Saturday, February 1, 1986

Van Gogh

Written for Travel & Leisure in early 1986.

One January morning in Amsterdam, when an uncustomary snowstorm was adding a layer of meringue to the gingerbread-and-chocolate canal town, I went up a few wide steps before a glass-and-concrete building with a tall Christmas tree still standing in the lobby.  I shook snow from my jacket, handed it over, and walked into a glorious summer: golden cornfields vibrant with the fullness of the harvest, Mediterranean-blue seasides with boats lazed and cafés busy at dusk, trees exploding into blossom, bare luminous midnights, the eager faces of sunflowers and a turbulent sky raining daggers of color on a garden for young lovers.  I walked into a season finer, more lasting than my own, and put myself in Vincent’s hands.

Van Gogh is one of those rare artists now seemingly beyond reproach, presumably beyond fashion, almost beyond consideration or opinion.  He simply is, like Bach or Shakespeare, and he is so much a part of our culture—who comes more quickly to mind as a painter?—that it is a shock to see as many of his paintings as the Dutch National Museum Van Gogh has, there in one place, in the flesh. At the museum, on four floors, you have a comprehensive selection from 200 paintings and three times that many drawings and prints, the largest and most representative collection anywhere.  This is one of the easiest museums in the world:  you simply give in and let Van Gogh do it all.

What is difficult with Van Gogh is to consider him apart from the legend that surrounds and obscures him.  Van Gogh is the cliché of the painter’s life just as Bix Beiderbecke is of the jazz musician’s, and he is usually treated as a freak, though his instability had little to do with his painting.  One needs a comprehensive museum to see the constant impulse, the compelling unbroken themes in his work that lie with great calm beneath the bouts of mania.

He was always paradoxical.  He got started painting fairly late, he died at 37, and he produced a huge body of work in a short time.  Yet most of the paintings that we think of as supremely “his” came out of only the last two or three  years.  He took his cue from painters who were his inferior, like Millet, and learned (like many painters of his day) a great deal from copying—except Van Gogh copied from postcards.

Nor does he fit a convenient niche.  Is he Post-Impressionist? Expressionist?  One imagines him somewhere off to the side in Heaven. His paintings never flatter.  He found the celestial in the menial: though he wasn’t (as is sometimes written) the first to paint people at work, he was the first to paint “working people.”  He painted the night like no one else before or since, and in color he is thought of as something of a fabulist.  Yet at times he is eerily accurate, as any painter will tell you:  for example, if he paints a light bulb, he will paint with precision the halo around it.

A series of plaques at the museum entrance, basking in snowy light from the great windows, gave me glimpses of Van Gogh’s life. Born March 30, 1853, in southern Holland, a minister’s son.  Educated at boarding and secondary schools; by 1869 a clerk at Goupil, art dealers in the Hague. (As an art dealer Van Gogh was as unsuccessful at selling other people’s paintings as he was to be at selling his own.)  1873-5, at Goupil’s London offices; in 1876 to their Paris branch—a premonition, since it was in France that his painter’s destiny lay. But he was dismissed by April. All these years Van Gogh was worrying his family.  Already the manic depressive mood swings, the troubled withdrawals into himself were evident.  He began the voluminous, almost daily correspondence with his brother Theo, that would last until his death.  Vincent had shown little real interest in learning the art dealer’s profession; he did show deep religious leanings, but of a highly personal sort.  In England he became a teacher and assistant preacher.  He took the Gospel at its word and gave away what he had to the poor, living by choice as they did out of necessity. It would prove good training.

For the next three years he worked at a bookstore in Holland (the owner remembered him as being immensely strong, unsociable, always doing silly little drawings or translating the Bible into French, German, and English) and trained in Belgium as a minister. And then, in 1869, at the age of 26, having moved to southern Belgium to preach, he decided to become a painter.

I got quickly drawn away from biography by paintings on the walls. These were from his “early” years, meaning all but the last three.  On the ground floor you see what he was doing at 30—his brooding, his copying, his casting about for the right subject and tone.  Even five years before the end he had not found the right stylistic path for himself, had not yet created his own language; he was still borrowing the tongues of others. No wonder so many of his later canvases will show an allegorical path through fields.

Most of these early paintings are somber, innocent of human experience, restrained in feeling, completely unliberated and imprisoned not by lack of technique but by delberate artifice—where is the Van Gogh we expect?  Not to be found here; Vincent the late starter, then, bringing it all home just before the end.

Looked at from a distance you would never guess these paintings were by Van Gogh.  They are all brown and black, faces melancholy in shadows, mostly ill-lit still lifes and a moody house on a rise or in trees. Most are just plain dull. (Interesting, though, to see Van Gogh without his colors.)  Occasionally he finds his stride—a view over Paris in pale light, that makes you want to cheer—but usually he misses.

To put Vincent’s work in some kind of perspective, I decided to head up to the fourth floor, which holds some of his later paintings along with many by his contemporaries.  The museum’s airy open center holds an exposed staircase, and walking up you see the ingenuity of the design—as much rest area, with black curling metal sofas (suggesting Mondrian) as viewing area.  Because it was winter and morning there was nearly no one else in the museum, only a couple of blond boys with earrings who might’ve been art dealers.

The Van Gogh museum is rare in several ways.  To start with, there are no guided tours allowed.  And you are permitted quite close to the paintings—indeed, they look almost impregnable:  Van Gogh used so much paint that some of his canvases have a literal three-dimensional aspect. But the museum is so spacious and uncluttered that you can also see what the paintings look like from, say, fifty yards away.  This is not only relaxing, it is quite revealing, and because the rooms are not vast cathedrally caverns, but low-ceilinged and open, with masked fluorescent lights, you feel the real source of light and all color in the place is Vincent himself.

It is amazing, too, how effective Van Gogh is even at a distance.  In some ways you can even see the paintings better.  The whirlpool of sunflowers doesn’t drown you, for instance, and the boats pulled up on the beach look as if they are really there—and it makes you appreciate anew one of the greatest color-senses of all time, so much raw horsepower in that one brush.

On the top floor were several Caribbean and Polynesian scenes of Gaughin, plenty of Bernard, and several by an Italian named Monticelli who slathered it on like house-paint. How unkind it is simply to live in the present!  For the world has plumped for Van Gogh, not the lesser others, and apart from Gaughin they look dismal and (unfairly, perhaps) drab and workmanlike.

One painting was particularly fascinating, though:  the portrait of  Vincent by John Russell (1858-1931). Russell, an Australian, was at heart a realist, and the portrait shows Vincent as he probably was:  glancing over his shoulder at the world with the same baleful, suspicious eye as in his own self-portraits, paintbrush held delicately in one hand like a scalpel.  At this time (1883) Vincent was to write in a letter to Theo, who supported him:

“One wants to be an honest man, one is so, one works as hard as a slave, but still one cannot make both ends meet; one must give up the work, there is no chance of carrying it out without spending more on it than one gets back for it, one gets a feeling of guilt, of shortcoming, of not keeping one’s promises, one is not honest as one would be if the work were paid for at its natural reasonable price.  One is afraid of making friends, one is afraid of moving, like one of the old lepers, one would like to call from afar to the people:  Don’t come too near me, for intercourse with me brings you sorrow and loss; with all that great load of care on one’s heart, one must set to work with a calm, everyday face, without moving a muscle, live one’s ordinary life, get along with the models, with the man who comes for the rent, with everybody in fact. With a cool head, one must keep one hand on the rudder to continue the work, and with the other hand try to do no harm to others.  And then storms arise, things one had not foreseen, one doesn’t know what to do, and one has a feeling that one may strike a rock at any moment….”

There was also a Toulouse-Lautrec that looks more like a Van Gogh than some of Van Gogh’s do, showing a confident, slightly severe young woman seated at a table with her arms folded. Bernard, younger than Vincent, is almost uniformly dull, respectably of his time and no more.  In life he was encouraged by Vincent, as was Gaughin (who shared Vincent’s quarters in Brittany before the cutting-off of the ear).  It is a measure of Van Gogh’s soundness and control as an artist that, a year before his death, he could write to Theo, “I have written to Bernard and Gaughin too that I considered that to think, not to dream, was our duty, so that I was astonished looking at their work that they had let themselves go so far.”

This is what is so rarely talked of in Van Gogh’s work:  his solidity, his structure.  Stand ten yards away from a painting by one of his contemporaries and it seems to vacillate on the wall; Van Gogh’s are like Gibraltar. The portraits spin a face at you from a whorl of centrifugal color, the landscapes all have a solid center, and some (like his house at Arles or his bedroom or the boats on the beach) are so strong that the museum seems to have been constructed around them.  You notice this especially when you see one of Van Gogh’s copies (usually of Millet farm scenes—there’s a whole wall of them) and sense Vincent slightly uncomfortable in someone ele’s format.

I went downstairs to the third floor, where Van Gogh’s sketches, which demonstrate how carefully his paintings were planned, are usually on display.  But there was a special Munch show being hung, so I headed down to the second floor, one wall of which, for initial impact, I will back against any wall of any museum in the world.

What I saw first brought me up short—two huge Japanese paintings, after Hokusai or Hiroshige, but done by Vincent.  I’d known of his being influenced by Japanese painters, and certain beliefs they shared—the essential rightness of nature, their truthfulness in painting its effects, their sense of human life small against a landscape, their deep religious feeling without resorting to icons.  But I’d never seen his attempts at Japonaiserie. One was garish—I mean that unpejoratively, as a geisha is garish—and showed a courtesan.  The other, more effective, showed a bridge in pelting rain, the wood pilings slanting one way, the driving rain another, and blown against a blue sky, two human figures squirming amid the wet. The painting had caught, in a Japanese tone, the exact weight and feel of such a storm—a bridge inconsequential against a world teeming with water.  Beside the Japonaiseries were a self-portrait, staring at world with fishy eye, and a still life of fruit that may have given Cezanne a nudge.

Spoiled by having had the museum virtually to myself, I was startled to find a man (tweedy, professorial) and a woman (redhead, military kit) on either side of me.  Why do women in museums always look available, and men either bored or boring?  I felt surrounded, so I moved on to the main part of the floor, which holds only paintings from Van Gogh’s last years, 1887 - 90.

The banks of fluorescent light abetted by daylight from above, the blue-flecked gray carpet, the dozing guard in the corner, all gave the museum a tidy Dutch unobtrusiveness. This is why so many people come to Amsterdam:  it never says no to anyone, and yet a stranger will ask if  he is disturbing you before he strikes up a conversation.

This guard looked exactly like Goldfinger, and his ease made me think this must be a particularly pleasant museum to be a guard in.  And who, looking at one of those tranquil uniformed men seated on a wooden stool in a corner, watching everyone and no one, half-asleep, has not wondered what it would be like to have that job?  I always imagine it to be like sleepwalking, but I have found museum guards on the whole to be extremely knowledgeable people, with exotic hobbies and a meditative turn of mind. Certainly Van Gogh doesn’t ever grate—this same man would go out of his mind at the Whitney.  I decided to interrogate Goldfinger.

“What’s it like to be surrounded by Van Gogh all day?”

He looked as if no one had ever asked him that question before—at least not that morning.  Like most Dutch he spoke English perfectly.  He made a bubble-blowing expression, and said in a soft accent, “Well, I’ve been here nearly seven years now.  You have to have something to think about. Working here, seeing Van Gogh (he pronounced it Van Hohckh) and his handwriting all the time, I became very interested in graphology.  His letters are beautiful, noble, some of the most wonderful ever written. You can see the man’s whole soul in his handwriting—it varies wildly even in a single line or word.  You see the intuition and the intelligence and how hard he was trying to live with himself, knowing the difficulties.”

I said, “What happens to you after seven years here?”

He made an assessing gesture with one hand, as if talking of someone else.  “What happens when you stay here, even though you move around many times in the day, is you start to think of all the paintings as yours.  In a way, they are.  But they’re yours, too.  Anyway, you feel there’s a certain spot in the room, an area on this or that floor that you prefer, in which you feel more at home.  Maybe the four paintings nearest to you in one corner happen to sum up all the different flows in your life.  And then one day you realize, after many months, that there is one painting which is absolutely yours.  And you can’t say why.  It may not even be the best. But it just is a part of you, in a way that no other painting here is.  I knew an old guard who retired and never told me which painting was his.  He thought it was too great a secret to give away. Myself, I didn’t realize until one day I happened to look up, and there were some Italians talking away, and I thought, ‘Look at those Italians in front of my painting.’”  He gave a little ho-ho-ho laugh.  “I didn’t mind, but there it was.”

“Which painting is it?”  I asked.

“I’ll tell you,” he said.  “The one over there, of the almond blossoms in bloom.  The one with Americans in front of it.  That’s mine.”

I thanked him for his honesty (“Well, I am an honest man, ho-ho-ho.”) and went over to have a look at the snowflake petals splurging on frail fingering branches.  There were two middle-aged couples who looked, in rumpled sweaters, as if they’d flown in that very morning.

One husband, rumbling, shifting his glasses authoritatively, said, “Stand away from this and it’s ten times prettier.  Ten times, Corinne.”

His wife ignored him and moved closer.  He blinked and drifted off with the other husband. When the ladies were alone, Corinne said to her friend, “Did you see what Vincent did?  You can’t see from there, Martha.  Put your nose right up to the canvas.”

Martha said, “Why, he just left a lot of the canvas blank!  And put in creamy splotches for the almond blossoms.  They’re so thick you think he’s covered everything up.  Damn, here comes the guard.”

I caught just a hint of twinkle in Goldfinger’s eye.  “Back off,” he said amiably in Dutch, and indicated a line a foot back from the wall that  the American ladies had overstepped. Their husbands, triumphant again, were now discussing the implications of jet-lag. I moved on to the famous sunflowers, exuberant in a great vase with one of Vincent’s largest signatures across its belly.  In front of it stood two Frenchmen in berets, needlessly playing at trenchcoats—there is a free cloakroom downstairs.  One made that French sound of throaty delight that sounds like a dying fish gasping at air.  I moved on, trying not to let the wall drown me.  “I want to make decorations for the studio,”  Vincent had written his brother. “Nothing but big flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.”

There was a view over Monmartre, one of those stately landscapes in which Vincent gives us a long sweep of hills and fields and sky, a hymn of human and natural life spread easily before our gaze. And a still life of piles of books, that remind one of what a great reader Van Gogh was, what a literary man, in fact: unusual in a painter.  And also a reminder of how often Vincent sought his subject matter in what lay simply close at hand—unlike Gaughin, who sought it a world away.

“As far as I know there isn’t a single academy where one learns to draw and paint a digger, a sower, a woman putting the kettle over a fire or a seamstress…The figures in the pictures of the old master(s) do not work.”  Van Gogh felt close to the people he painted, and he felt this sympathy unnecessary.  All this time, all these years brother Theo, working at a gallery, not a wealthy man, kept supporting him. Vincent, in Arles in 1888, would write to him, “My debt is so great that when I have paid it, which all the time I hope to succeed in doing, the pains of producing pictures will have taken my whole life from me, and it will seem to me then that I have not lived.”

Van Gogh wrote Theo sometimes twice a day, and Theo’s replies carried with them, twenty,
fifty, a hundred francs.  Never was art made so cheaply, nor at such a high human cost.  Van Gogh never lived past the level of a labourer, and often, strapped for cash, he would go several days living on coffee until the next hundred francs arrived.  Yet in his letters he never complains about insufficient money; if anything, it is for insufficient affection. Anxious, ablaze, alone, he received little of woman’s love either—though for a time he supported and sketched a prostitute and her child.  For at heart Vincent always remained the preacher, going among the people, trying to find out what their lives could teach him; his pictures, never iconographically religious, still communicate a feeling which is fundamentally religious.

In part this is because of his embracing honesty—“The man who damn well refuses to love what he loves dooms himself.”  Through these apprentice years he was learning to shed his skin, not to hide. After Vincent finds his style, he can communicate so directly because he seems in a painting to be revealing all his feelings about a scene (while concealing the artifice that allows him to portray them.)  He does not approach you delicately, on tiptoe, hoping you will like his work and have something nice to say about it.  He butts you in the stomach, he claps his hands on your shoulders and spins you round and conjures something miraculous and unexpected before you—a turbulent field wavering in a turning autumn wind of riotous color, a lone crow rising from the corn sheaves standing like a squadron of sentries, shoulder to shoulder in that season of memory.  Van Gogh is not asking for discussion, or explaining his sentiments of a landscape:  he simply offers himself to you, in nakedness, much as someone shares his daily bread.

It is this furious candor that is so appealing, especially in our age, in which self-proclaimed artists cower behind “theories” and peacock their lack of ideas before a gullible public waiting to die, instead of getting on with the job: to look with new eyes, to see an ever-renewed, ever unexplored world as it has never been seen before. That might suffice as a definition of the artist’s duty, in any age, and no painter did it more than Vincent.

He has so many strengths as a painter that it may seem a little absurd to list them as if he were a baseball player, but nevertheless worth trying.  First, an instinctive sense of subtle but constant surprise.  A color sense that still seems wholly original, of boundless vigor and flexibility and range.  A subject matter that is both daring and traditional, and a humility before it.  The ability to communicate, in a brushstroke, any passion—exultation, pity, repose, and (most difficult in a painting) danger.

That famous painting, near the end, of forty black crows rising against a tumultuous sky from a waving, whiskery cornfield with a path tortuously heaving around and through then vanishing, ending in the standing sheaves, conveys a sense of threat so great that there is no compromise to looking at it.  You either get as close as possible, trying to locate the source of danger, or you back away almost immediately, and move on to the next painting—a delighted empty landscape with a squiggle of cloud across an easy blue sky.  I spent ten minutes watching people back away from the crows, retreating as if singed.

“It’s getting closer,” muttered an Austrian girl.  She meant his death.

A curious absence in his work: virtually no nudes.

It was noon, and the museum was starting to fill up with businessmen on lunch breaks.  I went on to a late painting of the garden of the hospital where Vincent spent his last two years. An ethereal glow tranced the sky, just beyond the sanatorium wall, like the promise of a cure.  And then I came to one of my favorites:  Vincent’s house in Arles,  the Maison Jaune. Let me be foolhardy enough to try to describe it, since this is one of those paintings everyone knows which has more and more going on in it the more you look; and the apparent unrelatedness of everything in the scene is what gives its feeling of true life, of existence happening before one’s eyes.

Beneath a dark blue sky we are looking at a town corner.  A wide, tan street hugs a house with great green trees, left, and comes forward to meet another street extending away toward a railroad bridge in the distance, right.  A huffing locomotive is pulling black cars across.

In the center of the canvas stands a pale yellow house with a larger building behind it, four stories.  A couple of stories boast blue doors and balconies.  On the ground floor is a café, with figures clustered around a table. A gate leads (we suppose) into a courtyard.  An awning signals a bar or bakery inside.

Out front a man is sitting with his back to us, a plump woman in a long dress near him.  A man in gray trousers is walking fast, about to pass them.  In the long street to the right are a young woman and two children, holding hands.  Dirt is piled in the road. Look closely: a man watches from the upper story of the larger house, between chimneys.  As your eye goes down the street you see arched doors, a hanging sign, and another stone bridge just visible beyond the first.  Laundry is hanging from the little yellow house at the front, and a balcony is lined with plants.

The painting next to it is of Vincent’s bedroom in that house, and it holds all the details—washbasin and hat and towel and his own paintings on the walls—that let you reconstruct his life.  The ideal way to reveal anything is to invite; and Vincent is always offering his hand.

But time was running out for him.  In these months he was producing nearly a painting a day, working happily.  He invited Gauguin to join him.  They did not get along at all, there was the attack inflicted on his ear. Gauguin left, and Vincent went into hospital over Christmas Eve, 1888. By May 1889 he was in a mental home at Saint-Remy-en-Provence.  He would have about fourteen months more, including a final three under the sympathetic eye of the good Dr. Gachet in Auvers, before his suicide with a revolver in July, 1890.

His moods, of course, were swinging wildly, but he kept painting. In this time he would write, in his determination to keep working, “My sorrow will be stronger than my madness,” and “I think of it as a shipwreck, this journey.”  And in the final letter to Theo, that strange sense of reconciliation in the closing phrase:  “I tell you again that I shall always consider you to be more than a simple dealer in Corots, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which will retain their calm even in the catastrophe.”  Calm even in the catastrophe:  the artist’s mission.

Theo would be dead six months later, leaving a son, Vincent, who twenty years ago would set up the museum and the Van Gogh Foundation.

And amid all this tragedy—the great stormclouds hurtling across an urgent sky, as if the brain at its busiest were breaking down—why does one come out of the museum feeling so exalted, feeling the triumph in Vincent’s life?  To be touched so greatly and with such generosity, to be shown so much: it makes his suffering mortal. His boats are the idle boats of any childhood, his grand view of a harvest across swelling hazed fields a view we might have and forget but which, in retrospect, seems like pure happiness. It is the joy we remember that is immortal.

I kept returning to his painting of the two couples in the garden, that shaded peace at the end of a hot day.  Four young lovers, two seated, two standing, amid so much fervent blooming: a generation of love withheld from Vincent, beneath a falling sky.  So much sense of possibility in this canvas, you feel, Vincent the eavesdropping sharer of those private endearments; but not for him, never for him.

“I have a lover’s insight or a lover’s blindness for work just now.”  Vincent wrote his brother in September, 1888.  “I know quite well that I have already written you once today, but it has been such a lovely day again.  My great regret is that you cannot see what I am seeing here.”

But I could; I had been looking over his shoulder all day; and his greater vision persisted long after I left the museum and walked among the overcoated people, sharing a path through fields of weeping snow.

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