Van Gogh’s letters

I’ve finished reading Van Gogh’s letters, and I’ve also read the chapter on Van Gogh from ‘Portraits: John Berger on artists’. Berger is an art historian whom I hugely admire, and his writing on Van Gogh is very touching. Berger expresses an awareness of the ineffectualness of words in the face of great art. He says that “the canvases command silence”- and yet what he writes himself is incredibly vividly expressed.

He says that Van Gogh had a compulsion to “bring the two acts of production-that of the canvas and that of the reality depicted- ever closer and closer”. By this, he means that Van Gogh saw ‘reality’ as something constructed, and to depict that, his art becomes as much about the act of creation as it is about the visual image . The making of his art is a reflection of the construction of the chair, or the sprouting up of the wheat, or the ageing of a face. This is an idea which had never crossed my mind before, but I understood what Berger meant immediately.

Van Gogh idolised work; it’s a recurring theme in the letters, whether it’s his own work, or the work of those whom he painted or admired. It seems extremely likely that he placed such enormous importance on his actual creative process. We can see this in the way he used paint: he understood the relationships between brushwork and colour and wanted his paintings to not be reproductions of visual reality, but reactions to it.

“To get the essence of things, one has to work long and hard.”

Van Gogh is often very much associated with mental illness, and there has been enormous speculation as to what this mental illness was. In many ways, I’m curious to know what his condition actually was, but at the same time, I’m wary of us thinking that his art can be ‘explained’ by a simple diagnosis. Nonetheless, his illness was a key part of his biography. He acknowledges this himself, often remarking on how many artists have suffered from mental ill health in the past, such as Hugo van der Goes. I found it surprising how matter-of-factly he writes about his mental illness, after the famous ear episode and beyond.

His tone is often very accepting, and he simply says that he must do as much work as he can, and try to keep his attacks at bay. This is somewhat different to the cliché of him as a slave to a tormented mind. I think that we can see this in his portrait of himself with a bandaged ear, which I have seen in the Courtauld Gallery. It was painted no more than a month after he cut off part of his ear. The evidence of this- the bandage- is unambiguous, but he confronts the viewer with a calm, thoughtful gaze. Behind him is one of his beloved Japanese prints.

“Oh well, with my mental illness, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and tell myself that it doesn’t stop one from carrying on one’s trade as a painter as if nothing had gone wrong.”

A love for all things Japanese is another recurring element in his letters. The way he writes about Japanese art is glowing with positivity. He saw Japanese artists as closer to nature than their European counterparts (living “as if they themselves were flowers”), something which was a source of inspiration for him. An idealised vision of a Japanese artistic lifestyle was one of the reasons which drove him to escape Paris, and to try to set up an ‘artists’ co-operative’ in Arles, alongside Gauguin. He even painted himself as a bonze, a Japanese Buddhist priest, which he sent to Gauguin.

I am fascinated by Van Gogh’s time in Arles. It was a time of such intensity for him, and, of course, terminated tragically. I’m planning on re-reading Martin Gayford’s ‘The Yellow House’, which is specifically about the nine weeks which Van Gogh spent living with Gauguin.

Throughout his career, Vincent was financed by his brother, Theo, who was the recipient of the majority of the letters. Many of them begin with a note of thanks for money that Theo had sent, and include lists of painting materials which Vincent needed money for. The constant references to financial difficulties betrays Vincent’s frustration at being so dependent on his brother. The letters also frequently include long descriptions of his paintings, or even sketches. He seems determined to prove to Theo that his money is being well spent. This is full of tragic irony, as of course, his paintings now are worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

“We must get to the point where the value of my pictures covers my expenditure, and even exceeds it in view of how much has already been spent.”

Without Theo, Vincent wouldn’t have been able to afford paint- so we have an awful lot to thank him for.

Van Gogh’s letters are astounding in that they are a window into his art, his relationships, his lifestyle, his beliefs and his way of seeing the world. They takes us deeper into his art, and allow us to escape the many clichés which have grown up around him over the years. We are brought closer to the real man, who was intense and complex, but also sensitive, compassionate and deeply principled.


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