Sunday, September 30, 2007

Revealing Van Gogh

‘Lust for Life’ a book by Irving Stone on Vincent Van Gogh changed the way I looked at paintings and creative art. This book came in my life in 1999. Now when I look back to all my trips to France and Netherlands prior to 99, I do feel tinge of regret of not knowing Van Gogh then.

Van Gogh lived for just 37 years and in last ten years he produced 900 paintings and 1110 drawings. But his last two years of work netted him more recognition and fortune than all his life. For anyone who is passionate about Van Gogh and his work, life of his last two years is fascinating aspect of his life. Most of the Van Gogh – as a person behind great masterpieces - got revealed through hundreds of his letters that he wrote to his brother Theo, Sister Wilhem and mother.

A recent public display of his letters to his 15 year junior friend- Émile Bernard- displayed his hitherto unknown facet of his personality along with his penchant and passion for colors. These letters also tells us how much crucial Arles- south of France has been in his life and rues the fact he arrived in Arles- so late in his life. “My God, if only I had known this country at 25, instead of coming here at 35.” He describes train journey from Paris to Arles as a riot of gay color effects of nature composed of green tree, a lilac field, an orange roof, a big blue sky.” His description of his painting of a plantation worker in a field reads “The chrome yellow 1 sky almost as bright as the sun itself, which is chrome yellow 1 with a little white, while the rest of the sky is chrome yellow 1 and 2 mixed, very yellow, then. ... There are many repetitions of yellow in the earth, neutral tones, resulting from the mixing of violet with yellow.” How true it is. Isn’t Mother Nature a bountiful of bright and rich colors? Beating sun, Thick Foliage, Foams on the crest of waves, Coal Mines and burning of coal, Full Moon and Stars under No Moon – all reflect bright and vivid colors. Van Gogh brought them on canvas with his ingenuity. Most painters bring human emotion on canvas associating colors with different moods and expressions of human emotions. His enchantment with aromatic field and star spangling skyline was expressed in one such letter. I realized from Van Gogh the beauty of bright colors – something that we see in India in every spectrum of life. Van Gogh didn’t change colors with human emotions. Color remained his central theme.

With Van Gogh, I understood that In order to understand the painting, one must know painter’s mind. Later when Picasso’s paintings were exhibited in Mumbai, his bizarre paintings could make sense as I had read his biography and his relationship with woman. All these words, ideas, sensations and images are packed into those 20 letters to Émile Bernard. He wrote these over two years just prior to his committing a suicide. These two years were very important phase in the life on Van Gogh. Van Gogh died in 1890. In 1889, he made starry nights and the portrait of Doctor Gatceht who treated his mental illness, in 1988; he cut his ear and drew his self portrait. Same year, he made portrait of postmaster – his new friend. Vase of twelve sunflowers came in April 1988. All these four paintings collectively fetched more than 300Million Dollars – but decades after his death.

These letters accentuates the mercurial personality that was so wonderfully crafted by Irving Stone. Initial letters he dons the role of elder brother, advising Bernard to eat better, to stay away from visits to brothels. Then he becomes a mentor and urges Bernard to study certain painters in order to promote his career. Gradually, as differences arise, he becomes an antagonist, and the correspondence ends. This who know Van’ Gogh’s behavior in his early days at Brussels, Hague, and Nuenen, would feel it consistent. Holland Ottar in New York Times has analyzed these letters under an article ‘Friendship with letters and paint’. VERENA DOBNIK, Associated Press Writer interviewed Jennifer Tonkovich, curator of The Morgan Library & Museum who is exhibiting these letters "Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh's Letters to Emile Bernard,"

In another letter he writes about paint and color. He says: “I follow no system of brushwork at all; I hit the canvas with irregular strokes, which I leave as they are impastos, uncovered spots of canvas, re-workings, and roughness. I’m inclined to think that the result is sufficiently worrying and annoying not to please people with preconceived ideas about technique.” In one letter, Van Gogh gives a vent to frustration of depicting water and air. What color should he use to demonstrate the reality of these fine elements? But he emphasizes “No blue without yellow and orange.”

‘Lust for Life’ did delve upon Van Gogh’s opinion about contemporary painters but it didn’t touch upon his expression on other stalwarts like Rembrandt. There is one letter that throws light upon about Van Gogh’s impressions of Rembrandt. He says “Rembrandt makes a portrait of himself as an old man, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap — first, painting from life in a mirror — he dreams, dreams, and his brush begins his own portrait again, but from memory, and its expression becomes sadder and more saddening; he dreams, dreams on, and why or how I do not know, but just as Socrates had a familiar genie, Rembrandt, behind this old man who bears a resemblance to himself, paints a supernatural angel with a da Vinci smile.” And yet, he concludes, “Rembrandt invented nothing, and that angel and that strange Christ — he knew them, felt them there.”

Another letter delves upon Van Gogh’s image of nature as he sees it “At present am working in the olive trees, seeking different effects of a gray sky against yellow earth, with dark green note of the foliage; another time the earth and foliage all purplish against yellow sky, then red ochre earth and pink and green sky. See, that interests me more than the so-called abstractions. ... My ambition is truly limited to a few clods of earth, some sprouting wheat, an olive grove, a cypress.” Then, in a devastating passage, he brings color and reality together:“You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with gray, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red.’ ”

These letters also dispels the popular notion of Van Gogh was nothing but a whimsical, crazy, naive genius painter who lived in isolation and got recognized only after his death. These letters show that Van Gogh was a well-read person; and he read everything from the Bible to Zola. Van Gogh also writes about his belief that “too much sexual activity detracts from your work and he felt sexual activity depletes you". Irving Stone had given a detailed account of how Van Gogh had left a woman prostitute he was living with in Holland to devote himself entirely to painting, But when he had the money, van Gogh writes, he tried to visit a brothel about every two weeks. Another facet of Van Gogh – that was not known. In some letters, he talks about finances and about his health - and how to maintain his stamina for work by eating well. There is little direct reference to his mental health, "but you're aware that there's this problem. He talks about calming his head," the Jennifer Tonkovich concludes .

Some of my favorite websites of Van Gogh are and . It has everything about Van Gogh along with manuscripts of many letters that Van Gogh has written. I am sure this site will soon get updated with recent letters of Van Gogh to Bernard.



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