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Van Gogh - There are several van Goghs
Art historian Griselda Pollock, in her documentary entitled The Legend of van Gogh, stated that ‘there are several van Goghs.’ To agree or disagree with this statement, one must firstly understand the point Pollock is attempting to get across. One could interpret this opinion as meaning that there are various artistic styles and several facets of van Gogh’s life that can be critically analysed; having this understanding of Pollock’s attitude toward van Gogh, it would be difficult not to agree with her.
Using phraseology similar to that of Pollock, one could say that there are four van Goghs: the failing peasant, the successful sophisticate, the eccentric meaningful lover, and the van Gogh of the present day. All who have knowledge of the artist would know how complex his life was, and so it is not incredible to believe that he was all these things during his relatively short life. (Born in 1853, he died at the age of only 37, in 1890.) An alternate definition of Pollock’s statement is the following:
He was prolific and protean: He was a scholar and a sufferer, an art-world pro and a destitute outsider, an evangelical bohemian, both sordid and sublime. There are as many ways to see his pictures as there are ways to read his life. Some are stolid brown and gray. Others seem to detonate in a shrapnel burst of color, as if his world had begun to fly apart. Some are piercingly original. Others closely imitate other artists' art. Apparent in these paintings – from "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam" – are the combustible components that he mixed in his art.
Firstly, van Gogh as the failing peasant. Van Gogh was not always a painter; although many claim he realised his artistic potential early in life , he did not seriously consider devoting his life to it (de Grausen , Eurie ). There is little known information about the artists first fifteen years, yet it is possible to find out the basics: after a few years of education in Holland, he left his studies at the age of 15, and never returned to them. In 1869, he joined a firm of art dealers in The Hague, called Goupil & Cie. (The van Gogh family had been involved in the art world for many years: both Vincent’s uncles, Cornelius and (Vin)Cent were art dealers, as was, of course, Vincent’s brother Theo.) Vincent kept his job at Holland for seven years, after which he was transferred to the London office. Enamoured by the different climate of London, Vincent remained there for two years, during which time he visited various galleries, admiring British artists and writers. Having been transferred for the second time (this time in 1875 and to Paris), van Gogh began to see that his life was turning into ennui; he hence left Goupil & Cie and revisited London. Vincent van Gogh’s instability in this job was the first sign pointing to failure being evident.
Realising he could no longer continue his position with Goupil & Cie, van Gogh looked elsewhere for opportunities he could take advantage of. He found a job as a teacher in charge of about 24 young students at Reverend T. Slade Jones’ school in Isleworth. It was at this time that van Gogh considered that he could be destined to spread the word of God. He spent many hours reading the Gospel, attempting to ameliorate his relationship with God. Van Gogh requested to Jones that his responsibilities be broadened, asking to be transformed from a teacher to a clergyman. Jones accepted his request and van Gogh gave his first sermon in October 1876. A Biblical quote van Gogh cited in this sermon goes as follows:
Much strife must be striven
Much suffering must be suffered
Much prayer must be prayed
And then the end will be peace.
This excerpt relates inextricably to van Gogh’s life, as will be discussed later on in the ‘today’s van Gogh category’.
Van Gogh was very fervent when it came to his studies of religion, yet when it came down to it, the reality was that his sermons lacked a vital feeling of life. Like his father Theodorus, Vincent had a passion for preaching; he lacked, however, a gripping and passionate delivery (Brooks ). After this short stint in Isleworth, van Gogh travelled to Laeken, where he failed to qualify for the mission school. Nonetheless, he persuaded prominent men at the church to allow him to have a trial period in one of the most impoverished regions in Europe, the coal-mining district of The Borinage, Belgium. Van Gogh began to work there in 1879 and became so attached to all the people there that he went to the extent of become poverty-stricken himself just to relieve them of their desires of both food and money. Although van Gogh had gracious intentions, the Church disapproved of his severe actions, requesting that he leave the area. He moved to an adjacent village, continuing to live in miserable poverty. One day, he felt duty-bound to visit the French painter whom he admired the most, Jules Breton; van Gogh, without ten francs in his pocket, walked the entire seventy kilometres to Courriиres, in France, to visit him. When he arrived, van Gogh felt too timid to knock on the door, and subsequently returned to his home very much discouraged, as one can expect.
Upon his return, he began to sketch his environment: the minors and their families, the harsh conditions . It was here that van Gogh’s gift sprung from weakness. This was the turning point of his life. Vincent discusses this time in his life in a letter to his brother Theo, whence the following citation can be drawn:
When I began to draw after having been vehemently upset by my own actions in Courriиres, I felt like somebody who, emerging from a dark cave underground, comes back to the friendly daylight.
Although his preaching ended upon the commencement of art directly in his life, a conclusion can be drawn about God: van Gogh still believed that God was guiding him. This is evident from the way he ends that same letter:
А Dieu, a handshake from
Your loving brother,
The phrase А Dieu can be translated from French as ‘in the name of God’, hence van Gogh still felt a connection with the divine.
A second important facet of van Gogh’s life, alluded to the above excerpt as the ‘friendly daylight’, is the way in which he realised that he could, in fact, be successful, and how he became recognised as a sophisticate. He was very well read (he read much British literature while in London), was multilingual (he spoke and wrote fluently in English, French, German and Dutch and had studied Greek and Latin) and had ties with the art world that could not have been much stronger; as previously mentioned, his two uncles and brother were art dealers and, in fact, Vincent had started a collection of artworks (not his own creations), including a vast diversity of genres, ranging from British wood engraving to Japanese Ukiyoe prints.
This may seem to utterly contradict the previous idea of van Gogh being a failing peasant and this is, of course, because the successful stage in van Gogh’s life came after the peasant stage. As stated earlier, van Gogh’s direct entry into the art world was a pivotal point of his life that changed what everyone else thought of him, and what he thought of himself (Millthorpe ). Vincent van Gogh’s appreciation of art (both his own and that of fellow artists) increased; this can be seen in an excerpt from a letter to Theo, in which he writes:
You must not take it amiss if I write you again – it’s only to tell you that painting is such a joy for me.
Also, van Gogh’s skill in art improved, with continued practice and experience. (Nonetheless, as pointed out in a documentary entitled The Bedroom at Arles, van Gogh never really seemed to master perspective.) Theo points to Vincent how successful he has become in this letter:
Your pictures at the exhibition are having a lot of success. The other day Diaz stopped me in the street and said, ‘Give your brother my compliments and tell him that his pictures are highly remarkable’. Monet said that your pictures were the best of all in the exhibition.
Van Gogh’s overarching identity included many eccentricities and a great search for meaning and symbolism in art. When he moved to Paris in March, 1886, it seemed that a conflagration overwhelmed him, in the positive sense. His painting became more effulgent, and his colours more vibrant. He became a colourist and started to pay more and more attention to variations of colour in his artworks. This change in his character becomes very evident in his letters to Theo , and also in his paintings The Bedroom at Arles and The Night Cafй . The colour moved Vincent, and he used it to bring meaning to his work. (This can be seen in Plate 9, where Vincent explains how colour establishes a feeling of rest in The Bedroom at Arles).
Another or Griselda Pollock’s ‘several van Goghs’ is the eccentric, meaningful lover. Many people are well aware of the psychological trauma Vincent van Gogh went through during his beautiful life. There is much speculation as to the causes of this, yet one fascinating account states as follows: exactly a year (to the day) before the birth of Vincent, his mother gave birth to another child, which was stillborn. His name was also Vincent. The whole notion for him to be a ‘replacement child’, even with the same name, must have brought shame onto him for the rest of his life, and hence people have reason to believe that this may have augmented his eccentricities and psychological problems.
Also, Vincent suffered from serious physical illness. This was partially brought on by another of his peculiar quiddities: while painting, Vincent would occasionally suck on his paintbrush, consuming toxic lead-based paint, and also sip on turpentine, which he used as a paint thinner .
Although highly talented, Vincent van Gogh was in essence a sick man. Don Mclean talks about the skill, yet unfortunate sad side, of van Gogh in his hit song, which he called Vincent . On line 4, the song talks about ‘the darkness in [Vincent’s] soul’ and then on line 12, ‘how [he] suffered how [his] sanity’; nonetheless, Mclean reverts back to the beauty of van Gogh, saying (on line 34) ‘how [his] love was true’. This song captures the inner beauty of van Gogh, yet acknowledging the hard times he had to face to eventually find eternal peace (‘The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you’, lines 39 and 40).
The final van Gogh is today’s van Gogh or, in fact, the way he is recognised in today’s society. This is a highly subjective field of research: some see him to be the exceedingly capable painter, who created such masterpieces as The Bedroom at Arles and his numerous paintings of sunflowers; others, however, see him to be a sick, eccentric lover who failed in all he did, without fully acknowledging him as the skilful painter. Neither one of these opinions is wrong, but neither is completely right. When remembering the legend of Vincent van Gogh, one should (in order that they might be truly understanding and knowledgeable) take both of these views into account, examining all the available evidence, before making a decision. There is not just one van Gogh that should be remembered: there are several van Goghs.