Vincent van Gogh: on the Road to Revolution | Utne Reader

By Tim Keane, special to Utne Reader

  • Giant Peacock Moth (1889), Vincent Van Gogh
    Image courtesy of The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
  • The Sower (1888), Vincent Van Gogh
    Image courtesy of The Van Gough Museum, Amsterdam
  • Self-Portrait as a painter (1887-1888), Vincent Van Gough
    Image courtesy of The Van Gough Museum, Amsterdam

On December 23, 1888, an agitated 35-five-year-old Dutch man turned up at a brothel in a provincial town in the south of France and presented his severed ear to a prostitute. This gruesome local incident event would be lost in police records had it not been for the fact that the man handing over the body part was Vincent van Gogh, a painter whose art, most of it produced within a single decade, helped created a new language for nearly every 20th century movement in European painting.

Today millions of tourists flock to museums, crowding in front of van Goghs like The Starry Night (1889) and Sunflowers (1888). The art has been reproduced en masse, on posters, prints, calendars, key chains, tote bags, coffee mugs, umbrellas, fabric covers and even bathing suits. Yet the artist’s struggles with mental illness in the last year or so of his life have been magnified into cautionary tales about art, feeding a toxic popular myth that artists are insane, antisocial, and self-destructive. He is a wide-eyed messianic savant in Vicente Milleni’s Lust for Life (1956), an irritable and immature malcontent in Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990), and an institutionalized and emaciated victim in Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991). Having exhausted van Gogh’s biography, filmmakers have turned the art-as-madness propaganda campaign on to other artists’ lives, from Mr. Turner (2014) and Pollock (2000) to Basquiat  (1996), and Edvard Munch (1974). The message — unfailingly negative and absurdly reductive — is that artists are quasi-mystic misfits whose charming works were the byproduct of sick souls. In addition to further stigmatizing mental illness, these misrepresentations reinforce the lie that such illnesses strike painters in disproportionate numbers compared to the rest of the population. Armed with psychoanalytic theory and cultural studies, curators, critics and academics pile on, framing an artist’s work in spurious speculations about their inner lives and secret agendas. This insulates both academe and mass culture from engaging with art as complex and subversive forms of knowledge. Admire it, get its “messages,” but don’t take art too seriously. In turn, foundational principles from art like “creativity,” “imagination,” and “vision” get emptied of subversive meanings, appropriated for TED Talks and marketing campaigns while bungling inventors and venture capitalists become our modern-day Leonardo da Vincis. If the hijacking of van Gogh’s biography started us down this road, then revisiting van Gogh through the prism of newly published books about his life and aesthetics can chart a new course toward understanding the achievements buried beneath the myth.

After all “geniuses,” like “stars,” come and go with every news cycle. What makes van Gogh great was an ingrained mission he adopted, one that would test whether painting could expand the very phenomenon of experience itself. Judicious, well-read, focused, resourceful and unremitting, he learned and then rejected numerous conventions in order to break down the supposed distinctions between nature and art, between the world as it is and the world as it is painted. To this end, more radically than his equally talented and industrious Post-Impressionist peers, van Gogh undid long held Western assumptions about spatiality, color, and composition. Dispensing with three-dimensionality and chiaroscuro, he remade canvases into allover fields of undiluted, sharply contrasting colors and unpredictable densities of brushwork. Seemingly hurried and unrefined, his paintings helped advance abstraction in art by revealing how an object’s details can stand alone as self-contained exemplifications of the picture’s whole, as if painting itself had harnessed the ocular magic of telescopes, microscopes and zoom lenses. In all these respects, van Gogh discovered and mapped out unknown interrelationships between psychological depth and frank intimacy, audacious color and pure spatiality that guided much of 20th century art, from Pablo Picasso’s flattened planes of Cubism to Pierre Bonnard’s lushly colored interiors and into the art scenes across the Atlantic, from Frida Kahlo’s high-keyed probing self-portraiture to Joan Mitchell’s lyrical Abstract Expressionist evocations of nature.   

Vincent Van Gogh came out of nowhere. Born in Zundert in The Netherlands in 1853, he was the eldest son of a caring, censorious reverend in the Dutch Reformed Church and an equally protective and often judgmental mother. To appease his parents, in his early 20s, he went to work for the international art dealer Goupil & Cie. Goupil posted him first in The Hague, then in London, and, briefly, in Paris. Though enthralled by the range of European art he handled, the art-dealing career which so suited his younger brother Theo did not suit his intrepid temperament. After Vincent was laid off by Goupil he studied theology for a time, working as an evangelical preacher. A churchgoer in England around October of 1876 would have heard a rare Sunday sermon by van Gogh, a speech which he transcribed in a letter to Theo. In it he echoes a long-standing motif among Protestant evangelicals that defines human beings as “pilgrims in the earth and strangers.” This formulation, reiterated in his early letters, reflects a kind of enlightened nihilism that may eventually have been his unspoken credo. On the one hand, the stark phrase “pilgrims and strangers,” enshrines a sort of tranquil alienation as being endemic to the natural world and to humanity. But in its secular or existential associations, about which van Gogh often ruminates, the formulation levels class hierarchies and incites fellowship between humans and a kinship between humanity and the nonhuman world.

Ultimately, promoting Christianity to congregants suited van Gogh as poorly as had selling other people’s art. Writing in 1882, as he began drawing in earnest, he assures Theo, “Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.” And, contrary to the then fashionable belief in supernatural inspiration, he defines art as a patient effort, trial-and-error, and, most interestingly, as an ongoing act of nonconformity. “Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation,” he tells Theo, adding that, “by dogged, I mean in the first place incessant labor, but also not abandoning one’s views upon the say-so of this person or that.” In his letters to Theo he names himself a “painter of peasant life” mainly because he saw everyone, including himself, as peasants tilling the earth as if it were a fief run by an absent overlord.

Once he decided to make art, he studied, drew and painted laborers — diggers and sowers, miners and weavers. In this respect, he learned from social realists and magazine illustrators while, unbeknownst to the young van Gogh, the Impressionists in France were already remaking the rules for painting. For his part, as he began to paint he did so in earth tones and dim interiors brightened here and there by relatively muted light, and held what he witnessed as the only criterion for choosing subject matter. “ I see [potential] paintings and drawings in the poorest cottages, the dirtiest corners,” he tells Theo, “And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.”

This creative upsurge kicked into full gear around the time he turned 30, an activism through art fueled by reading social realists like Charles Dickens and Émile Zola and studying his favorite painter, Jean-Francois Millet, as well as rereading Shakespeare, the Gospels, and Victor Hugo. Newly animated and bankrolled by Theo, he formulates visual perception as an interpersonal dynamic connected to drawing. Against his brother’s advice and alarming his parents, he briefly shared a home with Clasina (Sien) Maria Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, all the while delving into landscape drawing. “Picture me sitting at my attic window as early as 4:00 in the morning,” he writes to Theo, “studying the meadows & the carpenter’s yard with my perspective frame.” He was sure that disciplines of close observation and social realism would yield art reflective of that diligence. But an autodidactic approach would only get him so far. He enrolled for a short time in the Art Academy in Brussels and apprenticed with two successful artists — esteemed Dutch painter Willem Roelofs as well as his own second cousin, Anton Mauve. But his time living with his brother Theo in Paris from late 1886 to early 1888 would completely alter his art and produce the Van Gogh we know.

In the French capital, the two bachelors resided first on the Rue de Laval before moving to a bigger studio-friendly third-floor apartment at 54 rue Lepic in Montmartre. The just republished A Memoir of Vincent van Gogh (Getty Publications, 2018) by Theo’s widow, Jo van-Gogh Bonger reports that Vincent and Theo argued often. Vincent implored his younger brother to quit Goupil and open his own gallery. In turn Theo bristled at what he viewed as his older brother’s shoddy housekeeping, poor hygiene, and general vehemence. Theo’s network was pivotal. He knew the leading Impressionists and many vanguard artists. Other artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin befriended Vincent and encouraged a more experimental and freer attitude to making pictures.

The most decisive influence was the sudden infusion of Japanese art into Paris in the form of ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints. As documented in a recent blockbuster exhibition held at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and in the newly published Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent Van Gogh (Thames & Hudson & Van Gogh Museum 2018), these reproductions of Japanese art — ranging greatly in quality — were made available by the recent opening of Japan to the West. The cultural excitement over what the writer and theater impresario Jules Claretie labeled japanisme helped transform French art of that period, persuading established artists like Camille Pissaro and up-and-coming figures like Paul Gauguin to emulate the techniques and topics as handled by Japanese painters like Hiroshige and Hokusai.

More acutely than most artists, van Gogh was caught up in this fascination. Partly hoping to make money by selling them, he bought “no fewer than 660 sheets” of Japanese art, mainly from dealer Siegfried Bing, including reproductions of Japanese chirimen-e art — known in French as crépons — creped prints in which the artist’s paper was artificially manipulated to create a crinkled surface and a textile-like appearance. Though his attempt to sell his collection flopped, the prints he kept in his studio offered new technical strategies for landscape painting, including cropping out depicted objects in unusual ways, experimenting with zooming and aerial views, working with high horizon lines, and allowing intrusive structures to dominate a picture’s foreground. His paintings began to feature abrupt flattening effects, much bolder coloration and schematized arrangements. In two paintings that copy Japanese models, Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887) and Courtesan (after [Keisai] Eisen) (1887), he extends the original’s florid colors, stylized poses, and sinuous costumes to the images and colors he added to the paintings’ actual frames.

Other changes were more subtle but far-reaching. He was particularly drawn to certain Japanese genres like kacho-e, featuring birds and flowers, and bijin-ga, portraits of women and kabuki actors. These interests led to a shift in how he approached realism. The natural world remains a central fascination. In presentation, nature becomes an unpredictable genus alive with organic ornamentation. His portraiture changes in a corresponding manner. Van Gogh’s sitters, including himself, take on a theatricality normally associated with actors, priests, and courtesans.

But this adoption of Japanese techniques was not without struggle. Writing to his fellow Japanophile and close friend Émile Bernard, he notes that “the Japanese disregards reflection, placing solid tints one beside the other — characteristic lines naively marking off movements or shapes.” Concision and succinctness, two Japanese artistic traits he wished to adopt, did not come easily. But when it did, his painterly language expanded exponentially.

If Paris offered him an ongoing cultural reeducation, it also stifled him. van-Gogh Bonger reports that the gray city “did not agree” with Vincent and “overstrained his nerves.” He decided to leave for the south. On the road, he envisioned himself as a Japanese monk, translating, in his mind, the sunny expanses of rural France into a utopian Japan where, the painter believed, art “makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.” The idealized Japan infused him with optimism. In Self Portrait as a Bonze (1888), a painting he gifted to friend Paul Gauguin, he alters his physiognomy to match the face of a Japanese monk. He depicts himself standing upright with his hair shorn, his angular face drawn and gaunt, concentrated and poised, his domed head haloed in luminescent greens.

In tone and subject, van Gogh broke with somber, salt-of-the-earth melancholy to turn toward coincidental dramas of color, sunlight, jarring angularities, and unexpected collocations. He dispensed with the Western-derived technique of point perspective. The result, as in Japanese paintings, is that any given represented space, be it a cramped bedroom or a sweeping valley, implicitly suggests its surrounding context even though those elements exist in the viewer’s visual imagination, beyond the picture’s frame. The pictorial content seems to be bursting beyond its limits. German painter August Endell notes that van Gogh “master[s] even the boldest colour combination, [and] he finds the right tones so convincingly that in spite of the heavy outlines that for every other painter would tear the picture apart, he achieves formal unity.”

Van Gogh evolves as a draughtsman, too. Drawn to what scholar Louis Van Tilborgh calls “the stenographic vocabulary” of nanga —“Japanese ink paintings in the Chinese tradition”— his earnest naturalism meets a refined and assured elegance. His side view Barn Owl (1887) diptych drawings simultaneously captures the bird of prey’s menacing physiognomy and its exotic, almost doll-like otherworldliness. Similarly Giant Peacock Moth (1889, pictured below) describes the insect’s physiognomy and renders the contours and ornamentation on its wings with the exactitude of a milliner, while Three Cicadas (1889) looks like an illustration for a science manual and a jeweler’s calligraphic diagram.

No longer merely imitating nature, his art channels the suddenness inherent in seen faces, objects and scenes, a truthful strangeness that puts the natural and the artificial on equal footing. The paintings preserve a spontaneous materialization within what is seen. In the dreamlike portrait Père Tanguy (1887) housed at the Rodin Museum in Paris, the bearded Tanguy wears a green and yellow straw cap that intimates the colors of pastureland or sunflower fields; his blue coat is colored like a midday sky in peak sunshine; his heavy, golden white hands are clasped, completing a contemplative pose.

He experiments with diagonals in Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888) as the horizon appears to bend from weighty yet placid color fields across an ever-widening sky. In Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les Saintes (1888), pale green bands intertwine with blues and whites in the sky, setting into relief the boats’ varied colored masts that seem to levitate near an irregular waterline. The colors of the boats and sky recur as assorted figurations in the wind-driven sea and across smooth sand. Meanwhile in the waning daylight, the cresting and breaking sea waves stir up correspondingly unpredictable colors — greens, blues, whites — creating a kind of soothing restlessness between and among their crosswise motions. The border between sea and sand juts out and then suddenly recedes, not quite bisecting the picture plane but denying a stable or “correct” perspective for the viewer.

Birds, flowers, and grass also increasingly become subjects of large-scale paintings in which an aura of sudden dizzying astonishment saturates the ordinary. In Ears of Wheat (1890) the plants resemble a torrential green waterfall and the extensive farmland in The Sower (1888, pictured next page) mimics painting itself as the sun, tree, farmer, and fields compose themselves into yellow, green, blues, and pink vertices and horizontals.

As he passed from strength to strength in the French countryside, his writing narrates a gradual philosophical transformation so serious that even the most unexpected subjects take on autobiographical overtones. An homage to Japanese master Utagawa Kunisada’s yields van Gogh’s still-life A Crab on Its Back (1888), a rough hewn tour-de-force. The crustacean’s upturned body, portioned into endless browns and reds, seems consumed and buoyed by the field of greens around it. Given how physically engrossed the artist is during his  “Japanese” pilgrimage in the green fields of southern France, Crab on Its Back, might best be read as a veiled self-portrait. The crab’s capsized pose, revealing its underbelly, marks a helpless exposure, a nakedness, that van Gogh is tracking in his letters to Theo as art and nature somehow converge in this new way of thinking. “I am in Japan here,” he writes, describing the Japanese thriving “in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion.” For van Gogh, “Japan” means a heightened form of consciousness in which the discoveries of art and the things in the ordinary world interpenetrate each other. “One cannot study Japanese art,” he writes to Theo, “without becoming merrier and happier and we should turn back to nature in spite of our education and our work in a conventional world.” He obliquely describes being at a crossroads that was to take his art to new levels and to challenge what his mind and body could endure in order to execute the mission. His former gloomier worldviews about alienation and isolation fade. Still, the features in his seen reality are both “far and near.” He hopes to make nature and human life look like what he thinks they actually are, namely, contiguous with art, not a subject or object of art. “Everything there [in Arles] is small, the gardens, the fields, the gardens, the trees, even those mountains, as in certain Japanese landscapes.”

If van Gogh’s life-as-art dictum were to be proven real by his painting, then, he envisions old barriers separating everyday life and aesthetic experience will fall away, for good. Painting was now an exercise in revelation and revolution, what he calls a “new religion,” to end human estrangement. Everyone will become artists participation in this liberation.

Tim Keane teaches creative writing and literary modernism at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York City. Read Part 2 of this article in the Winter 2018 issue of Utne Reader.