subsists on stale bread rolls and warm milk (which no doubt had an effect on his physical and mental deterioration, though how much we have no way of really knowing).

An artist of mercurial temperament, nothing quite stays with Van Gogh. He burns bridges with friends and family (his tempestuous relationship with his preacher father is often lamented and Paul Gaughin's famous stay with Van Gogh in Arles had been a disaster). A normal life is impossible due to conflicts of personal views with his various employers (he almost definitely had authority issues) and his ceding of financial independence to his brother (in the arrangement Theo acquired ownership of Vincent's work so that it was more of a payment for services rendered than a support check, though Vincent is always asking for more, swearing on “activity,” insisting that he is not “lazy” or “plodding”). Initially euphoric in new locations, discovering places and subjects to paint, he always becomes disillusioned eventually, save Arles, where its bright, beautiful sunshine inspires him to his most prolific work, though his eccentricities alienates the townfolk and they petition for his removal. The only constant in his life in fact is painting. It is the one thing in life that gives him any joy or confidence, the only way to transcend his miseries, so that Vincent becomes single-mindedly determined “to sacrifice all personal desires, to realize great things, to obtain nobleness of mind, to surpass the vulgarity in which the existence of nearly all individuals is spent.”

The road for Van Gogh was long and treacherous, filled with self-doubt (for no one would buy his paintings) and extreme poverty. But it was worth it because he understood it intrinsically as his life's calling ("Blessed is the man who has found his work."), grasping also that all great loves entail some kind of pain: “By painting, one becomes a painter. If one wants to become a painter, if one delights in it, if one feels what you feel, one can do it, but it is accompanied by trouble, care, disappointment, periods of melancholy, of helplessness...” His letters are often punctuated with dreams of an arts community, a utopian vision of cooperation, collaboration, and collectiveness. It's tempting to wonder how Van Gogh would have handled his passions and pain in contemporary life. Would he have felt less alone had he an online community, a way to share his work? Or would he despair at the humbling stats of his Tumblr account, at the inattention due him, at the sheer, voluminous ubiquity of artists and art? Van Gogh is by no means the only unacknowledged genius-- hundreds of others have toiled in anonymity, most of whom only to be utterly forsaken. At least his brother had been one of the most respected art dealers on the Continent (nevertheless, tragically, Theo would die just months after Vincent).

Reading these letters, which is akin to reading the diary of somebody's innermost thoughts, I couldn't help remembering my own capricious fortunes in my twenties while I learned to be a writer, struggling with confidence and money, sacrificing a normal life, a good career, stable income, watching friends from university establish real careers in their fields while I pattered along with the vain hope of expressing--as Van Gogh described it, “a sincere human feeling.” Every artist's journey is a different in the details but the arcs are generally the same-- some make it, some don't, and then there are the exceptions like Van Gogh (or more recently Henry Darger and the photographer Vivian Maier) who become spectacularly beloved after death. On my worst days I've been paralyzed by my own self-doubts, though I've been luckier than Van Gogh in life, having found a way to live and even thrive. Some artists, particularly the more sincere ones, don't do their trade for the money or even recognition, but for love. Maybe you're born, maybe you're made, but however you get there beauty makes you feel all is right with the universe and this helps smooth the kinks of living on the edge, at least for a brief, blissful moment. And it is not extraordinary to be moved by life; in fact, it is something you might know just by looking. As Van Gogh said looking up at the night sky over the Rhone, hungry yet spiritually sated: “And all the same to feel the stars and the infinite high and clear above you. Then life is after all almost enchanted.”

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