Van Gogh’s hope

The World of Van Gogh


When I was in my teens, my parents subscribed to a series of middlebrow art books, published by Time-Life, each one devoted to a different artist. I still have all of them, nearly thirty volumes, from Giotto to Marcel Duchamp. The one that made me a painter when it arrived, was The World of Van Gogh.  I remember the rich scent of ink and glue of these monographs as they emerged from their slipcases for the first time. From the story of Van Gogh’s life, it was clear he had all the requisite characteristics for artistic beatitude—eccentric, mentally unstable, poor, volatile, brutally honest, hungry, drunken, suicidal—a persona that now, the way art has become a professional career with its own paths to money and notoriety for the lucky elite, seem a tired and worn-out cliche. We’ve outgrown all that misbehavior haven’t we? We’re professionals. Hasn’t the art world become too postmodern and money-crazed to believe in Van Gogh’s sincerity, his dysfunctional devotion to a truth that would be seen as economically and culturally determined? Skimming through the text of this book again, after all these years, I realize that Van Gogh’s life and work remains for me, at least, part of the paradigm of why art matters. He never stopped addressing common people in his work with images that speak to everyone in a universal way.

I find this passage:

He seemed to have developed “almost mystical ideas about color that are reflected in his late art. He sensed that color has meaning that transcends mere visual impression. Yellow, red, blue—indeed any color—can connote something that lies beyond the reach of rationality. . . . (and) before he left Holland, he went so far as to relate colors and music—and even took a few piano lessons. ‘Prussian blue!’ or ‘Chrome yellow!’ he would cry as he struck a chord.”

 I keep reading, turning pages, still looking for the paragraph I know is here somewhere. I find yet another:

It was the brilliant color and clear outline of the (Japanese) prints that most strongly caught his eye as he emerged from the dark tonalities of his Dutch period. But his constant regard for the social function of art was involved too. The prints, even after the cost of transporting them halfway around the earth, could still be sold in Paris for only one or two francs and thus were within the reach of people to whom he addressed his own work. ‘I do my best to paint in such a way that my work will show up to advantage in a kitchen,’ he wrote, ‘and then I may happen to discover that it shows up well in a parlor too, but this is something I never bother my head about.’ He had long since sketched out an idea for an association of artists who might, through lithography, make copies of fine works of art available to workingmen at low cost.

Not only was painting a spiritual pursuit, a meditative pursuit in search of mystical color harmonies that could bring the peace of contemplation, it was also a way of offering this gift to even the most common, uneducated people. To anyone, in other words—painting was a language that spoke to all people, with the immediacy of its music. So that it would make sense to hang the greatest art in an ordinary kitchen. I keep turning pages and find yet another passage I didn’t remember but seems just as fundamental to what oil painting has come to mean: Van Gogh worked the way a classic Chinese artist worked, or a Japanese master of sumi e, where every brushstroke counts, the painting executed rapidly and the work expressing the inner life of the subject, not simply it’s appearance. To paint in this way is about channeling the life force, not simply creating a reproduction of how the world looks—so that, in the yin/yang terms of Chinese cosmology and artistic practice, earth inhabits the brush and the power of heaven moves it:  “If the emotions are so strong that one works without knowing one works, when sometimes the strokes come with a continuity and coherence like words in a speech or a letter, then one must remember that it has not always been so, and that in time to come there will be hard days, empty of inspiration. So one must strike while the iron is hot.”

A few pages later, at last, I find what I’m seeking, the passage that serves as a major part of the answer to the question, why paint? It’s Van Gogh’s testimony of faith:

He repeatedly spoke of his purpose in using strong color, which was the same one that had long ago inspired him to enter the ministry “to give hope to poor creatures.” It was his belief that ‘it is actually one’s duty to paint the rich and magnificent aspects of nature. We are in need of . . . happiness, hope and love. The more ugly, old, vicious, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well-arranged, resplendent.’ He spoke of wanting ‘to say something comforting, as music is comforting,’ and of his longing to ‘express hope by some star, the eagerness of a soul by a sunset radiance . . .i isn’t it something that actually exists?’ In making his portrait of Madame Roulin, the postman’s wife, he imagined the painting of her hung in the cabin of a fishing boat, to comfort storm-tossed sailors with reminders of their childhood.

Are we too cynical and sophisticated for this now? For me, Van Gogh is the figure who most represents the passion that drives a genuine visual artist, which is to work from common human experience and express the inner spirit of the most ordinary moments of life. At the very least, a painter tries to produce something that opens his own eyes, awakens him or her to the power of color and form and light and paint, and therefore will do the same for other people—and therefore reconnect the viewer with life itself. Yet so much of what has been considered great art in the past half century is no longer rooted in this passion. As Donald Kuspit puts it in The End of Art:

 Art is no longer the path to salvation it was for (van Gogh), but rather confirms that life is damned because it is meaningless, which is ultimately why art is meaningless, since it can do nothing to rescue life from itself. Today’s post-art seduces us to death not life.. . The artist is no longer ‘the model of human greatness’ he once was, and it is no longer self-evident that ‘man’s loftiest mode of expression is art. The artist’s vision is no better than anyone else’s in a multicultural world. Indeed, the claim to a universal artistic vision, that is, the belief that art can convey universal experience, seems absurd and meaningless in a world where there are no universal experiences, only a variety of culturally determined ones.

I don’t believe Kuspit is expressing his own views here about life and art, but rather characterizing the prevailing academic outlook when he wrote this book. The End of Art is, in part, a reflection  on how Van Gogh’s vision of art has been discarded, mostly as a result of postmodern relativism, in favor of the ironies and self-conscious contrivances which lie at the foundation of so much art over the past century–some of which, in all fairness, I actually love. Kuspit goes on: “To be an artist was to take a vow of poverty and to suffer, which is why van Gogh was ready to share his life with people whom society seemed to have destined for poverty and suffering from the beginning of their lives.” And finally, “Unlike the academicians, van Gogh wanted ‘to accomplish something with heart and love in it.’ ”


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