He was one of the most quotable human beings in history. A madman in his lifetime, who famously cut off his ear after attacking his lover. A cardinal self, raw in his beliefs to the point of self-mutilation. (I read that Van Gogh cut his ear off after an argument with Gaugin because he “heard voices” whispering in his ear “kill him” and vividly quoting the Bible: “if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out” he cut off the organ that was offending him. Other reports mention him cutting off the ear in a rush of schizophrenia, which one of its symptoms is actually hearing voices) He loved nature to the point of exhaustion for not being able to capture its beauty, yet he left behind snapshots that are nothing far from mystical lessons on appreciating nature. This man, was a being. Man is too short a word for Vincent (who would want me to call him “Vincent”, before I mispronounced his last name…)
Vincent was born on March 3oth 1853 on the Belgium-Netherlands border town of Zundert to a protestant preacher and a dedicated mother. It is said that the family lived a comfortable peaceful life and that Vincent’s father was very respected. But I think that we can all imagine how hard it must have been for a young man with Vincent’s sensitivity and need to express himself, to have grown up in a preacher’s household at the end of the 19th century. In his own words, his mother was complicated and difficult: “I am sure that mother has very deep thoughts for her inner self is so complicated with such profound layers… That is why she neither can or wants to speak”. He was named after a grandfather and a stillborn brother who died a year before he was born. I personally find this detail disturbing for Vincent. He was actually named after a dead sibling who came before him…
He wanted to be a pastor but changed his mind after failing to understand the politics of the position. He wanted to be an art dealer and eventually made it to Paris to work as an apprentice, but he managed to fail at that too. Theo became successful in this field and as Vincent delved into his art and madness, Theo became his confident and patron. It is to him that Vincent writes some of the deepest letters, where he unbinds his own psyche, makes sense of his artistic process and shares the workings of a technique that would revolutionize art history.
As a writer, Vincent knew that what it takes to put your idea on paper is as challenging as painting it on a canvas. He wrote over 800 letters, sharing an intimacy that I now spot in his self portraits. His letters are charged with the need he expressed in his paintings. His loneliness and utter confidence that the world could, in fact, be the way he saw it, fills page after page. His choice of words, almost as deliberate as his choice of color to help in his desperate need to express emotion. His handwriting, the unconscious genesis of Expressionism.
He shares Himself fully with his reader, what he is working on, his views, his doubts, his outrage, his illness… His letters are an amazing way to get to know him from a distance. You can tell how strong and stubborn he was. How sensitive, yet how arrogant he could be. He is so candid in his writing, that you can tell that he never even dreamed of seeing them published.
I thought I knew everything that needed to be known about Vincent Van Gogh by carelessly glancing at the famous, awkward, yet vivid sunflowers. He was Dutch, he met Manet and Gaugin, he liked color and texture, he was crazy, he drank absinthe, he wrote letters to his brother Theo, he cut his ear off, he killed himself. Having spent careful time trying to explain his legacy in a half hour engaging tv show for children, I have re met Van Gogh. I discovered his meaning and his amazing compromise to what it takes to recreate the beauty and truth of life, sacrificing once own, when the other part of life, the ugly and unrealistic beats up your soul at every corner. These facts about his life are only the worldly attempts to define Van Gogh; facts that were not as understandable or accepted to human society as they are now, but limiting facts nonetheless. Reducing him to these over publicized facts would make him feel as lonely today, when his paintings sell for millions of dollars, as he was back then, when he suffered in poverty.
(This is the only painting that Van Gogh ever sold when he was alive: “Red Vineyard at Arles” for 400 Francs, in 1890)
As I read his letters today, I can picture his voice and feel his breath in his paintings. There it is, the movement, if you allow it, it will just happen; as if his paintings were meant to be computer animated. The beauty, the underscribible Beauty of the blue sky, the compelling yellow of a sunflower, or the heartbreaking silent loneliness of his bedroom.
Vincent Van Gogh took my hand today and reminded me that I am an artist and as an artist I must dare to feel as deep as he did. Three candles burn around me as I write. I wonder if he is telling me to put them on my hat tonight when darkness falls and continue on, even if I don’t know what lays ahead. … or do I?
Here’s a little tiny story I wrote at a fiction class recently. A writing prompt about place:
“Emptiness didn’t bother him, in fact he needed it. He had left Paris in search of emptiness, desperately running away from the grey of the narrow streets and the desolation of the crowded bars that he roamed every night in search of Gaugin. The empty room that the doctor assigned was exactly the place where his tormented colors would meet beauty. The chair would become a study on wicker browns. The bed would speak up about his loneliness. The window would stay opened and exhale his soul in blues. In that empty room, silence would conquer the voices and God would take his hand where his thick strokes could finally meet his destiny.”
My favorite quotes from some of his letters.
“There are so many people, especially among our comrades, who imagine that words are nothing – on the contrary, isn’t it true that saying a thing well is as interesting and as difficult as painting it?” VVG
“Emotions are sometimes so strong that I work without knowing. The strokes come like speech.” VVG
“I want to try to paint my self-portrait in writing.” VVG
“Exaggerate the essential. Leave the obvious vague.” VVG
“I look at what is before my eyes and say to myself: that white board must become something.” VVG
“Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of: “you can’t” once and for all.” VVG
“I put my heart and soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process” VVG
“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reasons for remaining ashore” VVG
“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream” VVG