Thursday, August 14, 2008

Vincent Van Gogh

Photograph of the 13 year old Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh, The Open Bible, 1885

I'm going to do something a little bit different with Vincent Van Gogh that I hope will be fresh and productive. The textbooks lump him in under the meaningless category of "Post Impressionism." The only point to that term so far as I can tell is to provide a chapter break between the Impressionists and the artists who came after them. The textbooks usually describe Van Gogh's work as coming out of Impressionism, that his work is a very personal refinement of the Impressionist brushstroke and the bright optical colors of the Impressionist palette.
And yet, among the 650 or so of his surviving letters, the artists' names that appear most frequently are not Monet, Renoir, or Degas. Van Gogh repeatedly and enthusiastically praises the works of artists like Lhermitte, Von Uhde, and the now almost forgotten Dutch art star of the day, Jozef Israels. His highest praise is reserved for his great hero among contemporary artists, Millet. Van Gogh will make many variations on paintings by Millet in the course of his life.
Van Gogh comes right out of those artists of the Christian Left who placed the content of the Christian faith among the poor, who shared the belief of so many radicals and reformers that God specially privileges the prayers and witness of the poor and outcast. In many ways, Van Gogh's work is the culmination of all those artists who protested the brutality and degredation brought by industrialism.

The last thing Vincent Van Gogh wanted was to be the Van Gogh of popular legend; the tragic neglected genius, the brilliant lunatic who cut off his ear. Van Gogh wanted to be a great public figure like the great authors who were his heroes, Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo. He wanted to do in visual art what they did in literature, and to play a similar public role. He truly believed with all his heart that art had the power to redeem the world broken by modern experience.
The painting above very candidly records Van Gogh's sense of vocation. A huge open Bible dominates the picture, probably his father's (he was a Protestant pastor). Van Gogh, who was 32 when he painted this, felt a strong calling to the ministry. There is another element in this picture complicating that desire to follow in his father's footsteps. Next to the Bible is a tattered paperback copy of Emile Zola's La Joie De Vivre. Vincent Van Gogh pointedly distances himself from the antimodernism expected of ordained clergy of the day. He believed that God dwelt not only in the sacred text of the Bible, but out there in the world, the real world of modern experience that we all share.

I intend to spend some time with Van Gogh and discuss him as a major religious artist, even though conventional religious subject matter rarely appears in his work (when it does, it is always as a copy of another artist's work). I will discuss some works beyond the famous Sunflowers and Starry Night that might not be quite so familiar.


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Ah, I've always been fascinated by Van Gogh's faith. I'll look forward to this.

Anonymous said...

On October 18, 2005 I viewed an exhibition at La Musee des Beaux Arts de Montreal entitled, "Right Under the Sun: Landscape in Provence." Being just a tad on the melancholic side, my companion noted how my eyes lit up and my spirit shifted when I entered the gallery (you see, I *love* the visual arts - especially painting - the smell as much as the visuals).

I had certainly expected Cezanne, Monet, Braque, Dufy, et al., but at the end of the exhibition, around a corner and into a small ante-chamber there appeared...

Vincent Van Gogh!

Was it four paintings or five, I'm not sure?

Well, if I hadn't come to understand that a certain reserve is expected in polite society in Montreal, I would have just broken down into tears. I didn't expect to find him there (I'm not an artist, an art historian, or particularly well-versed in art).

What a privilege and pure gift.

The reason I introduce the matter this way is because of the brushstrokes. I'm sorry, but I looked up close and Van Gogh's brushstrokes have nothing to do with the Impressionists who came before. His are precise, they are measured, they are unique and intentional and almost mathmetical (the kind of mathmetical that has "heart").

When I read you saying that some claim, "his work is a very personal refinement of the Impressionist brushstroke and the bright optical colors of the Impressionist palette," I am dumbfounded (just a lay perspective). Quite frankly (again just a lay perspective), his work seems to have very little to do with the Impressionists who preceded him in that exhibition. In comparison (although I love them, too), they are imprecise and entirely unpredictable with regard to technique and intention. Who woulda thunk that all that wild swirliness and vitality (VVG) was created with intentional, precise and measured strokes?

So now you tell me he's religious. Why doesn't that surprise me, I wonder.

I'm sure I saw these:

Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon, 1889
Large Plane Trees, 1889
Olive Grove with Two Olive Pickers, 1889

I may have seen:

Saint Paul's Hospital, Saint-Remy-de-Provence, 1889

Old Woman of Arles, 1888

Leonardo Ricardo said...

I identify strongly with his "nature"...especially his more "vivid" moments of passion in real life...I saw a interview years ago with a distant relative of his who said he had "emtoional problems" that could be easily "treatable" today...probably true and he was "covering" much of his anxiety for booze/substance abuse...Recently I finished a painting and hung it in my Guestroom...the name is Rock Garden Rhapsody and I kept thinking it looks like "someones" work even though I'm a Pointalist (with actionlike painting under painting) looks like a Van Gogh and a friend pointed that out to me when visiting...made me want to cry out, it does look like his work...warm shiver.

Thanks for these Art History tours...very interesting.

Counterlight said...

Scott Hankins
You may not be an art historian, but you're absolutely right about Van Gogh's brushwork.

Seven Meditations said...

Very interesting stuff and a side of Van Gogh you never hear of.

"He truly believed with all his heart that art had the power to redeem the world broken by modern experience."

Well, if this is broadly true, there is the problem. Jesus himself only has this power - the power to redeem a broken world. If Van Gogh replaced Jesus with art, then it's little wonder why he was so troubled at the end of his life.

Counterlight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Counterlight said...

I don't think you understood the post.

susan s. said...

I started reading this post and remembered that 34 years ago I had read part of this in Art Appreciation. I have always loved his art. I had completely forgotten that he tried to be a minister. Thanks.

Oh, and in 1981 I went to France with the college choir I was in. We went to Arles. The weather was hot, and a very dry wind was blowing relentlessly. I thought then that if he had been on the edge of madness, that wind would have pushed him over. The light there was just as it is in his paintings. I have never forgotten it.

I look forward to the rest.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Counterlight! It's only been a few days since I've been here, and you have so many posts that I have not read. You're prolific. I'll say that for you.

Van Gogh is no impressionist. His later paintings seem to me to point to madness. There's an intensity about his brushwork that amounts to obsession. He appears to be struggling mightily to keep the painting process (and himself) under control.

Pulling it out of my ass, as usual. OCICBW.

bls said...

Have you been to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam? It's beautiful!

Counterlight said...

Alas, I've never been to the Netherlands.