Letter to Vincent van Gogh (repost)

This is a repost from my old blog, somewhat expanded and updated.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait (detail), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait (detail), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Dear Vincent,

I should like to do the impossible; namely, convey to you some idea of how you are revered in the art world today. The word “saintlike” might apply, though your sanctity is of a turbulent and problematic sort. Notice that I did not write “saintly”; I differentiate them into “saintly” being a self-adopted frame of mind, and “saintlike” being one ascribed to you by others. Your flaws do not exclude you, merely make you a saint in spite of everything. As you know, saints were not always saintly or saintlike, and their struggles, like yours, defined their lives. The erratic side of your behavior is well known, and has, perhaps, grown in drama with retelling. I suspect the opposite. Your suffering was real, and recreations are inevitably bound by the laws of drama. The most florid melodrama of the stage pales beside what happens in real life.

As a saint you would be medieval in nature, tormented by demons until you grabbed the devil by his nose, as the legend says of St. Dunstan. A saint out of Heironymous Bosch, small in stature, one of hundreds amid a turbulent world. The people who knew you are all dead, and all we have are second-hand accounts, and precious few of them. What was it like to sit and discuss art with you? Would we have been fascinated or frightened, or both? With that comes the corollary that, perhaps, we would not be worth your time. You see, in the manner of saints, we judge ourselves unworthy. Today that’s called low self-esteem.

We probably have a drug that could help you, if help is what you needed. In this case help is a double-edged sword. We stand at a safe distance from you – we call it history – that allows us to be selective in our (mis)understanding. I say it allows, but we don’t have much choice. Changing you seems, to revert to my earlier comparison, sacrilegious. So many owe their artistic development to elements of your life, good or bad, that to imagine you cured of whatever ailed you would be like erasing a swath of civilization. (Experts still debate the cause, Vincent! How many doctors of how many disciplines would love to have you for a patient!) You suffered for your sake, and now you suffer for ours.

Or do you? On this, the 125th anniversary of your death, it has been suggested that you were not the figure of misery, the tortured figure from some El Greco, that history and myth have made you. I hope so. History takes people and stylizes them, renders them into their own form of art. Martin Scorsese has played you in a Japanese film. You missed movies, and Martin Scorsese, for that matter. The world continues to expand, to reveal the fragility of its beauty and the enduring qualities of its hopes.

Your belief in the world has been vindicated to some extent. By that I mean that the impulse that turned you away from Gauguin’s stylization, and more toward an honesty that you associated with Millet, has recurred again and again in art. Gauguin’s mindset has also persevered, but yours is the stronger. And Emile Bernard, who was to be with you and Gauguin in your school of the south of France, whose stylization was at first even more radical than Gauguin’s, he has ended up a footnote in art history. He lost his way and was soon eclipsed. After Gauguin’s unfortunate interval with you in Arles he went north, into Brittany, with another artist, Jacob Meyer de Haan. Another footnote. After your parting neither you nor Gauguin ever worked with equals again.

Do we see line first, or color? For you the answer is clear; despite the bold palette you adopted in France, line always came first. You drew with paint. That was the tradition, the universal practice until the 20th Century. Color inhabited the space defined by lines, as people live in a building. The revolution you helped create became iconoclastic, then broke itself apart. Color had its chance to stand alone, in Bonnard’s saturated world, in Frankenthaler or Morris Louis’ paint poured onto raw canvas; that was the extreme, the outer limit that has never been exceeded. Even then, most artists filled space with color, filled in the lines as a child does in a coloring book.

If you could come forward to stand with me today, I would take you to see Andy Warhol’s work. He also stuck to the dominance of line, though in other ways he is your polar opposite. Where you were entranced by nature, Warhol dealt solely in artificiality. He made a point of taking advertising – not quite like the posters Toulouse-Lautrec designed, but more the ideas behind advertisements – and elevating it to a place in art history. He had assistants to work with him, but not as a master like Rubens had students. Everything he did was like and yet unlike, which frustrated the impulse among art historians to put things into tidy boxes. In Warhol’s world the unreal, the work of press agents or advertising agencies, became treated as equal with that of the artist. It’s a troubling change, and one that we still grapple with years after Warhol’s death. I feel sure you would be disturbed. There is something unhuman about it; I wrote unhuman instead of inhuman, with my penchant for hair-splitting, but I’m not sure it isn’t both. Warhol makes me uneasy.

Vincent, I would show you, if I could, photographs by Sebastiao Salgado, so you could see how workers are still exploited in places around the world. Do you remember going into the coal mine, to preach to the miners? I wonder if they listened to you, and if your words could ever have been adequate to their need. That failing was not yours; language is always reaching for emotion, and often falls short. It was the words, and, later, the drawings and paintings that mattered. For yourself, you were the missionary on canvas as you had tried to be with words, humble and uninterested in anything but the word made visible in your art. You were not the egocentric self-promoting kind of artist we see sometimes today. It was Theo’s wife, Johanna, who worked to keep your name in the public eye. She carried on after Theo died. He’s buried beside you, Vincent, for whatever consolation that can offer. Your work became the mine that artists dig in and preach in response to.

But the work, Vincent, the work! Your paintings have endured and spawned a reverence seen in few artists. Of your contemporaries only Cezanne reaches comparable heights, and Monet at times, but in a safer, less thoughtful vein. A museum exists with your work as its center, founded with the help of your nephew, named Vincent after his uncle. Do you remember when he was born? He was nicknamed “the engineer” to differentiate. And there was another Theo, a film-maker, murdered while still young, and now there are no more van Goghs. Of them only you continue to live in posterity, but that’s no surprise. Greatness rises irregularly, and a dozen generations can pass before it recurs.

Another of your beliefs, in the power of art, has endured. We have such technologies at our command, Vincent, that obscurity is becoming more rare, or the meaning of the word is changing. People see art from all around the world without leaving their homes, and art exists that can only be seen through electronic devices. In a way we draw the world near while holding it distant – virtual art is in there but not there. The mystical and practical elements of your work are carried on by a hundred million artists, each growing his or her own talent from the seeds you planted. They have set your work in motion, set their talents against yours (pointless, as artists exist within themselves, save in the context of art history) and chronicled the changing of your work with time. In all this, though, we have not banished loneliness; indeed, we have invented new ways to be lonely. Art is also a consolation to the emptiness.

My wish for you, Vincent, is peace, that rare blessing. That you did not have it in life is the touchstone of your story, which reassures us and scares us. The artist fears walking that same path and ending up with some variant of that same pistol, neither of which is a guarantee of anything; the tortured artist has become a caricature, no longer believed, to be treated ironically, in the Warholian manner. There is no corner of the world in which your art cannot be seen and known for what it is – genius. Somewhere a person is reading your letters, or seeing your art. What more can an artist ask for?

Be at peace, Vincent.

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