Friday, 26 October 2012

Vincent Van Gogh

I remember coming out of an Art History lecture I attended in first year at College and thinking that the post impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh would have been someone I would loved to have met. I had a list of questions as long as my arm for this tortured genius and I only had the inadequate art library to find the answers in. There was no Google in the 70s, neither was there a vast array of books that delved into every corner of his complicated life.

My love affair with Van Gogh actually began three years earlier when the American singer-songwriter Don McLean crafted a beautiful poetic homage to Vincent called ‘Starry, Starry Night’. It went to Number One in the charts and still remains one of my favourite pieces of music today.

Van Gogh for me is the greatest artist who has ever lived. Better than Picasso, Dali, Raphael, or any of the Impressionists he so admired. Yet, in his short lifetime, he only ever sold one painting, The Red Vineyard, for a mere 400 francs. Today his paintings are worth millions and are found hanging in galleries all over the western world. I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen some of the lesser masterpieces in the Van Gogh Gallery in Amsterdam but I fear I may never set eyes on the major works.

It is a bitter twist that millions today find Vincent an accessible and wonderful artist. During his troubled career despite all his devotion and self sacrifice to his work he was not readily accepted, nor his gift acknowledged, even with an art dealer for a brother. That seemed to be the story of his life. It didn’t help when he came across as a difficult, ill-mannered character, an all-or-nothing manic who was a bit of an oddball.

His personal relationships were unsurprisingly rather troublesome and were doomed to failure from the outset. In London he fell in love with Eugenie, his host’s daughter, not knowing she was engaged. He returned home where he was to be rejected by his widowed cousin Kee after her father (his uncle) decided he couldn’t support her financially. He moved to Le Hague and against his father and brother Theo’s advice took up with a prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik (Sien) and her five year old daughter. She became his muse for a while but they drifted apart. He returned home again, wanted to marry a neighbour Margot Begemann but that scandal met with disapproval. His would-be bride survived a suicide attempt but they never made it to the altar. He just was not cut out for marriage. Nor did he fit into the workplace.

After a period art dealing in his teenage years in England, France and his native Holland he lost interest and was dismissed. He turned to Christianity but struggled to follow in the steps of his father and grandfather to be a Christian minister. Doors closed due to his unstable temperament, eccentric behaviour and excessive devotion to his job. Not only did he get rejection slips from the religious authorities who appointed him but more scathingly the peasant people of the working class mining town of Borinage in Southern Belgium turned on him too. If that wasn’t painful enough he also experienced the cold shoulder of his own family, particularly his father who literally disowned the son he considered wayward! Not surprisingly he left the church embittered and impoverished though always held a bright light for the God he claimed he served.

At the age of 27 and with no place to turn he took to drawing and painting with the lofty ambition of becoming an artist despite have no formal training, little previous interest and no sign of artistic talent. His brother Theo, always a rock in Vincent’s life, supported him financially as Vincent set to work on mastering perspective, shading and anatomy and getting him tuition from his cousin Anton Mauve. His early drawings were the weathered hands, heads and bodies of the peasant people from the mining town that had shunned him and he produced ‘The Potato Eaters‘ during this period. It never got the applause he craved so he took himself to Antwerp and enrolled in the art academy there for professional training in art techniques. Both here and in Paris where he was to later move he was keeping company with notable painters like Toulouse Lautrec, Signac, Degas, Pissarro and Gauguin and exposing himself to Japanese influences and Impressionism. His dark palette changed significantly, becoming brighter and more vibrant, his paint the short brushstrokes of his Impressionist friends. This period was undoubtedly the seed for the incredible fruitful canvasses that were to follow.

I don’t know what took Vincent away from Montmartre and his new found artistic companions. Was it really the desire to create a school of art based in Arles in the south of France? Was he confident enough to now stride out on his own and create his own unique personal style? Or had his argumentative ways and lack of social skills been the cause of his downfall again?

For whatever reason he moved to Arles in 1888. Here he worked on sunflowers which were to become his signature pieces and he evolved the style for which he became famous - the application of bright, expressive colour to the canvas in frenzied, thick brushmarks.
Self portrait close up

Arles was a prolific period for him as he captured his exuberance and passion for the surrounding countryside in famous works such as Sunflowers (1888), Café at Night (1888), Starry Night (1889) and Cornfield and Cypress Trees (1889). His little known watercolours such as Fishing Boats at Santeo Maries and drawings were also of the same deep intensity, while the hundreds of letters he wrote to brother Theo are now considered important literary documents in their own right.

Paul Gauguin did finally take up Vincent’s offer to come to the ‘Yellow House’ in Arles and after two months of painting and talking, their friendship ended in a quarrel which resulted in Vincent having a mental breakdown and cutting off part of his left ear with a razor which he then bizarrely gave to a shocked prostitute friend called Rachel. I remember reading recently that two German art historians forwarded a theory that Gauguin (also an expert fencer) might have been responsible for the mutilation during an argument. Anyway he wisely left in December 1888.

Sadly this was the beginning of the end for Vincent as he flitted between fits of madness and lucidity and in 1889 he booked himself into the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence so he could have more immediate attention for his epileptic seizures. It was here that he painted Starry Night and the spiral swirls became a feature of his new work possibly as a result of his worsening mental condition. You have to wonder how could a man so tormented be capable of painting such a masterpiece? How could his anguished soul even conceive such beauty?

In the May of 1890 his condition improved and he went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise under the watchful eye of Dr. Gachet. He continued to paint prolifically despite his depression. Sadly, Vincent viewed his life as horribly wasted and yet another failure,. On July 27, at the age of 37 and after another fit of frantic painting, the troubled artist took a gun and shot himself in the chest. He survived, but died two days later with Theo at his side.

Tragically poor Vincent died in poverty not knowing the acclaim his art would receive. His legacy is immortal - well over 800 landscapes, still lifes, portraits and interior views painted in his trademark blazing colours and passionate, impulsive brushstrokes. His genius might have been ignored during his lifetime but his name will live forever as one of the world’s greatest artists.

Vincent by Don McLean (1972)

Starry, starry night 
Paint your palette blue and grey 
Look out on a summer's day 
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul. 
Shadows on the hills 
Sketch the trees and the daffodils 
Catch the breeze and the winter chills 
In colors on the snowy linen land. 

And now I understand what you tried to say to me 
How you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free. 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they'll listen now. 

Starry, starry night 
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze 
Swirling clouds in violet haze 
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of China blue. 
Colors changing hue 
Morning fields of amber grain 
Weathered faces lined in pain 
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand.

And now I understand what you tried to say to me 
How you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free. 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they’ll listen now. 

For they could not love you 
But still your love was true 
And when no hope was left in sight 
on that starry, starry night. 
You took your life as lovers often do; 
But I could have told you Vincent 
This world was never meant for one 
as beautiful as you. 

Starry, starry night 
Portraits hung in empty halls 
Frameless heads on nameless walls 
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget. 
Like the stranger that you've met 
The ragged men in ragged clothes 
The silver thorn of bloddy rose 
lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow. 

And now I think I know what you tried to say to me 
How you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free. 
They would not listen, they're not list'ning still 

Perhaps they never will.