To (brother) Theo (556) – 18th August 1886
It’s a good thing for you to be prepared that the affair, perhaps cannot be ended in the way you suggest, because by rushing her you could simply either provoke her to suicide or send her mad, and the effect of that on you would be tragic of course, and could shatter you forever.
Susan Sontag said, that what was written about a person or an event was just an interpretation as, were handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. What has been supposed and written about Van Gogh, it seems were not only interpretations, but also it transpires, inaccurate interpretations. If he were still alive he would stand a good chance of winning a pretty penny in a libel case. The publishers of the trash mag’s must be kicking themselves that they hadn’t been in print a hundred years ago, ‘raging, red head, pauper, painter, slices off ear to torment prostitute’. It would take a vivid imagination of even the most overpaid, overworked and overdosed copywriter to make up stuff like that (although not for want of trying!) compulsive reading indeed. Unfortunately for Van Gogh, with today’s illusion of beauty, he may not have been considered for a cover shot, even a challenge for Photoshop, with the ginger beard, one ear and bandaged head, not exactly circulation boosting looks, something even Van Gogh alludes to in a letter to his sister when he talks about his self portrait.
Now here’s something that’s confusing me. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a lot, after all, I remember as a child thinking that the Muppet audience were real people dressed up (in fact I have only recently stopped my search for a costume). Clearly, the purpose of these long awaited letters are, in fact, to give an insight into Van Gogh the ’new’ person. My excitement and anticipation were actually more to see the letters alongside the paintings, to follow the story and look at the pictures with my imagination fuelled, drifting into a world where we had walked side by side through the gardens at the asylum, as if he had told me about his inspirations, his passion, I wanted his words echoing in my ears as my eyes read the paintings. I wanted to come away with, as Sontag points out, more than interpretation, which is what the paintings and previous diatribe have given us. I wanted to know the man, how he thought and how he verbalised; this is our first chance to do that, and the translated excerpts were not enough. Of course, if you are German, Dutch or French, with a lot of patience and great eyesight than you did exactly that. Observing the letters and not being able to understand them perhaps had one advantage, it makes you look more intensely at the handwriting and the evolution, or even devolution of it, is it the escalating excitement, passion, understanding and discovery that make the words appear to race across the medium? A medium that varied greatly, it seems whatever were to hand or affordable including ‘torchon’ which was a type of tea towel cloth, was used to write words of great literary value. The illustrations, often very detailed, some no bigger than a postage stamp, were illuminating and it is here that the relation between figure and discourse would have had huge impact, as it did in the classical period, the linking of text and image dates back to the debut of the book.
Breathtaking and hallucinating were words I frequently heard resonating as I waited to take my position up front and centre to each of the paintings, and indeed the atmosphere was electric, not your usual gallery vibe it has to be said.
The clumsy, awkward and ham fisted early attempts at figure painting had an honesty to them that told you more about the painter than the peasants. Portraits he considered to be the most important genre, especially the figure in action and worked hard to master his craft. If you have the time to follow the work chronologically, watching the hand and mind mature, seeing him find ‘that je ne sais quoi of the eternal through colour’ (673) is inspirational, and I use inspirational, because to witness this passion, determination and unfolding talent, of a mostly self taught artist should, if nothing else move you – and if that isn’t the case, I recommend seeking medical advice- it leaves us all as first hand witness to what that drive can achieve. It’s as if when walking around you’re willing him on, wanting and wishing him to master the portrait, the colour, the light, (bear witness from stumbling first steps to an Olympic gold medal). And yes, how refreshing, there is the happy ending we all already know – Van Gogh does this spectacularly. So if you’ve lost your mojo, this is the place to go find it!
To ( brother) Theo (673) – 3rd September 1888
Ah, my dear brother sometimes I know so clearly what I want in life and in painting too, I can easily do without the Lord, but I can’t, suffering as I do, do without something greater than myself, which is my life, the power to create.
Breathtaking, heart stopping, life changing highlight: Garden at the Asylum
The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his letters is on at the Royal Academy of Arts 23 January – 18 April 2010. Sponsored by BNY Mellon