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Talking about Vincent Van Gogh


A few nights ago I finished reading the mammoth 900 page biography of Vincent Van Gogh from 2011, written by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It took about two weeks, and in the middle of that period I was invited to talk about VVG to a group of students at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. Jeff Wescott, a friend who teaches there, runs a biography class, and they are due to read and discuss Van Gogh's letters soon.

Sidenote: Jeff got Misty Copeland, the amazing ballet dancer, to talk to the same class a few weeks earlier about her recently published autobiography. As the following photo shows, she is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous, so I felt sorry that the same students had to endure my mug after spending time with this:


Be that as it may, it was fun to reflect on how Van Gogh has affected me as an artist, going all the way back to me teenage years. I was fourteen when an art teacher introduced me to his work. For years I had a reproduction of one of VVG's "Cypress Tree" paintings taped to my bedroom wall:


As I discussed with the Interlochen students, my response to Vincent's painting was less enthusiastic when I grew up, and became exposed to many other kinds of art. I renewed my interest when I discovered his letters--those copious documents of an entire adulthood and the rapid development of an artist's visual consciousness. I remember thinking that the man that emerges from the letters seems far more rational, and far less deranged, than the romantic notion of the "artiste maudit" that persists in the popular imagination. There are so many drawings in his letters, so many discussions of colour, that belie the idea he was just a naif who slashed away at the canvas and magically produced his paintings by a combination of luck and genius.

This recent biography sets the dial somewhere between the two poles. There's a wealth of new information in it, particularly from the pre-France years when Vincent worked as an art dealer, then a would-be preacher. The picture that emerges is more complicated than the one you get from the letters, which are inevitably more self-serving given that they record his voice talking about his own side of every dispute. So while it's true that Vincent was eventually shunned and friendless wherever he landed, the authors suggest that this was as much to do with his behaviour: his obsessiveness, his need to dominate and win every discussion, his unwillingness to concede any ground to convention. From our vantage point, we see it as a heroic defiance of the bourgeois constraints that threatened to choke his art, but really there was no evidence that Van Gogh has much talent at all until the last four years of his life, and before that there are many times when you see that his family had good reason to be anxious that this eldest son was not fulfilling his larger duty to provide for his parents and sisters. After all, that's what his younger brother Theo ended up doing, to the point where it's not an exaggeration to say he sacrificed his life for them. Fact I didn't know until I read this book: Theo died only six months after Vincent, from the awful effects of syphilis, and only a couple of years after finally getting married and having a son. Another fact: in the last year of his life, Vincent was becoming famous, and well on the road to being a sellable artist. The tragic irony is by 1889 to the middle of 1890, his mind was almost completely engulfed by repeated psychotic breaks that rendered him incapable of dealing with imminent success.

I've touched on just a few things from this remarkable biography. My final feeling was one of renewed sadness, because after all Vincent was destroyed by a disease of the mind that caused serious damage to the lives of his parents, siblings, and friends. He endured terrible torments, which may or may not be inseparable from his art. But thank god for the art, for all that colour and movement, and that unfathomable intensity of looking.

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