I was informed this morning after finishing the first of two apples (red delicious, both in excellent condition) that it was, in fact Vincent Van Gogh‘s birthday today. Now I’d like to consider myself a bit of an art history nerd, but I don’t memorize dates. In fact, I find it even harder to memorize name. Why, just a day or two ago, I remember I was thinking of Georges Seurat, (don’t ask why) and I could remember that he founded the (short-lived) pointillism movement, because of an article explaining how light works to create images, that he was often nicknamed “The Notary” by fellow impressionists for his stern countenance, and that he drew using conte crayon rubbed onto paper to create an absence of line. But I couldn’t remember that he was named Georges Seurat.
But we’re getting a bit off topic here.
Vincent Van Gogh is one of those artists that I love and hate at the same time. I love the man’s work (well, not ALL of it, but even Ingres had failings) but I hate the public image of him. Whenever I ask people who their favorite artist is (mostly to gauge their personality) I find that if they don’t know what they’re talking about, they’ll either turn to one of the three prime Renaissance Classicists (Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael) Picasso, or Vincent Van Gogh. I suppose this sounds a little dumb coming from the guy who tried to do a Super Mario Bros. version of Guernica, but cut me some slack here. Either way, the problem I have with this is that it seems a bit like people are just willing to accept Van Gogh’s work as high art without trying to understand it, which is probably the reason the New York scene was so flooded with Abstract Expressionists (mostly color field) during the 30’s and 40’s.
Unless everyone actually understood the concept of pure painting, and Chardin‘s impact on modern movements. In that case, I guess I’m an asshole.
So let’s talk Van Gogh. And not mention Starry Night. I know about Starry Night.
Van Gogh’s career actually started during his childhood, if we want to get to the root of things; He apparently once described his childhood as cold and devoid of feeling, and he had a drawing teacher who encouraged a very set learning process. These were two things that he would try to rebel against again and again (if you can rebel against an almost emotion-free life) and his paintings are thought by many (and myself, just puttin’ that out there) to be an expression of the intense emotions he felt during his everyday life. It would be worth it to note also that Van Gogh might have just been searching for that intensity, especially if you consider how he doggedly pursued a woman he had intended to marry (going so far as sticking his hand in the flame of a candle and saying “let me talk to her as long as I can keep my hand in the flame” The girl’s father blew it out.) and his time as a priest when he slept on the floor of a shack and nearly starved himself because he felt that a priest should know how his congregation lived (he was fired for undermining the dignity of priesthood after which he began his career in art). I guess there’s the ear-cutting-off thing with Gauguin, but everyone knows that.
The first place he went as an artist was the first place every troubled teenager goes. Dark, muddy colors and images of skeletons with cigarettes and starving peasants. It would seem this didn’t work out that well for him, or at least his sales. His brother Theo suggested that perhaps he should try painting like the Impressionists. This is where the Vincent we know began. He painted still-lifes for a while (well, actually his whole life) and then went to Paris to check out the scene over there. Here he met Paul Gauguin and discovered Ukiyo-E, both of which he emulated. His most important influence at this time, though, was Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli, a predecessors of the Impressionists, and a man whose name takes about a half-hour to pronounce (and who also lived in poverty because of a lack of popularity). Monticelli seems to have inspired in Van Gogh the brush work which we see in paintings such as (my personal favorite) the above, Wheatfield with Crows as well as others. It’s important to note too Van Gogh’s love for Frans Hals and his continued association with impressionists like Emile Bernard (of “Haystacks” fame) and Toulouse Lautrec (known for his prints, but more so for his funny name).
Skipping ahead past further artistic revelation and constantly being one-upped by Impressionists, Neo or otherwise, we examine his move to Arles, where he found his most prominent artistic identity, and was promptly put in the Saint Paul Asylum. Around this period we start to see some of his most famous paintings (Vase with twelve sunflowers, The Night Cafe, Gauguin’s/Vincent’s Chairs) and a more sophisticated and prominent use of color, as well as an expressionistic treatment of subjects and his ever-so-famous treatment of light. He was apparently very excited by the vibrant bar-scene as well as the light that he found in Arles. It was here that he believed he would set up (with Paul Gauguin’s help) a utopian community of artists, all supporting each other in their dedication to their work. Instead, he ended up with one ear, terrible mood-swings, several health problems (syphilis, lack of teeth, malnutrition, etc.) and stack after stack of paintings. He committed himself to the asylum and spent his time there painting and drawing from memory as well as from copies of works by other artists (one of them Millet, whose painting “The Sower” I mistook for Van Gogh’s copy while I was at the Carnegie in Pittsburgh). He lingered for a while, and eventually died. His retrospective exhibitions were his most popular.
I remember reading an art history textbook where the author suggested that while Vincent Van Gogh may not have had a vast expanse of talent, he did have an impeccably unique way of problem-solving in his work. Although he seems to have had “talent” confused for “drafstmansly excellence” (he compared Van Gogh to Vermeer of all people after all) I would agree that Van Gogh had a unique way of giving feeling to his subjects. It was not the clarity of the subject that made his paintings so vivid, but the color and the brushwork that made them so communicative. And although he may not have had respect in his lifetime, his paintings will forever communicate his personality to us.
So happy birthday Vincent. My laptop is running out of batteries.