One way or another almost everyone knows about Vincent van Gogh. His bandaged face, pale and vulnerable, has stared out from a thousand picture postcards. Every child learns about The Ear. And for generations, indifferent reproductions of his sunflower paintings have decorated the walls of student rooms. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an artist so impenetrably encased in myth and mass reproduction. Van Gogh has become the embodiment of the mad genius, the exemplar of that pathetic fallacy in which the world—in his case the physical world that he tried so hard to capture in paint—becomes the mirror of the creator’s inner torment.
When, on the evening of July 27, 1890, he went out into the countryside near Auvers-sur-Oise, placed his easel against a haystack and put a revolver to his chest, he was committing an act that would retroactively color all his art.
So powerful is the myth of van Gogh’s madness and untimely death at 37 (at the same age as Raphael, Caravaggio and Toulouse-Lautrec), that it is sometimes hard to see the work free from sentimentality and pop psychology. Is it in fact possible to contemplate the whirling firmament of his famous The Starry Night and find anything other than the signs of dementia? Or to look at the dark skies and circling blackbirds of Crows Over the Wheat Field and perceive only the portents of the artist’s impending suicide?
Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Anvers, the deliberately understated title of this season’s major exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (until March 22), sets out to demystify the artist’s last works. The show’s curator, Ronald Pickvance, contends in the catalogue that van Gogh’s paintings are neither “graphs of his so-called madness nor primarily indicators of his mental state.” Pick-
vance shares the artist’s estimate of his work as “sheer work and calculation.” Says Pickvance: “He described color, handling and design in terms that respond far more to internal artistic necessity than to psychological quirks or medical abnormalities; he conceived of process, purpose and function with a quite deliberate and almost programmatic intent.”
As proof, there are 70 paintings and 19 drawings from the last 15 months of van Gogh’s life, a period that, if taken with the previous 15 months spent at Arles, constitutes the most troubled and incandescent of his brief,
10-year career as a painter. It was at Arles in December, 1888, that van Gogh mutilated his right ear and had to be put into hospital. In
May of the next year he committed himself to a private asylum at nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence for an illness that has variously been diagnosed as schizophrenia or epilepsy, possibly aggravated by absinthe, glaucoma, digitalis poisoning or syphilis.
Considering that he had two major breakdowns during his year in the asylum, his time there was remarkably productive. Whenever he was not allowed outside and had no access to models, he would occupy himself by painting from engravings of other artists’ work, paintings that were part exercises, part homages. Interestingly, his models were not the Impressionists who immediately preceded him, but an earlier, sturdier and sometimes more popular tradition that
included Eugène Delacroix, JeanFrançois Millet and the caricaturist Honoré Daumier.
But it is in the continuing exploration of the light-soaked countryside of Provence that the pleasure of the show resides. The pictures are grouped not by strict chronology but by theme, so that the viewer can see, for example, seven magisterial studies of the olive trees that so fascinated van Gogh. He wrote to his brother, Theo, a Parisian art dealer who provided constant moral and financial support:
“The olive trees are very characteristic, and I am struggling to catch them. They are old silver, sometimes with more blue in them, sometimes greenish, bronzed, fading white above a soil which is yellow, pink, violettinged or orange, to dull red ocher. Very difficult though, very difficult.”
Van Gogh’s vocabulary was as highly charged as his palette, though there is often a curious discrepancy between what he wrote and what he painted. To him, the cypress, that funereal marker of the southern French landscape, “is as beautiful in lines and proportions as an Egyptian obelisk ...it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them.” And yet, van Gogh saw them not so much as obelisks as masses of swirling green ganglia, seemingly in perpetual motion.
Of all the subjects of van Gogh’s asylum, there is probably none more moving than the walled field he could see from the barred window of his bedroom. It was, quite literally, a field of action. Van Gogh shows it being plowed, sown and reaped; being slashed with rain, bent by the mistral or lying under the brilliant summer sun. Van Gogh succeeded in the dangerous, Icarus-like feat of accommodating on his canvas the great, yellow orb of the sun. These are not neurotic paintings, but they are certainly works of great tension and energy. As he said of the equally high-keyed landscapes he had done in the previous years at Arles: “To attain the high yellow note that I attained last summer, I really had to be pretty well strung up.”
Those looking for madness at Saint-
Rémy will find little enough evidence. There are the usual eerily vivid selfportraits (van Gogh did 37 in the last five years of his life, and the final three of those are at the Met). But there are also paintings that are as celebratory as anything done by the
Impressionists. Typical is his Blossoming Almond Tree, which he painted in February, 1890, after hearing of the birth of Theo’s son. It is a picture of almost Oriental calm and beauty, and yet it immediately preceded van Gogh’s worst attack. As he put it in a letter to Theo, “the next day, down like a brute.”
By May of 1890 van Gogh was pining for freedom and the light of the North. On his release from the asylum, the institution’s ledger entry concluded with the word “cured.” After a short stopover in Paris, he found lodging at Auvers-sur-Oise, a little north of Paris, in the house of Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, an amateur painter, practitioner of homeopathic medicine and friend of the Impressionists. There, the normally compulsive van Gogh was even more prolific than usual: in the last 70 days of his life he produced no fewer than 70 canvases.
In the moist light of the North, his
palette became softer, tending often toward earth tones. The shape of his canvases changed in an even more radical way. For reasons that are not altogether clear, he chose a format of a metre by half a metre —in effect a double square. He painted 13 of them, and it is to the Met’s credit that it has succeeded in bringing together all but two. At times van Gogh seemed to have trouble with the frieze-like format: there are one or two canvases that are on the verge of pictorial collapse, held together only by the painter’s increasingly self-assertive brushwork. Others are as haunting and original as anything he had done. Roots and Tree Trunks, with its ambiguously tilted ground and riot of amorphous forms, contains not only the seeds of Matisse’s La Danse but the very roots of expressionism. And, as Pickvance points out, Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky, the pendant to the more celebrated Crows Over the Wheat Field, is every bit as powerful and memorable as its better-known companion. Both, in van Gogh’s words, are “vast fields of wheat under troubled skies,” and he had no difficulty in trying to “express sadness and extreme loneliness.”
If such an explanation begs for a psychological reading, van Gogh goes on to tell his brother that “these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, what I find healthful and restoring in the country.” The paintings, in effect, seem to be in some profound way cathartic or, as he put it in another context, the “lightning rod” of his illness. The loaded brush, the lines that delineate every object, the almost palpable light, are a way of keeping in touch with reality by literally recreating it on canvas. As usual, the artist himself put it best. “It sounds rather crude,” he once wrote, “but it is perfectly true: the feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures; at least it is more fertile and vital.”
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