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Van Gogh: The Expressionist
"What lives in art and is eternally living, is first of all the painter, and then the painting." - Vincent Van Gogh
Expressionism is an art form in which the very style itself and the symbols that the artist uses are meant to express his innermost feelings on the subject. Vincent van Gogh has often been hailed as the quintessential expressionist painter. His artwork covers a range of moods over the years, and his canvases are almost mirrors into his troubled soul.
Vincent van Gogh lived a troubled life. He once described his childhood as " cold, gloomy and sterile." He alienated himself from his parents and siblings by being a stubborn and reclusive child. He was clumsy, uncommunicative, and lived an early life of solitude, being misunderstood by his own family. The only sibling he had any sort of close relationship with was his brother, Theo. He would later be Vincent’s biggest supporter, both moral and financial, during the formative years of his unsuccessful career in art.
As the young Vincent grew up, he realized that art was his calling in life. He decided that he would paint and make a living off his sales. Ironically, though his paintings may sell for millions today…van Gogh actually sold only one painting in his lifetime, and this, for the meager cost of 40 francs.
Van Gogh’s problems were numerous. First of all, he just didn’t have the social skills to be happy in his personal life. He had a few disastrous relationships with women before sinking deep into solitude and depression. His paintings during his troubled romances and the ensuing heartbreaks are filled with darkness and pain, reflecting his inner sorrow. Secondly, while Vincent’s paintings were indisputably brilliant, he simply didn’t have the interpersonal skills to make any sales! The legend has it that he actually used to argue with buyers who praised them, trying to convince them forcefully that his work was not remarkably good! He was an extremely modest man, perhaps overly so. He signed all of his works with simply "Vincent," never adding the surname.
His numerous personal failures are arguably evident in his works at the time. His inability to find companionship and his constant dependence on Theo for financial support depressed him considerably. In his portraits of people and his scenes during this period, one could argue that the lines and the somber expressions on the faces are practically screaming replicas of van Gogh’s own discontent in life. His scenes are dark and hopeless, with few random splashes of light.
This combination of personal shortcomings led to van Gogh’s stints with being an assistant teacher and a bookseller. He failed miserably in both cases. His parents, frustrated with supporting their "failure" of a son, begged him to become a minister. He entered into Theology, but soon realized that he lacked the ability to learn the math and foreign languages necessary. Nonetheless, he did eventually enter an evangelical school, and went on to become a local priest in Brussels.
Van Gogh drew new inspiration from working with the poor peasant class in Brussels. While he found it extremely difficult to communicate his religious viewpoints to them, he was a saint in other ways. He was known to give away his own sparse clothing and money to help them. He became fascinated by their plight, but somehow, living with them began to draw him down to their level. Their harsh living conditions and suffering made him lose faith in religion. In effect, ironically, his congregation converted him! At this point in time, he became fascinated by their charcoal drawings and by scenes of everyday life in utter poverty. One of his most acclaimed paintings from this period is "The Potato Eaters." This depicts a set of elderly people during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. The colours are dark and dreary greys, blues, greens and browns, and they are sharing a sparse meal of potatoes and broth. One can almost see van Gogh’s sympathy for these people. The painting is so emotionally charged….it is as though he has become one of them, and entered into their suffering himself.
Vincent returned to his childhood home after a while, to live with his family again. There, he fell deeply in love with a cousin. The feelings were not reciprocated, and the relationship was doomed to failure. When his father, a deeply religious man, found out about van Gogh’s incestuous tendencies, the result was a father-son rift that was never resolved.
Once again, van Gogh entered into a period of deep personal depression. Even looking at his self-portraits throughout the years, his sufferings are evident. His face is sallow, his mouth droops, his jaw is set, and his eyes are sunken. His apparel is always brown or very dark in colour. Clearly, this is not a happy man.
As van Gogh continued into his late 20’s and early 30’, his life only grew worse. He moved to Paris, where he befriended fellow artist Gaugin. Once again, though, Vincent’s personal problems and inability to forge normal, lasting interpersonal relationships led to a massive fight with Gaugin. This was the fight that left van Gogh feeling so angry and hurt that he cut off his own ear in a fit of rage. How can one not say that he is a true expressionist when one sees the tragedy of his "Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe"?
Theo van Gogh heard of his brother’s erratic act, and had Vincent institutionalized in Arles in 1888. In the asylum, van Gogh painted more than seventy artworks, stemming from his psychological viewpoints and frustration and depression in his life at this moment. Cutting his ear off was only the beginning of his psychotic episodes. In retrospect, it seems as though van Gogh’s emotional outbreaks occurred prior to any perceived ‘threats’ to his relationships with people he cared about. For example, he had a breakdown after the fight with Gaugin. He had another upon Theo’s engagement (Vincent thought marriage would take his brother away from him) and yet another at the wedding.
Predictably, with increasing psychiatric problems and personal unhappiness, van Gogh’s expressionist talents were at their prime. Paintings such as "Wheat Field with Crows" (1890) reflected mottled feelings of optimism (characterized by bright and garish yellows and oranges) and deep despair and hopelessness (as seen in the navy skies and black crow symbols). Vincent did suffer from bipolar disorder, which caused him to vary between a manic state and a deep depressive state, so his artistic ambivalence is not surprising.
Only a few days after completing this painting, van Gogh was dead. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself in the stomach and died.
As he said to his beloved brother, Theo, near the end of his turbulent life
"I feel...a failure. That's it as far as I'm concerned...I feel that this is the destiny that I accept, that will never change."
Vincent van Gogh’s life was a tragedy…a sad legacy of thousands of paintings and sketches which all tell his life story. In the beautiful and intense colours of works like "Sunflowers," "Haystacks", "Wheatfield with Cypresses", "Almond Branches in Blossom" and "Irises"…is it not possible to see a glimmer of hope for a mad genius? Look at the vivid yellow and red-orange hues. It is as though these are pictures of what he wants in his life. Colour….representing happiness, love, freedom? An escape from his borderline insanity, perhaps. Then, in works like "Prisoners Exercising," Peasant Woman with the Yellow Straw Hat," "La Berceuse" and "The Potato Eaters," we are given a dark insight into the world of the poor and oppressed. His colours are ambivalent…ranging from bright flowers and cornfields to the dark lines etched into the troubled faces of his subjects. In others, the entire scene is grey and dull, showing how far into the suffering of his subjects Vincent has allowed himself to sink. In his final years, van Gogh created some of his most acclaimed works. "Starry Night", "Starry Night Above the Rhone, " and "Wheatfield with Crows." These paintings were awash with vivid, dark blues, glittering yellow-white stars, black birds in a turbulent sky, and bright corn growing in a field of gold. These pre-suicidal masterpieces are van Gogh’s snapshot of a disease. Earlier in his life, he painted his own room-"Bedroom"….the empty chairs and the colours used (blue walls, brown and green mottled floor) reflected the early signs of his social isolation and perhaps, the onslaught of his psychiatric disorder. Hence, it was only expected that he would leave us with a picture of the final stages of his battle with manic-depression. His final paintings spoke of deep, deep anguish and sadness. His life had been a failure. Yet at the same time, they glowed with the yellows and reds of his mania…that undying spark of madness and genius that dwelled within.
Vincent van Gogh transcribed his emotions onto canvas throughout a brief and troubled life. He is the epitome of expressionism, and will live on as such for generations to come.
"Well, even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself: in spite of everything I shall rise again, I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing, and from that moment everything has seemed transformed in me." -Vincent van Gogh, 1886 (On his drive to paint, even in the midst of despair)
BibliographyBonnie Butterfield, "Troubled Life of Vincent Van Gogh", http://cvc.csusb.edu/VincentVanGogh.htm [available on Feb. 21, 2001]
Ed. By Francesca Castria Marchetti Vincent van Gogh Rizzoli International Publications Inc., New York, 1999.
Encarta 2000 Encyclopedia [CD Rom], Article: "Expressionism" Microsoft Incorporated, 2000